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Who Speaks for the Jews?

A lot of ink has been spilled about Linda Sarsour’s place on a panel tonight at the New School on anti-Semitism, and a prominent benefactor has threatened to withdraw funding for the New School as a result. A lot of the negative reactions have to do with who Linda Sarsour is, what she’s said about anti-Semitism in the past, and what she supports. And there is an up-swelling of bigotry and Islamophobia rearing its ugly head, for which as a public Muslim figure, Sarsour is an unfortunate lightning rod.

But a lot of the censure has much to do with who is considered to be an appropriate spokesperson for the Jews about a Jewish experience. In activist and leftist circles, it is taken for granted that the people most appropriate to define their struggles in life are the ones who experience it. Thus, it is expected to defer to Muslims when the topic is the experience or definition of Islamophobia, or African-Americans when the topic is anti-Blackness in America, or women when the topic is misogyny. Why are Jews not afforded the same deference? Who has the right to define what we suffer for our Jewishness, or to define what it is to be Jewish? Who are the gentiles that are perceived to be experts on us from the outside, and why are we deferring to them?

While some of the panelists are Jews, none of them are experts in the topic of anti-Semitism. There are no scholars in the field, nor activists whose focus is combatting anti-Semitism. The panel has two members of Jewish Voices for Peace, one member of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and the Arab-American Association of New York. None of these groups focus on anti-Semitism. The issue then becomes not just who is on the panel, but why this panel exists at all.

The eventbrite page reads: “When antisemitism is redefined as criticism of Israel, critics of Israeli policy become accused and targeted more than the growing far-right. Join us for a discussion on how to combat antisemitism today.”  In addition to an unproven assertion that critics of anti-Semitism do not focus on far right purveyors of anti-Semitism, the framing of this event seems to focus less on defining anti-Semitism or combatting, but minimizing it and redefining it in the framework of the Israel-Palestine conflict. That is dangerous for those of us who live with the consequences— namely, Jews.

It’s no surprise then that ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt slammed the event, saying “Seriously there’s not a single Jewish organization that studies this issue and/or fights this disease (such as @adl_national) would take this panel seriously, let alone the institution that put it together.”

A panel like this may not be a total disaster. JFREJ released a PDF concerning antisemitism, a result of their earlier webinar (also featuring non-Jewish input!) and while there are issues with the document, including the historically inaccurate too-rosy view of Jewish life as second class citizens in the Muslim world or glossing over the prevalence of anti-Semitic rhetoric in anti-Zionist circles, it is still a decent bit of work. But it is unlikely that we will see even this caliber of result from this panel. What is far more probable is that anti-Semitism will be minimized and redefined to suit the political needs of the group in question, as will the fundamentals of Jewish history and identity.

Instead of wrestling with the difficulties presented by Zionism, anti-Zionism, and anti-Semitism head on, we can expect this universally anti-Zionist (or at best, agnostic) panel to redefine the issues into non-existence, and thus write off the majority of Jewish opinion as wrong and misinformed— a misled people, acting against their own self-interest, an elitist opinion trotted out by those too out of touch to understand why people make the decisions they do, and what motivates them, for good or for ill.

The left often fails in anti-Semitism by refusing to look at Jews as a community. They are usually willing to go to bat for a Jewish person’s individual rights, but almost never for our communal rights. To justify this, they will redefine our identity, our history, our oppression, and ourselves. We are not permitted to speak for ourselves. At best, we get spokespeople we did not elect, speaking on behalf of others in our name, but not in our interests— as is the case here. As with the right wing, Jews are more useful as pawns than as people.

This is odious. It is also typical. Even JFREJ admits to anti-Semitism’s cyclical nature, and the forced re-definition of Jews and the pathological bigotry we faced in order to benefit the elites. Where this panel of non-experts will inevitably drop the ball is in their failure to realize that in their circles, they are those elites, and they are doing nothing more than pandering to the demands of a gentile majority, seeking to inflict their self-interested moralizing on our backs. And if we have to pay for their self-aggrandizing in our blood, then so be it. It’s a price they are willing to have us pay.

After all, it’s a price we’ve paid before.

Image via Wikimedia

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