The Netroots conference has met annually since 2006, and serves as a think-tank for progressive political activists and bloggers especially from the Daily Kos for which the conference was originally known as Yearly Kos. Last week was the first time it was held in Philadelphia, so I decide to give it a try and connect with fellow progressives, strategize on issues of common interest, and learn about various Presidential candidates. Instead, I was frustrated by the idealogical purity required by many participants.
Judaism has informed my progressive values such as standing up to hate, welcoming the oppressed, feeding the hungry, healing the sick and protecting the environment. Moreover, in foreign policy I see Israel as an example (albeit imperfect) of these values and the only true democracy in the Middle East.
I know that there are many on Daily Kos and elsewhere on left who do not share my views of Israel, and I was a bit worried when I browsed the biographies of the Netroots speakers and the attendees and found that all of the references to “Israel” were parts of references to Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) and related groups.
Nevertheless, I was heartened to see a panel scheduled entitled How We Fight Anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, it would have been more accurately entitled “How we fight accusations of Anti-Semitism.”
The moderator and panelists spoke well about the threat of anti-Semtism on the right. Trump may not have invented racism or anti-Semitism, but he has certainly given cover to racists and anti-Semites. Anti-Semtism is now more socially acceptable, and what was once said in whispers or dog-whistles is now overt. GOP leaders spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. If even a small number of people are influenced by these memes and come to believe that George Soros and the Jews hate America and are organizing an invasion of illegal immigrants from the South to take our jobs, spread disease, commit crimes and engage in terrorism, then attacks like those at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue are not surprising.
However, the panelists went too far when they claimed that anti-Semitism on the left is entirely a fiction devised by the right in order to divide and conquer the Democrats.
There is some truth to what the panelists said about the Republicans. For example, the GOP accused Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of Holocaust denial when she used the term “concentration camp” to describe the detention facilities which the Trump administration uses to hold refugee children. This is an accurate use of the term “concentration camp,” that is, a place where undesired people are collected in overcrowded conditions. Often life in these places are unhealthy, difficult and dangerous. Perhaps some of those who object to AOC’s terminology do not understand the distinction between concentration camps and death camps. However, the true purpose of these accusations was to divide the Democrats and distract from criticism of the President and his immigration policies.
In contrast, when Democrat Rep. Ilhan Omar says support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins,” it is unknown whether her comments stemmed more from ignorance or from anti-Semitism. Either way she deserved to be corrected. Indeed, the Democratic leadership were right when they condemned her.
But we must not bury our heads in the sand and deny every accusation of anti-Semitism. The Republicans do not have a monopoly on anti-Semitism. Nor must we defend ourselves with “what-about-ism.” Even if White Nationalism is a greater threat, we are hypocrites if we white-wash any anti-Semitism on the left. In fact, we probably have more influence over our allies than over our opponents, so attention to lesser transgressions of our allies is worthwhile.
In Judaism, we have the notion of Tocheichah (constructive criticism). I hope that this article is read in this spirit. I do not point out fault in order debase my friends but rather to help them understand how we can all do better.
I stayed behind and waited until the end in order to ask a question about the reality of a certain amount of anti-Semitism on the left. I hoped to describe my frustration when I would happen to join a political rally for a progressive cause only to find that it had been co-opted by an anti-Zionist group.
The panel ended without an opportunity to ask this question, so I continued on to the next event on my agenda — a rally on Arch Street against the mass incarceration of children on the border. There was a large crowd and I was glad to hold a sign high and help protect the rights of these children.
However, soon the crowd was led in a chant repeating the refrain “No Walls Anywhere: Not America, Not Israel.”
All of a sudden, as a supporter of Israel, I no longer felt welcome.
I believe in freedom of speech. If the person with the megaphone wanted to hold a rally in favor of the BDS movement, then he is certainly welcome to do so. But please do it one block away, or an hour earlier or later. If you think your cause is right, then advertise it and like-minded people will come and support you. But you should not take a rally intended to support immigrants and refugees at the US boarder and turn it into a rally about Israel. Either you are co-opting the crowd which someone else organized, or you are engaging in bait-and-switch and tricking people like me into seeming to rally in favor of a cause they would not otherwise support.
I tried to be heard, but to no avail. I saw other people in the crowd who seemed similarly distressed by the turn which the rally had just taken. I then separated myself from the group and returned alone through the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
One of the panelists from that morning recognized me and expressed her regret that insufficient time had been allotted for questions and I had been unable to ask mine. I took the opportunity to tell her what concerned me about the panel and how the rally I had just left was a perfect case in point. She was surprised that I do not support BDS and told me that if I do not support BDS then they have no need for me at a rally of any kind.
I do not necessarily see eye-to-eye with the candidates I support on every issue, but there is a saying in politics, “If you agree with me on 9 out of 12 issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on 12 out of 12 issues, see a psychiatrist!”
Similarly, if we adopt a narrow view of politics and shun the support on a given issue of anyone who does not support us on another issue, then we are doing ourselves harm. We should embrace a wide tent and welcome the support of anyone who is generally supportive of many of our goals. That is the way to build a majority and win elections. Similarly, in Congress, we should seek common ground and create alliances and co-sponsor bills even with legislators that diametrically oppose us on other issues. [Editor’s Note: Former President Obama recently made a speech against rigidity among Progressives: “you start shooting at your allies because one of them is straying from purity on the issues, and when that happens, typically the overall effort and movement weakens.” Also, an article about Black Lives Matter adding criticism of Israel to their agenda.]
There is much to do, but we can make progress one issue at a time. If instead we shun those who lack ideological purity, then we will accomplish nothing.