A New Threat Arising Within Contemporary Progressive Discourse
1. Jewish communities worldwide are increasingly attuned in recent years to challenges posed by anti-Semitism that emanates from progressive movements. In the past decade, the assault in Israel’s legitimacy from the left has attracted the lion’s share of attention, and mobilized in response a robust coordinated global effort, led by Jewish communities and the State of Israel, to combat delegitimization on every front, from international fora to university campuses.
2. The purpose of this paper is to offer a more accurate description of an increasingly prevalent and different strain of progressive anti-Semitism that has not been robustly named or defined, and which the abovementioned global coordinated effort does not directly address.
3. The concept of ‘erasive anti-Semitism’ refers to a de-facto undermining of Jewish narrative self-determination. It negates the rights of Jews individually or collectively to define their own identify, experience, and vulnerability. It is largely an unintended consequence of contemporary progressive discourse.
4. ‘Erasive anti-Semitism’ stems from a conceptual mismatch: Dominant conceptual categories that form bases of progressive worldviews – expressed in, for example, prevalent terminology, symbols, values, patterns of behavior, and priorities – can fail to capture, or actively distort, the historic and lived Jewish experience. Jews are cast uniformly as powerful white oppressors.
5. Unlike ‘classic’ anti-Semitism, this ‘erasive’ form does not necessarily feed on hatred; rather, it is sustained by an acceptance of prevalent framing on the progressive left. Its main disseminators are not anti-Semites, despite engaging in acts of ‘erasive anti-Semitism.’ Contrary to common forms of discrimination, this strain does not rely on singling Jews out, ethnically or otherwise, as distinct categories. Rather, it indiscriminately lumps them within the dominant majorities it delineates. This effectively creates an erasure, diminishing the Jewish voice in defining Jewish identity.
6. At the same time, there is a marginal fringe that purposefully advances anti-Jewish and anti-Israel agendas utilizing its tenets, and continues to amass influence on the left. They are able to exploit contemporary progressive paradigms to challenge Jewish inclusion on the left and support for Jewish and pro-Israel agendas on the left.
7. Effects can be seen when Jewish identities and agendas are challenged within, and excluded from, progressive movements and discourse. Such events often surround Jewish identification with, or failure to renounce, Zionism. They are increasingly felt when Jewish claims to experienced anti-Semitism are delegitimized or minimized. They are prevalent in instances in which the exclusivity of the right of Jews to define their identify, vulnerability, and experience is undermined or usurped. They occur on individual and communal levels, and in aspersions cast on the mainstream Jewish organizations and institutions.
8. This form of discrimination, hostility, or prejudice manifests under the radar of society-at-large, and Jewish communities are largely unable to generate a cohesive and united front against it. Identity politics-based framing has met an American Jewish community struggling for internal and external clarity on its identity as it relates to contemporary contexts and dominant racial and class constructs. Thus, efforts to understand and contain the threat ‘erasive anti-Semitism’ poses to the positioning of pro-Israel and Jewish communities on the political left, to the cohesion and the political efficacy of the Jewish community, and thus also to Israel’s bi-partisan status, remain piecemeal and lack a coherent conceptual grounding.
9. Moreover, dividing Jews on the basis of progressive conceptual categories undermines Jewish self-perception as a collective and the notion of Jewish peoplehood. Doing so generates rancor within Jewish communities, exacerbates tensions around the role of race within Jewish communities, and threatens the basis of connection between world Jewry and Israel.
10. The challenge of the Jewish community is to reach a broadly consensual definition on what constitutes ‘erasive anti-Semitism.’ This is particularly critical in order to build a wide Jewish tent against it. Progressive Jewish communities on the front lines of this issue are natural leaders of such an effort.
INTRO: EMERGING NEW FORM OF ANTI-SEMITISM
1. ‘Traditional’ or ‘classic’ anti-Semitism, characterized by overt and often violent hostility towards Jews, materializes today predominantly on the political right wing and in radical Islam. Common classic antiSemitic tropes revolve around such themes as blood libel, Holocaust denial, and claims of inherent Jewish greed.
2. In recent years, Jewish and pro-Israel communities have had to significantly adapt to focus in parallel on anti-Semitism emanating from the left, and specifically on its manifestations in campaigns to delegitimize Israel.
3. Unlike many forms of anti-Semitism that emerge on the extreme political right or radical Islam, acts of hostility, discrimination, or prejudice against Jews from the progressive left are not generally blatant or violent; instead, often subtle and unwitting. Indeed, ‘classic’ anti-Semitism is more easily acknowledged and condemned within mainstream political and social discourse.
4. Thus, though they pose a complex challenge to the Jewish community, Jewish community relations organizations and professionals are attuned to the dynamic and structure of delegitimization campaigns and tirelessly work to drive a wedge between those who undermine Israel’s right to exist, and critics of Israeli policy.
11. Indeed, coordinated global efforts to combat delegitimization on every front have resulted in several meaningful successes. Campaigns to promote the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Anti-Semitism are notable in this context because this definition explicates forms of anti-Zionist anti-Semitism from the left.
5. The extremity and turbulence of the political and social climate over the past few years is accelerating the evolution of a strain of anti-Semitism directly tied to key progressive concepts that are becoming increasingly dominant in discourse on the left. Unlike delegitimization campaigns – in which the dominant explicit target is Israel – in the context of this new form of ‘erasive anti-Semitism,’ Jewish communities and their positioning on the left and in larger society are also directly impacted.
6. ‘Erasive anti-Semitism,’ negates the right of Jews individually or collectively to define their own identity, experience, and vulnerability in relation to changing social contexts. Progressive ideological paradigms and conceptual frameworks lend themselves to effectively silencing Jewish voices on self-defining, on claiming vulnerability, and in pursuing Jewish agendas. At friction points, Jewish communities’ self-perception, assessment, or agendas may be devalued or delegitimized.
7. ‘Erasive anti-Semitism’ fundamentally threatens the positioning of Jewish and proIsrael communities on the U.S. left, and thus the delicate equilibrium of bi-partisan political support for Jewish and pro-Israel agendas. The urgency of clearly characterizing and contending with the kinds of anti-Semitism that emanates from progressive movements bears emphasis because the threat is overshadowed in a climate of far more direct and discernable hatred towards Jews, and because its identification is far more evasive.
8. ‘Erasive anti-Semitism’ is characterized by:
• Denying Jews and Jewish communities the right to self-define and to represent their own narrative and instead externally imposing definitions, such as characterizing Jews ethnically as white European, and as one-dimensionally ‘privileged.’ The unique historic persecution and continuous vulnerability of the Jewish People are erased of significance.
• Blaming Jews for the current discriminatory social power structure that the progressive movement is fighting against – More or less extreme allusions to Jewish power feed a conception of Jews as disproportionately responsible for oppressive power structures.
• Thus, neutralizing Jewish voices on Jewish and pro-Israel agendas – The narrative confiscation can challenge the legitimacy of Jewish advocacy for individual or collective Jewish security and against discrimination. Within progressive frameworks, Jewish organizations and individuals, implicitly or explicitly, can be expected, by acknowledging their privilege and power status, to renounce claims of prejudice, discrimination, or insecurity experienced individually or collectively. Tensions have long surfaced surrounding Jewish roles in defending Israel from campaigns attacking the fundamental legitimacy of the Jewish state, and are more recently increasingly reflected in challenges Jews face in voicing their experience of anti-Semitism on the left.
9. Due largely to the pervasiveness of the conceptual infrastructure it rests on, ‘erasive antiSemitism’ remains comfortably under the radar of threat assessments, and has failed to generate a cohesive and united front of Jewish and pro-Israel communities that stand against it.
10. This ambiguity persists despite growing indications that contending with the positioning of Jewish and pro-Israel agendas within dominant contemporary progressive discourse is a defining battle. The threat is conceptual, fundamental, and systemic; relevant responses must be as well. A first step is understanding why and how central concepts in a broader progressive conceptual infrastructure, when applied uniformly to Jewish contexts, can lend themselves in practice to anti-Semitic hostility, discrimination, or prejudice.
11. In this context, this paper aspires to contribute to broader Jewish and pro-Israel communal efforts to characterize and map the ‘erasive anti-Semitism’ threat, and to offer initial strategic guidelines for response.
THE CORE CONCEPTUAL MISMATCH
12. The relative ease with which ‘erasive anti-Semitism’ can enter the mainstream stems from a compounding dynamic between two of its effects. Progressive ‘conceptual categories’ lend themselves to framing Jews as an oppressive power, which those advancing this form of hostility, bias, or discrimination can exploit. At the same time, Jews are obstructed from entering the conversation to challenge that frame’s dominance; the nature of the frame itself, designating Jewish power, confers an invalidation of Jewish claims on framing the Jewish narrative, on self-defining, within and beyond these constructs, generating a silent opposition.
13. Contemporary progressive discourse often employs binary sets of such ‘conceptual categories,’ which guide how societal groups, including Jews, are viewed. Dominant categorizations in this context center on class-based and skin color-based designations, as well as a categorical division between defenders of the status quo versus promoters of a radical upending thereof.
14. Navigating these dominant conceptual categories, Jews lose out – boxed in based on skin color and socio-economic privilege, there is little room to accommodate that the nature of collective Jewish vulnerability is unique and tracks differently from other dominant experiences of oppression. Thus, the often-one-dimensional story of American Jews within progressive paradigms is one of power and privilege.
15. Moreover, progressive conceptual categories, when applied to the Jewish national collective, amplify the framing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one dominated
by a racially privileged white oppressor. They are used to invalidate Jewish voices and specifically in the frequent expectation that Jews renounce support for Israel or Zionism as a basis for progressive allyship and inclusion.
16. Dominant conceptual categories in this context include:
▪ Class based: Oppressor vs. oppressed – Class-based societal categories are dominantly framed in language that pits ‘oppressed’ against ‘oppressor.’ Jews tend to fall squarely within the oppressor category as complicit with the status quo, and identifiable by contemporary degree of economic and social advantage. The notion of Jews as uniquely an oppressor reverberates historically, as does that of the illegitimacy of Jewish influence on institutions. Conspiracy theory-based anti-Semitism, in both left- and right-wing forms, advances a perceived illegitimate seizure of privilege by Jews, presented as all-powerful controllers of dominant institutions. The categorization of Jews as an oppressor extends to demonization of Israel as an inherently oppressive system and thus fundamentally flawed. It delegitimizes substantive engagement, even with the mainstream Israeli left; and strengthens Israeli camps that claim that no potential change within the current Israeli system is relevant to Israel's legitimacy.
▪ Skin color-based: White vs. People of Color – Skin color-based societal categories that divide between white people and People of Color are a pillar of identity politics, in which skin color, based on its immutability, is a more salient component of identity than any given policy preference and represents a key criterion for inclusion in identity political spheres. Skin color-based conceptual categorizations give rise to the concept of societal ‘privilege,’ which foremost describes unearned advantages gained by virtue of being white. Acknowledging privilege often means renouncing an assumed right to define or take ownership of a conversation. Frequently, designation as privileged delegitimizes grievances and justifies exclusion from social change agendas. By virtue of Jews being perceived as white people of European descent, Jews are conceptually categorized as white privileged, equating advantages that Jews have gained when ‘accepted’ as white, with natural membership and lived experience. Indeed, the designation of Jewish identity as white fails to account for pervasive anti-Semitism and Jewish exclusion from dominant social systems, including its contemporary manifestations, and historic genocidal oppression of the Jewish people, which have frequently been rooted in the perception of Jews as non-white. Skin-color dominated categorization has sometimes meant Jewish exclusion from powerful intersectional modes of social justice organizing, rising on the progressive left.
It has also supported framings of Israel as an ethno-national supremacist project, pitting its defenders against coalitions for racial justice.
▪ Theory-of-change based: Radical, rejection based vs. incremental reform – Dominant strains within progressive movements favor the radical over the incremental as an approach to social change, sometimes to the extent that incremental approaches are framed as ideologically adversarial. Radical approaches are based in an assumption that the status quo is inherently flawed and corrupt. Thus, they reject institutional influence; being free of its conceptual bonds is being 'woke.' An all-or-nothing sensibility underlies the proliferation of ‘cancellation’ events, which enforce rigid discourse boundaries. To the extent that Jews are associated with institutional power and influence, Jews can be framed as obstacles to social justice by social change movements that aim at elimination of institutions in their current forms. Thus, Jewish power-centered conspiracy theories, and their echoes that spread on both sides of the ideological maps and state or imply Jewish control of key societal institutions, contribute to susceptibility to demonizing Jewish influence and mistrusting Jewish allyship. There is an inherent tension between radical approaches and the reality of a Jewish stake in the status quo and current power structures - While Jews have faced a long road of discriminatory political, social, economic, and academic exclusion, the Jewish trajectory towards inclusion in the U.S. is a product of reform within these structures. Jews have steadily grown in contributory participation across key institutions of American society.
Narrative confiscation and rejection of self-defining agency
17. Key effect: Delegitimizing Jewish and pro-Israel agendas. The framing of Jews as a white oppressor and as a perpetrator of an unjust status quo by current dominant progressive conceptual categories is used in silencing and delegitimizing tactics. These diminish Jewish agency on Jewish and pro-Israel issues. It is used to disenfranchise Jews from representing their own narrative and deny Jews a right to self-define that is a core demand afforded societal groups with narratives and histories marginalized within the status quo.
18. Byproducts that influence Jewish positioning within progressive movements include prominently:
▪ Exclusion from intersectional coalitions and social justice agendas – Jewish individuals and organizations seeking to ally while maintaining their self-defined Jewish identities implicitly and explicitly rejected from campaigns and conversations on social justice issues.
▪ ‘Stifling speech’ charges – Accusations, insinuations, and implications of Jewish power deployed to silence truth on its agendas, notably by buying influence or by ‘weaponizing’ anti-Semitism. Aligned campaigns to discredit Jewish influence also contribute to a 'chilling effect' of self-censoring Jewish-related perspectives and grievances.
▪ Expectation to renounce claims of discrimination – Participation in progressive movements often requires of Jews and Jewish communal organizations to acknowledge their privilege and power status and to withhold any claims of prejudice, discrimination, or insecurity experienced individually or collectively, as communities and in the context of the Jewish state. This becomes a background for denying the Jewish right to self-determination, and holding all Jews responsible for the ‘original sin’ of Zionism.
19. The goal: To assert boundaries that delegitimize expressions of ‘erasive antiSemitism,’ securing the legitimacy of Jewish voices as a group empowered to define its own experience, including its collective and individual vulnerability.
Seizing today’s opportunities
20. A growing recognition of the issue is ushering in vigorous debates about how and whether Jews fit into dominant progressive conceptual categories in Jewish communities. A necessary Jewish dialogue is centering on topics of whether the Jewish story is safely represented as white and privileged,14 considering concepts of ethnicity, indigeneity,15 and the nature of Jewish vulnerability.16 The conversations occur within the Jewish left and the Jewish progressive left. They are often exposing tensions within Jewish communities with Jews of Color. Still, they represent a basis for beginning to cultivate a discourse on this issue, and in doing so confronting fundamentals of contemporary progressive conceptual frameworks.
21. Confronting contemporary progressive conceptual frameworks is an opportunity to fundamentally re-shape Jewish positioning in progressive thought and contribute to a more inclusive progressive movement. In parallel, the left is more broadly undergoing a period of fundamental questioning, with ideological positioning within in flux, heightening in the context of a new administration and fluctuating power dynamics between progressive and moderate wings. This provides an opening for thoughtful Jewish leadership to proactively impact upon the rules of the game.
22. A new administration ushering in a new political dynamic is also an opportunity to confront strains of progressive-anti-Semitism decisively with the left. If strains of progressive anti-Semitism are rejected within the Democratic Party and by its leadership, the credibility of the rejection gains validity and robustness.
A battle of ideas: Expanding understanding of antiSemitism to include ‘erasive anti-Semitism’
23. Despite a growing recognition of its destructive effects, the core challenge discussed in this document lacks a broadly recognized name and definition.
24. While the Jewish community is able to more clearly define ‘classic anti-Semitism’ and anti-Zionism – see, in this regard, the most widely adopted definition of anti-Semitism, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which breaks ground in describing anti-Jewish perceptions and their manifestations in right- and left-wing contexts – ‘erasive antiSemitism’ remains largely lacking and intellectual and thoughtful response.
25. Traction the IHRA has gained reflects its centrality as an institutional and discourse focus. Alongside this focus, and in the context of the IHRA, it is critical to articulate the ‘erasive anti-Semitism’ phenomenon.
26. Hence, efforts to directly address ‘erasive anti-Semitism’ should initially aim to accurately define the challenge: to reach and apply a broadly shared understanding of what it looks like; and to push up-front-and-center the agenda of Jews having the right, like other societal groups, to define their own experience.
27. The battle of definitions takes on political dimensions. Anti-Semitic anti-Zionist movements are working to define fundamental questions in mainstream discourse, such as regarding what constitutes legitimate criticism of Israel and what is antiSemitism; whether Jews' status is on par with white privileged groups; and whether Jews have a right to define their own experience. Conservatives are also laying claim to turf in the definition battle, and are often eager to broaden definitions of anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism, and their intersection well into realms of legitimate criticism; and to partake in highly damaging efforts to ideologize and politicize the issue.
28. Internally: A broadly consensual definition could play a key role in coalescing a broad ideological spectrum of Jewish leaders, organizations, and activists to present a unified front in protecting Jews' right to define their own experience; affirming the necessity, as is true of other societal groups, that Jewish voices are the empowered agents in doing so.
29. Externally: Defining and achieving consensus around definitions is critical for efforts to identify, learn and engage constructively, credibly call out prejudice and discrimination, and discredit attempts to smear individuals and organizations that are calling out anti-Semitism.
Central role of decentralized progressive Jewish engagement
30. Progressive Jews are in effect, the main advocates on the front-line of influencing on the issue of progressive anti-Semitism. Today, these Jews face a battle against rising influences for the soul of the progressive left that can affect their continued inclusion therein. A growing number of such progressive Jews are also finding new and innovative ways to participate and to organize. This engagement spike is shaping the map of Jewish organizing.
31. Harnessing a wide-reaching progressive Jewish front will require adapting to a decentralized grassroots structure for engagement, which confers greater weight upon personal, direct, and authentic communication. In this context, burgeoning progressive Jewish movements, Facebook communities, and initiatives – that are often highly localized or nicheoriented – many of which are also Zionist and all of which are organically connected within progressive networks, constitute the new ‘front lines’ of advocacy against anti-Semitism on the progressive left. They best represent the opportunity to engage a broader base of emerging actors to rapidly accelerate the quantity of engagement on this issue, and to pilot 'micro-engagement' modes.
32. Thus, the imperative is to revitalize the community relations field and the role of its key institutions and networks – In times of social unrest, the community relations field – which operates as an independent arm of Jewish communal organizations – is the strongest asset in the Jewish establishment for engaging with other communities and mobilizing the Jewish community around a cause (for recent background, see Reut’s paper on the community relations field).