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Opinion: How Certain Progressive Organizations Create Unwelcoming Spaces for Jewish-Americans

Antisemitism isn't just limited to the far-right

By Ian Caplan

In October 2021, the Washington D.C. chapter of The Sunrise Movement, a “youth movement to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process,” announced in a since-deleted Tweet that they were pulling out of a speaking engagement at the Freedom to Vote Relay and Rally, an event organized to combat legislation that disenfranchises voters. Their reason: the participation of three “Zionist” organizations. The catch: those three organizations—the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (JCPA), the National Council of Jewish Women, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism—are all Jewish organizations, and they all prioritize domestic issues.

While the JCPA engages in some work regarding the U.S.-Israel relationship, the other two organizations do not. Thus, the problem here is obvious—the Sunrise Movement, for all intents and purposes, singled out Jewish organizations as “Zionist” and deemed them impossible to work with, despite two of those organizations not engaging in work related to Israel. The incident becomes even more unsettling considering that several non-Jewish organizations expressing similar sentiments regarding Israel, such as the American Federation of Teachers, were not singled out by the Sunrise Movement. Not only was Sunrise D.C. lazy in its research, but it also engaged in antisemitism by singling out Jewish groups and only agreeing to work with them if they disavow Israel.

The D.C. chapter eventually issued a half-baked apology where they doubled down on excluding people that are in any way affiliated with Israel. This resulted in the national Sunrise Movement censuring the chapter. Although the D.C. chapter faced scrutiny from the national branch of Sunrise, this incident of Jewish organizations being pushed out of a progressive space points to a broader trend of Jewish Americans being made to feel unwelcome in progressive politics.

In July 2017, three Jewish participants in the Chicago Dyke March were ejected from the rally by organizers for displaying a pride flag bearing a Star of David. In defense of their decision, the group that planned the rally claimed that the symbol was “Zionist,” and that Zionism itself is “an inherently white supremacist ideology.” By automatically associating the Star of David—a symbol that holds religious significance within Judaism and serves as a unifying symbol for the Jewish people—with Israel, the organizers of the rally demonstrated that they could not separate the Jewishness of the participants from Israel.

This more thinly-veiled form of antisemitism is certainly present in the real world, but it is particularly salient on college campuses. A recent poll of Jewish college students found that 12% of students had been blamed for the actions of the Israeli government because they are Jewish. In wake of this past summer’s flare-up of violence in Israel and Gaza, student organizations for victims of sexual assault at both George Washington University and the University of Vermont voiced their solidarity with Palestine and stated that Zionists were not welcome in their chapters. In doing so, however, these organizations singled out Jewish students as those who should not be offended by the decision. Since these organizations anticipated that Jewish students would react negatively to their policies, it is clear that the organizations knew that they were not just banning those with a certain political ideology, but excluding an ethnic/religious group.

Despite preaching inclusion, progressive organizations are increasingly exclusionary of Jewish people. Under the guise of anti-Israel activism or anti-Zionism, these groups create unwelcoming spaces by applying litmus tests to Jewish people or even outright excluding them based on their Jewish identity. If these organizations truly want to be intersectional, they need to commit to combatting antisemitism—and that starts with not actively engaging in it.

This article spells antisemitism without a hyphen and capital “S.” Learn why here.

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