NEW YORK, Jan. 23 (JTA) — Three years ago, Jonathan Bernstein received an e-mail from a distraught political activist in the San Francisco Bay Area concerned about rising anti-Semitism among fellow political progressives. “The growing acceptance of anti-Semitic rhetoric is so commonplace it is not even recognized as anti-Semitism,” wrote the activist, who went on to list a number of anti-Semitic incidents in her community that had left her rattled.
Despite her opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq, the woman had not attended a recent anti-war rally due to her reluctance to support the group organizing the protest.
“We’ve gotten calls for help like that almost weekly here for the last three years,” said Bernstein, director of the Anti-Defamation League office in San Francisco. “With each case we’ve helped put out fires by trying to get the right person to speak out about whatever the issue is.”
On Jan. 28 the ADL will try to do more than just douse fires when it convenes Finding Our Voice, a daylong conference in San Francisco aimed at empowering Jewish progressives to respond to anti-Semitism on the left.
Co-sponsored by more than 50 Jewish organizations from across the political spectrum — including the ADL, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, Americans for Peace Now and the Jewish Labor Committee — the conference aims to empower participants to respond to what organizers describe as an alarming trend.
Workshops will feature presentations by university professors, community activists, elected officials and religious leaders. Among the titles are “That’s Not Funny: Cartoons and Editorials — What’s Legitimate and What Isn’t”; Opposing the War While Opposing Anti-Semitism”; “Breaking Through the Myth of Jewish Whiteness”; and “Using Positive Messages to Challenge Hate: Advocacy on the Campus.”
The keynote address will be presented by Anthony Julius, a British Jewish attorney who successfully defended Emory University Professor Deborah Lipstadt in the libel suit brought by Holocaust denier David Irving.
While much attention has been paid to the so-called “new anti-Semitism,” in which antipathy toward Jews is masked as rabid criticism of Israel, the Finding Our Voice conference represents the first organized effort by liberal Jews to fight back.
A similar effort organized by non-Jews, Facing the Challenge Within, was launched in the Bay Area in 2004.
“Right now it seems that the best way to further progressive causes, and particularly a broader sense of how Jews can be active in peace causes, is to give progressive Jews the tools to constructively address anti-Semitism when it comes up in progressive circles,” said Rabbi Jane Litman, a Reform rabbi in Berkeley, Calif.
A lifelong progressive, Litman received death threats during Israel’s war last summer against Hezbollah in Lebanon. An exhibition dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at a public arts center across the street from her synagogue included images Litman considered hateful, leading her to organize a counter-exhibition to show alternate, peace-oriented images.
“The progressive movement is about tolerance and justice and peace,” Litman said. “It seems so strange that hatefulness can have a home there.”
The left’s tolerance for anti-Jewish bigotry is considered strange by many progressive Jews in the Bay Area, who noticed a marked increase in anti-Semitic rhetoric following the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Several anti-war protests in San Francisco organized by the ANSWER Coalition featured imagery and slogans some considered anti-Semitic, including the burning of the Israeli flag, chants of support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Nazi-like arm salutes.
Conference participants say that while some of this activity reflects a sinister political agenda, much of it stems from ignorance of the complexity of the Middle East conflict.
Some say a tendency to project familiar tropes of imperialist aggression or American racial politics onto the conflict produces a simplistic narrative in which Jews are the “white” oppressors and Palestinians the “black” victims.
Julius calls the ignorance thesis “a touch naive,” believing instead that the problem stems from the failure of the socialist revolution and the search by disaffected leftists for a new cause.
“The 1967 war coincided with the collapse of the socialist project in Europe, and particularly in Eastern Europe,” Julius told JTA. “And anti-Zionism in a way comes out of that collapse, out of a kind of sense of hopelessness of the project of human liberation. Anti-Zionism was the consolation prize to the defeated, disappointed socialists.”
Similarly, just as the anti-war movement has brought together anti-Israel groups with dejected socialists, the conference on anti-Semitism is uniting groups of varying political persuasions — a sign of broad community support for the project, but also a challenge for the organizers.
Some Jews on the left view groups like the ADL and AIPAC with skepticism, believing they deliberately blur the line between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of Israeli policy. Others are staying away from the conference out of fear that association with it could cost them credibility in the progressive community.
“We’ve all had to break out of our comfort zones to put this together, including myself,” Bernstein said.
But for some, the ADL hasn’t broken out enough.
Two prominent Bay Area Jewish organizations active in the progressive movement — Tikkun and Jewish Voice for Peace — were not invited to co-sponsor the conference. Two others were invited to participate but declined, citing concerns about the agenda.
Rabbi Michael Lerner, the founder of Tikkun and perhaps the most well-known Jewish progressive in the country, will be in Washington on the day of the conference protesting the Iraq war.
A spokesperson for Jewish Voice for Peace, a liberal advocacy group working on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said: “From our perspective, you cannot get to the roots of anti-Semitism in the progressive movement without honestly addressing the severe human-rights violations that Israel engages in every day. Judging by the lineup, that kind of honest examination is not likely to happen at this conference.”
A source involved in planning the conference told JTA that it was precisely that type of discussion that organizers wanted to avoid out of concern that it would distract from the primary focus on Jewish oppression.
Certain groups were eliminated because their personalities might overshadow the conference, the source said.
“We were really trying to get a cross-section of the Jewish community there, and to do that we needed to be a little bit smart about who we invited,” Bernstein said. “I’m hopeful that once we get talking with each other and open up some channels of communication, then that umbrella can broaden and we’ll be able to pull every group in.”