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‘Only one political party is quite literally inciting white nationalists to shoot up our synagogues.’
On Aug. 11, more than 1,000 people marked Tisha B’Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, by occupying an Amazon Books store in Manhattan, protesting the technology behemoth’s technical support for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Sitting on the floor, they read harrowing accounts of people in immigration detention and recited the Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer of mourning. One of their signs said, “Never again means never again.”
According to organizers, 44 people, including 12 rabbis and a member of New York’s City Council, were arrested. It was one of over 50 Jewish-organized demonstrations against ICE held across the country that day.
A few days later, a corrections officer drove a truck into a row of Jewish protesters who were blocking the entrance to a private prison in Rhode Island where migrants are being detained. Two of the protesters were hospitalized. That demonstration was one of at least 38 organized this summer by Never Again Action, a decentralized group formed two months ago to engage in nonviolent direct action against immigrant detention.
Donald Trump might have thought he was going to lure Jewish voters to the Republican Party with his lock-step alliance with the Israeli right. Instead, by attempting to use American Jews as mascots for an administration that fills most of them with horror, he has spurred a renaissance on the Jewish left.
New progressive Jewish groups are forming. Older ones, like New York’s Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, one of the forces behind the Amazon action, are growing; once-sleepy organizing meetings have become standing room only. Jewish Currents, a left-wing Jewish publication founded almost 75 years ago, was reborn last year with a new cadre of writers and editors who speak to the millennial socialist zeitgeist.
Obviously, American Jews have long leaned liberal, and have always been overrepresented in progressive movements. But there’s a difference between leftists who happen to be Jewish and explicitly Jewish left-wing activism. “People who may not have been that close to Jewishness, they feel suddenly like it’s very important to express who they are as Jews in the context of their activism and in the context of their collective memory,” said Arielle Angel, the editor of Jewish Currents.
Alyssa Rubin, a 25-year-old organizer with Never Again Action, told me that in college, she had little interest in Jewish communal life, much of which seemed to revolve around support for Israel. But in the months leading up to the 2016 election, as Trump spouted rhetoric that smacked of fascism and white nationalists grew giddy at their new relevance, “I had never thought about my Judaism more,” she said. For the first time, anti-Semitism seemed an immediate, urgent threat.
For Jews on the left, fear has been magnified by insult as Trump, the man who helped unleash a new wave of anti-Semitism, posed as the Jews’ savior because of his devotion to the Israeli right.
“It’s infuriating and intolerable,” said Sophie Ellman-Golan, 27, the former director of communications and digital outreach at the Women’s March organization, who is now working on a project to mobilize Jews against white nationalism. Because the right purports to defend Jews even as it pursues policies that most Jews abhor, she argued, “it’s imperative that we loudly speak for ourselves because if we don’t the loudest voices that claim to speak on behalf of Jews will be right-wing evangelical Christians.”
There are, of course, plenty of established Jewish groups that make it their mission to speak for the community. But it’s hard to overstate the degree to which left-wing Jews feel alienated from and betrayed by the Jewish establishment, which often seems more concerned with left-wing anti-Zionism and rhetorical overkill than with right-wing white nationalism.
Never Again Action was born in reaction to the perceived failures of mainstream Jewish organizations to stand up to Trump. In June, after Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred to migrant detention camps as “concentration camps,” establishment Jewish outfits like the Jewish Community Relations Council rushed to condemn her. Rubin was incredulous. A militantly xenophobic government is building internment camps for members of ethnic out-groups, and Jewish leaders worried that critics of this project were disrespecting the memory of the Holocaust?
“That compounded the outrage that a lot of Jews were feeling, that a mainstream Jewish institution would say something that just felt so out of touch,” she said. “That in part led us to really want to not just say in words, but actually take action to show how the Jewish community actually feels about this moment.”
People involved in the new Jewish left recognize that left-wing anti-Semitism exists. But they generally don’t believe it’s a threat on par with right-wing Jew hatred.
“No political party or movement is free of anti-Semitism,” said Ellman-Golan, who had to deal with the fallout from anti-Semitism at the Women’s March. But, she said, “only one political party is quite literally inciting white nationalists to shoot up our synagogues, drive cars into our peaceful protests, mail bombs to members of our community, burn black churches and mosques, and open fire on Latinx people.”
The Jewish left rejects the idea that anti-Zionism is equivalent to anti-Semitism, but even more than that, it rejects the idea that Israel is the guarantor of Jewish safety or the lodestar of Jewish identity. A central value of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, as well as for much of left-wing Jewish culture more broadly, is “doikayt,” a Yiddish term that means “hereness.”
“Where we are is our home. This is what we fight for. This is where we seek kinship,” said Audrey Sasson, JFREJ’s executive director. The first post-relaunch issue of Jewish Currents featured an essay by the publisher, Jacob Plitman, called “On an Emerging Diasporism,” which likewise celebrated the value of “hereness.”
For those primarily concerned about Jewish life in the diaspora, Israel, which has courted anti-Semitic nationalist leaders in Europe, isn’t really an ally, much less an ideal. And Trump, who always speaks of American Jews as if they belong there, is a grotesque enemy. He tells Jews committed to life in America that they owe loyalty to Israel, which he sometimes calls, when speaking to American Jews, “your country.” He says this, and expects Jews to react with gratitude.
Instead, many are reacting with a redoubled commitment to multiracial democracy and solidarity. Jews have been taking to the streets because no amount of support for a foreign country can redeem what he’s doing to this one."