The Sunrise Movement’s statement last week showed its slow, steady rise among democrat progressives.
By Jonathan A. Greenblatt
Jonathan A. Greenblatt is the CEO and national director of ADL, the Anti-Defamation League.
The Sunrise Movement knows a lot about climate change. As the self-described “youth movement to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process,” they have spent countless hours appropriately ringing the alarm bell about the now-quickening pace of climate change, arguing that we must act now before it’s too late.
Last week, however, the Sunrise Movement inadvertently alerted us all to another change in the climate: a slow but steady, unmistakable rise of antisemitism among progressive groups.
It started when its Washington, D.C., chapter issued a statement last Wednesday that it would not speak at a rally later that week in support of D.C. statehood because of the participation of three Jewish groups “that are all in alignment with and in support of Zionism and the State of Israel,” and asked the organizers of the rally to remove all three groups from the list of supporters.
When incidents like this happen, many wave it away, explaining that the real threat from antisemitism is from the far right and those who enable it. There is no denying that right-wing groups pose a material threat to Jewish life in America and to our democracy as a whole. Over the past 10 years, ADL has found that 75 percent of extremist-related murders were linked to right-wing ideology, including the 2018 Tree of Life massacre, the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history. Many of the perpetrators of the Jan. 6 insurrection had ties to the Proud Boys and other extremist groups. And this week, the civil trial begins against the white supremacists who led a violent mob in Charlottesville in 2017, chanting “Jews will not replace us” as they marched down the street.
But that is not the only threat.
To use an analogy that Sunrise and its supporters should understand, right-wing antisemitism is the lethal category-5 hurricane threatening to bring immediate catastrophe. Antisemitism on the left, however, is more akin to climate change: Slowly but surely, the temperature is increasing. Often people don’t perceive the shift, or they choose to ignore it even in the face of once-uncommon storms. But the metaphorical temperature is rising, and the conditions threaten to upend life as we know it.
As a previous generation of climate activists learned in the 1990s and early 2000s, it is often hard to awaken people to a slower, more subtle threat. It’s even harder to do so when it may anger your friends and allies. When organizations and leaders do finally call out their own side, it often rings as hollow as the national Sunrise Movement’s initial response to the D.C. chapter: They condemned antisemitism along with other forms of hatred, but didn’t flag the original statement as antisemitic. Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives used a similar tactic in 2019, when members introduced a resolution condemning antisemitism after Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) accused Jews of dual loyalty to the United States and Israel.
But ADL has learned from more than a century of work that stopping the spread of antisemitism requires us to acknowledge it and call it out, explicitly and without equivocation. Anti-Jewish hate cannot be swept under the rug or excused for any reason. Excluding Jews and Jewish groups from civic life is antisemitic, no matter who is doing it.
The DC Vote coalition, which organized the statehood rally, and eventually the national Sunrise Movement, recognized that. “Naming explicitly Jewish organizations while giving a pass to non-Jewish organizations in the coalition which hold similar position is undoubtedly anti-Semitic and has no place in our movement,” wrote DC Vote in a statement issued on the eve of the rally.
But that suggests that it was fine for the Sunrise chapter to seek to ban groups that believe in supporting the existence of a Jewish state of Israel, that they only erred in singling out just the Jewish pro-Israel groups for exclusion, and not all the groups — such as labor unions — that also have warm ties with Israel.
This is a disingenuous and dangerous distinction.
Despite what others, including some progressive Jewish thinkers, may suggest, denying the right of Jews — alone among the peoples of the world — to the right of self-determination is antisemitism even when you call it “anti-Zionism.” Denying Jews the rights afforded to other people is discrimination.
There are things that the Israeli government has done that deserve rebuke. But criticizing the policies and actions of a government is categorically different than deeming the country itself illegitimate because it is instituting “apartheid” or leading a “genocide” when it is not. It is fundamentally different from calling for its eradication either implicitly or explicitly by supporting a “one-state solution” or “Palestine from the river to the sea.” Slandering Israel as “settler-colonial” or “white supremacist” is flat-out wrong on the facts and little more than a deliberate effort to degrade its support and condition the public for its demise. As is the inclusion of Zionism among a list of forms of “oppression,” including antisemitism and anti-Palestinian racism — as Sunrise DC did in its “reflection” on its original call against the Jewish organizations.
I wish this inflammatory rhetoric was limited to the rants of obscure academics and powerless activist groups. But it is not. It has grown and spread. Increasingly in many mainstream progressive circles, it has become popular and even trendy.
Let’s be clear: Singling out the Jewish state for condemnation while ignoring others is a contemptible expression of prejudice. Yet last month, Sally Rooney, the best-selling Irish writer, announced that she would not allow an Israeli publisher to publish a Hebrew version of her latest novel because of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank — though she said nothing of her plans for China or Russia, countries governed by indisputably repressive regimes, in which her previous books have been published. Similarly, earlier this year, Ben & Jerry’s founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield supported the company’s decision to stop selling ice cream in the West Bank as an expression of their progressive principles. But when asked why the company still sells ice cream in Texas, which violates their beliefs about abortion rights, or in Georgia, which does so on voting rights, all they could do was stammer.
The fear of speaking out against antisemitism is acutely felt on college campuses. This past spring during the conflict between Hamas and Israel, a notable number of university administrators haltingly condemned, if at all, anti-Jewish violence on campus. One — the chancellor of New Jersey’s Rutgers University-New Brunswick — inexplicably apologized for doing so.
As the political climate changes, so does the threat to Jewish Americans. ADL logged 251 antisemitic incidents from May 11 — the official start of military action in Israel — through the end of that month, an increase of 115 percent over the same period in 2020. And none of the perpetrators were wearing MAGA hats.
To be fair, some progressives condemned the Sunrise DC chapter for its antisemitism. But scores of other would-be allies — progressive organizations that have partnered with ADL and other Jewish groups for decades — said nothing, not even a tweet.
What does it say about the state of the social justice movement that a push for diversity and inclusivity seeks to exclude Jews? What does it mean when the litmus test for inclusion in social justice spaces requires Jews to oppose the very existence of the only Jewish state in the world? What message does that send to the American Jewish community that has been at the forefront of so many civil rights struggles for generations?
Maybe these groups think it’s a parochial issue and not their fight. Perhaps they calculate that it’s not worth the risk of being “canceled” to speak up. But while antisemitism starts with the Jews, the animus rarely ends there; historically it is a harbinger of even more hate and the decay of democratic societies.
The climate for Jews in America is changing. The temperature is rising. If you believe that this is a country for all, then you have a moral responsibility to combat anti-Jewish hate wherever it may arise.
Edited by Joel Leyden
Israel News Agency