Jarrod Tanny outlines to Daniel Ben-Ami how American social justice activists see Israel as central to a global system of oppression.
When Fatima Mohammed gave her vehemently anti-Israel commencement address at the City University New York (CUNY) school of law in May the polarised reaction was entirely predictable. Some hailed the fiery young Yemini-American woman as a brave opponent of Israel’s human rights violations while others condemned her as an anti-Semite.
Video clips featuring shortened versions of the address were widely circulated. These included, among other things, references to “Israeli settler-colonialism”, an endorsement of the anti-Israel BDS movement, and accusations that Israel murders the old and young. She also accused Israel of encouraging lynch mobs, expelling ever more Palestinians and asserted that the Israel Defense Forces is engaged in global violence.
Under the circumstances it would be easy to dismiss Mohammed as yet another activist indulging in an anti-Israel rant. Anyone who follows the debate about Israel will have come across similar allegations to hers countless times. Terms such as apartheid, ethnic cleansing, genocide and settler-colonialism are used so indiscriminately in relation to Israel that they have been reduced to political swearwords.
However, it would be a mistake to simply see such outbursts as hateful diatribes. Nor are they just straightforward expressions of anti-Jewish prejudice. Something much deeper and more troubling is going on. It involves anti-Semitic conspiracy theories but it goes a lot further than that. Under the rubric of social justice a new form of anti-Semitism has emerged on American campuses and in sections of American society more generally. It is central to what some refer to it as a “woke” world view although others dislike the label.
It is often referred to as left wing anti-Semitism but that description is misleading. It is true that there is some similarity to the way the Soviet government used to talk about Israel. It did not generally attack Jews overtly but instead expressed its anti-Semitism in the guise of a supposedly progressive anti-Zionism. The Soviet Union defined itself as an anti-racist state with a principled opposition to colonialism, imperialism and religion. However, there are also important differences between the traditional leftist conception of the world and what passes for contemporary leftism. For example, social justice activists have little interest in notions of social class or economic progress.
Instead woke activism is bound up with what is sometimes called identity politics. In this view what really matters is the group with which people identify. From this perspective those who are deemed as part of a privileged group are loathed while those considered as oppressed are lauded. This premise then lends itself to the view that Jews are the arch-beneficiaries of white privilege while Israel represents Jewish supremacy “from the river to the sea”.
Jarrod Tanny, an associate professor in Jewish history at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, has been following the emergence of this new form of anti-Semitism closely. Academia plays a key role as a crucible in its development. He sees it as concentrated in several disciplines on American campuses including communications, disability studies, ethnic studies, Middle Eastern studies, and women and gender studies. In his view – and perhaps surprisingly to many - it also has considerable traction in Jewish studies programmes. In Tanny’s view faculty tend to either remain silent in the event of unhinged criticism of Israel or publicly side with the anti-Zionists.
The social justice perspective on Israel is much more than a critical stance on its relations with the Palestinians. Of course it is searingly condemnatory in that respect but Israel’s sins extend much further for social justice activists. “They have managed to convince themselves that Zionists are one of the key players in global oppression,” says Tanny. In this view many of the world’s most vulnerable people – far more than just the Palestinian population - suffer as a result of Israel’s actions. Israel is seen as a global imperialist power engaged in a conspiracy to undermine the rights of the oppressed worldwide.
The key concept to understand here is intersectionality. Tanny says that the meaning of this term when used by social justice activists, irrespective of its proper academic definition, is relatively straightforward. “The foundational idea here, which really should have nothing to do with the Jews, is that all oppressions are linked,” he says. This provides a fairly coherent, if entirely malevolent, way of connecting the dominant anti-Zionist tropes being propagated in academic publications and the classroom. So scholar-activists frequently make claims such as “Palestine is a queer issue”, “Palestine is a disability issue” and “Palestine is a climate justice issue”. He says that on all fronts Israel is accused of being the epitome of an oppressive state.
Social justice activists see Israel, as a colonial-settler state, embodying an assault on indigenous peoples of which the Palestinians are regarded as just one. Zionism is therefore cast as a form of white racism against people of colour and an instance of European imperialism. Israel was, in this view, constructed through the same historical processes that led to the colonisation of the Americas, the genocide of native Americans and the enslavement of Africans. It follows from this premise that liberation must be seen in transnational terms. The Palestinian cause is, so the argument goes, connected directly to justice for native Americans, black Americans and anyone else who is not white.
The flip side of this argument is that Jews are regarded as the beneficiaries of American racism. Yet they cunningly mask their privileged status by pretending to be the victims of oppression. So the position of American Jews is, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, linked to Israel’s supposed supremacist role in the Middle East. “In this view Israel or Zionist imperialism in the Middle East is somehow connected to oppression in the United States,” says Tanny. No other country is singled out by social justice activists in this way.
For many social justice activists the Jews do not just benefit from “white privilege” but they can be regarded as “hyper-white”. They have only succeeded in America, it is argued, because they have upheld white supremacy. “For people on the left, Jews are more white than white people sometimes,” says Tanny. By supporting Zionist values Jews are, in the view of social justice activists, at the very least undermining anti-racism.
Tanny argues this can be seen as a variation of the traditional stereotype of Jewish disloyalty. Jews, in this variant, are more loyal to Israel than America and its people. Jews are accused of supporting what is frequently derided as an “apartheid state” rather than siding with American victims of racism.
Jews are also regarded as the beneficiaries of the oppression of other vulnerable groups too. For example, when it is claimed that “Palestine is a queer issue” and “Israel is guilty of perpetuating homophobia”. According to this logic Israel is “pinkwashing”, using its relatively liberal stance on gay rights to give a progressive cover for its oppression of Palestinians. And, as Tanny has written in the Jewish Journal: “At the extreme it is even argued that gay Palestinians suffer for being gay because of Israeli occupation, not because Hamas and the Palestinian Authority persecute gay people with alacrity”.
What is more if American Jews show even a hint of affinity for Israel their support for other oppressed groups is regarded as void. “You can be out in the street marching for gay rights but if you are suspected of being a Zionist then you are viewed as not really for gay people,” says Tanny. “You are regarded as against them too since all oppressions are linked.”
From that twisted premise an ugly incident at the Chicago pride march in 2017 makes perfect sense. Three activists holding rainbow flags with stars of David at their centre were asked to leave by organisers as they supposedly made others feel unsafe. In this case the flags were not even Israeli but pride ones incorporating the traditional Jewish symbol in white. Nevertheless that was enough to make them unwelcome on the march.
Israel is also regarded with extreme hostility within the field of disability studies. For this perspective Israel deliberately maims Palestinians, shoots them so they are physically disabled and tampers with their water supply to stunt their growth. It also experiments on Palestinian bodies and even harvests their organs. This can be seen as the recreation of the medieval blood libel – the charge that Jews ritually murdered Christian babies for their blood – in a refashioned form.
Finally, social justice activists argue that Palestine is a climate justice issue because Israel poisons the Palestinian landscape to make it uninhabitable. According to this narrative Israel has deliberately turned Gaza into an environmental wasteland in multiple ways. As Tanny wrote in his Jewish Journal article cited above the claim is that Israel: “has damaged its arable land through dangerous herbicides, indiscriminately dropped bombs that have ruined the soil, and polluted the water through the injection of sewage”. Israel’s occupation of Palestine is, in this view, leading the way in decimating the planet.
The hostility directed at Israel by the supporters of intersectional social justice is therefore much more than a condemnation of its treatment of the Palestinians. Nor can it be reduced to a judgement of Israel by a double standard. It is a view of Israel as at the centre of inter-related forms of domination. It is cast as an ableist, anti-native, homophobic, imperialist, Islamophobic and white supremacist state. From this perspective Israel plays a central role in a global system of oppression.
Twenty-first century anti-Semitism is increasingly manifesting itself in the form of social justice activists preaching what could be called the anti-imperialism of fools.
Jarrod Tanny is associate professor in Jewish history at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He is the author of two books: City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia’s Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa (Indiana University Press, 2011) and the forthcoming Seinfeld Talmud: A Jewish Guide to a Show About Nothing (Academica Press, 2023). His personal website can be found here.