An Exchange of Views on Progressives and the Link between Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism

by December 2023
The March for Israel in Washington, November 14, 2023. Photo credit: USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters Connect.

Dear Nadav,

We first met when you were President Shimon Peres’s foreign policy advisor and I have long admired you as one of Israel’s most skilled diplomats. J Street also recognized this in appointing you to be its Executive Director in Israel. I believe you are a particularly good role model at this time – a dedicated person of the left, a former IDF officer and experienced Israeli diplomat.

Among the lessons of the October 7 massacres is, I believe, one for American Jews. It is time to form a much broader pro-Israel coalition that transcends narrow left-right political camps. American Jews should no longer indulge themselves in partisan in-fighting. J Street together with other leftwing Jewish groups joined the November 14 March for Israel in Washington DC. That should be enough for all of us. Thus, I believe the time has come to finally include J Street in the American Jewish umbrella group, the Conference of Presidents for the simple reason that we need to show unity in the face of dangers at home and abroad.

This isn’t to say I agree with all of J Street’s policies, I don’t, though I always respect your perspective. My hope is that American Jewry can adopt some of the pragmatism seen in Israel during wartime and call off political polarization.

Let’s first explore the issue of J Street’s outreach to the progressive left in the US. Many of us heard Senate Majority Leader Schumer’s November 29 speech on the floor of the Senate. He specifically addressed the explosion of antisemitism on the progressive left in the US. How does J Street see this problem and what is J Street doing in practical ways to ensure that Zionists can still participate in progressive coalitions in the US? For instance, what is J Street telling prospective candidates for office in 2024 about the Gaza war? Can you hold up specific examples of members of Congress supported by J Street who are publicly supporting Israel at this critical time?

Here is another lesson from October 7 and its aftermath: the debate on whether or not there is a strong link between anti-Zionism and antisemitism is over. Senator Schumer gave many post-October 7 examples of antisemitic actions in America all done in the name of anti-Zionism. My question focuses on J Street’s concerns with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. The IHRA cites six specific examples of anti-Zionism crossing over into antisemitism. Several Biden administration insiders told me that J Street opposed the adoption of the IHRA definition in the national antisemitism plan unveiled in May 2023, as one of the stakeholders present in the deliberations of the White House task force.

The Biden plan cites both the IHRA definition of antisemitism and a competing one proposed by a handful of American academics that is more accepting of criticism of Israel and Zionism. Of course, not all criticism of Israel or the Israeli government is antisemitic, no one would contest that. But in light of the protests that erupted all over America in the aftermath of October 7, would J Street reconsider some of its opposition to a strong link between anti-Zionism and antisemitism? Sometimes events cause us to re-evaluate and change while staying true to core beliefs – wouldn’t you agree with that? 

Nadav, I look forward to your reply and I give you the last word.

Warmly, Bob

Then Vice President Joe Biden at the J Street conference in Washington, September 2013. Photo credit: Ron Sachs/Pool/ABACA via Reuters Connect.

Dear Bob,

Thanks for reaching out in order to hear my perspective and J Street’s positions with regard to the war. 

The October 7 massacre shocked me, as it did shock all Israelis and many Jews and other friends of Israel all over the world including the J Street community. I have family and friends in the kibbutzim next to Gaza. Some of them were murdered, some are hostages in Gaza, and those who survived are in hotels away from their homes. My family in Kibbutz Manara on the border of Lebanon, which my parents established in 1943, have also been evacuated from their home because of the Hizbullah attacks. I have a son and a son-in-law called up for reserve duty since October 7. Both are in combat units.

I am volunteering in the hostages’ family forum and I spend a lot of time with a group of former officials crafting policy recommendations for an exit strategy and the day after the war. Even though we are all very emotional, I do believe in rational analysis of the situation, especially in times of crisis.

As to your questions:

How does J Street see this problem and what is J Street doing in practical ways to ensure that Zionists can still participate in progressive coalitions in the US? 

I joined the team of J Street in order to promote the values that I believe in as a progressive Zionist. As a diplomat who served for many years in the US, I felt that there was no space for progressive Zionists like me in the organized Jewish community and the space J Street creates is more valuable than ever. 

I am fully aware of the danger posed by the impact of extremist identity politics in the margins of the progressive movement when it comes to their approach to Zionists. I am indeed worried about the tendency of some to take anti-Zionist positions because of the perception that Israel is a colonial state, while the connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is undisputed, just as the Palestinians connection to the same land is indisputable. Some extreme progressives think that “might can’t be right” and Israel (thankfully) is a strong country. I am proud of my contribution to my country’s strength as an officer in the IDF, as an Israeli diplomat and as adviser to one of the founding parents of the country who led the establishment of the Israeli defense infrastructure. I am a “peacenik” but not a pacifist.

J Street believes it is possible to be both progressive and a supporter of Israel as a just, safe and democratic homeland for the Jewish people – and we show that by modeling those positions, building coalitions within the progressive movement and calling out extremism and antisemitism from all corners. Not only do we show there is no contradiction between being progressive and pro-Israel, but we also bring our Jewish values to progressive movements and work together on a range of issues, including support for refugees, LGBT+ rights, gender equality and racial justice. 

Both for progressives and for the pro-Israel movement, we have to recognize that writing off entire groups of people instead of engaging with them hurts our overall cause and our ability to create coalitions. 

We should also be clear that antisemitism at the margins does not represent the mainstream of the progressive movement in the US. For example, there are 102 members of the Progressive Caucus in Congress and at least 95 of them support the legitimacy of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and the US – Israel special relationship. This has been reflected in recent votes in the House of Representatives. Before J Street, there was no political home for American Jews who were pro-Israel, pro-peace and pro-democracy [editor’s note: “Americans for Peace Now” pre-existed J Street and does adopts such positions]. J Street is keeping more Jews in progressive spaces, more Jews in the pro-Israel camp, and more members of Congress in the pro-Israel camp.

A window is smashed and graffiti sprayed with the word “Gaza” at a restaurant in Washington, DC, November 2023. Photo credit: Rod Lamkey/CNP/Sipa USA via Reuters Connect.
Graffiti with the word “Gaza” at a restaurant in Washington, DC, November 2023. Photo credit: Rod Lamkey/CNP/Sipa USA via Reuters Connect.

What is J Street telling prospective candidates for office in 2024 about the Gaza war?

Our congressional endorsees share most of our positions on the Gaza war with some nuanced variations. All of our endorsees support core J Street positions that make up our endorsement criteria, which include ironclad support for Israel’s security. You can read more about our endorsement criteria here

What we say in private to our endorsees is the same as what we say in public, and many of our endorsees trust and appreciate our guidance in navigating challenging and complex issues. 

To the administration and to Congress we say that we unequivocally condemn the heinous violence and killing perpetrated against the Israeli people by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and we back the right and obligation of the Israeli government to defend its citizens, in accordance with international law, just as did the Biden Administration. 

We called on Congress to ensure that the supplemental security assistance to Israel requested by President Biden is used to protect Israelis – and contains important safeguards to prevent it from being misused by the Netanyahu government in a way which would undermine bipartisan support for US aid. We called on the administration to insist that the safety and release of the hostages held by Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza be prioritized and pursued in concert with regional governments and international organizations.

Just as the Biden Administration did, we supported the recognition that military effort is necessary to defeat Hamas. We also called for all possible measures to be taken to limit Palestinian civilian casualties and to ramp humanitarian assistance to Gaza.

We advocated for humanitarian pauses in Israel’s campaign against Hamas, as the Biden administration and several Jewish members of Congress have done, to enable humanitarian aid to reach civilians and facilitate efforts to free the hostages

We made clear that ultimately, beyond the defeat of Hamas, there is no military solution that will end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which can only be brought to a close through a political solution. We believe that it should now be abundantly clear that resolving the conflict at the negotiating table is crucial for Israelis and Palestinians – and also for the broader region, for US national interests, and for maintaining global stability. 

We exhorted President Biden to back his important statement (“There’s no going back to the status quo as it stood on October 6… When this crisis is over, there has to be a vision of what comes next, and in our view, it has to be a two-state solution”) with a commitment for the US to play a leading role in developing and implementing that vision.

We called for planning for a massive reconstruction effort in Gaza and for building up a new governance structure that could ultimately administer the Strip as part of a viable Palestinian state after the Israel-Hamas war. The Arab world – recommitted to pursuing a revived Arab Peace Initiative – should be encouraged to play a key role.

Ultimately, we believe this is the only way to prevent the horrors of October 7 and the past two months from being repeated. 

Can you hold up specific examples of members of Congress supported by J Street who are publicly supporting Israel at this critical time?

All of our endorsees support Israel at this critical time, chief among them our most important endorsee, President Biden. In the 2020 election, J Street supporters helped raise over $2 million to help elect President Biden. We are currently key supporters of his re-election campaign and our endorsees comprise more than 50% of President Biden’s allies in the House and Senate Democratic Caucus. 

Our criteria for endorsement include commitment to Israel’s security and support for US aid to Israel. However, supporting Israel does not necessarily mean supporting the policies of the Israeli government. J Street has, for example, strongly opposed the Netanyahu government’s judicial reforms, partnered with the Israeli pro-democracy movement, and opposed settlement expansion in the West Bank. 

In short, we differentiate between support for Israel’s right and obligation to protect its citizens and some of the policies of its most rightwing government ever.

In light of the protests that erupted all over America in the aftermath of October 7, would J Street reconsider some of its opposition to the link between anti-Zionism and antisemitism?

It is undeniable that critics of Israel can sometimes cross the line into antisemitism, as we saw recently, and they should be held accountable when they do. It is also clear that the threat of antisemitism has risen dramatically. We have been and continue to be outspoken about this. 

However, the approach that automatically links anti-Zionism and antisemitism is not presenting the true reality and is counterproductive for both the fight against antisemitism and against anti-Zionism. We find that some in the United States seek to label all critics of Israel as antisemites – including Jews themselves – and find that this is deeply unhelpful to the very important goal of countering antisemitism.

There are many Jews who are anti-Zionist and it is ridiculous to call them antisemites. For example, “Jewish Voice for Peace” and “If Not Now” are Jewish organizations which are very critical of J Street because we are Zionists and we are against BDS. 

Many ultra-Orthodox Jews are anti-Zionists for theological reasons and the Reform movement was anti-Zionist in the early days of the Zionist movement [editor’s note: although the Reform movement changed radically in the wake of the Holocaust]. Many Communists are anti Zionists because they are against any form of nationalism. 

On the other hand, there are many so-called friends of Israel who are actually antisemites. They support Israel because they hate Muslims more than they hate Jews, and see in the right-wing governments in Israel a good model for creating an ethnocracy and theocracy. That goes for populist leaders such as Victor Orban and many members of the White Supremacy movement in the US. In our view, this includes President Trump, who is considered a strong supporter of Israel and yet routinely engages in antisemitic conspiracy theories and stereotypes about Jewish people. There are some voices on the fringes that proudly label themselves Nazis and yet also voice strong support for the State of Israel. 

This is why we continue to believe that placing Israel at the center of the discussion about antisemitism is a mistake. It must be a part of the discussion, and we must recognize that in moments like these the spike in antisemitism is connected to feelings about Israel, but we believe the battle against antisemitism calls for more nuance than others seem to account for. 

We believe the best way to fight antisemitism is to create a wide coalition against racism of all kinds, to build partnerships with whoever shares our values, and to push back against leaders who use antisemitism or other forms of bigotry to build and maintain power. 

The best way to cope with anti-Zionism is to demonstrate that Zionism is a progressive movement, which is indeed what the original movement was. My grandparents came to Zion with the vision of Herzl that Israel should be the democratic homeland of the Jewish people, rather than be defined by a narrow interpretation of the Jewish religion, whose institutions should be separated from the state in a democracy. It should be the state defined in its Declaration of Independence where Jews and non Jews are equal citizens.

Unfortunately, during the many years of the rightist governments in Israel, Zionism has come to be seen by many as very different from the Zionism of Herzl or Ben-Gurion. One wonders whether many of the current Netanyahu government’s ministers would have signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence had they been around at the state’s founding in 1948, because it may be too progressive for their taste. 

As to the IHRA definition, J Street supported the Biden administration’s decision not to codify it in the strategy against antisemitism that was recently published. We like the language of the “Nexus Task Force” and the “Jerusalem Declaration on Anti Semitism.” We believe it is a mistake to focus the fight against antisemitism on defining what is and what isn’t appropriate criticism of Israel as a matter of policy. To do so while surging rightwing antisemitism is literally killing American Jews is profoundly exploitative and dangerous.

Sometimes events cause us to re-evaluate and change while staying true to core beliefs – wouldn’t you agree with that?

Yes, absolutely. However the barbaric massacre of October 7 made J Street’s positions all the more valid.

It showed that we can’t manage the conflict or shrink it but need to solve it. It showed that it was a mistake to empower Hamas and keep the Palestinian Authority high and dry. It showed that the fantasy of normalizing Israel in the region without solving the Palestinian conflict is a mistake. It showed that even the IDF cannot fully protect Israel if it is not supported by pro-peace politics. It shows us that we need a diplomatic solution, just as we learned after the 1973 Yom Kippur War which led to peace with Egypt.

President Biden gets it. His approach of embracing Israel while urging it to look at a political horizon is the J Street approach. His recent article in the Washington Post could have been written by us. We are working to support his vision and create the political incentives to move forward. 

Nadav Tamir
Nadav Tamir is the executive director of J Street Israel, adviser for international affairs at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, and board member at the Mitvim Institute. He served in multiple positions at Israel’s Foreign Ministry, including as consul general in Boston. Tamir earned his MA from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government where he was a Wexner fellow. @rntamir
Robert Silverman
A former US diplomat and president of the American Foreign Service Association, Robert Silverman is a lecturer at Shalem College, senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, and president of the Inter Jewish Muslim Alliance. @silverrj99
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