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Open letter to my fellow progressive Jews: Amnesty wants to tokenize you

The organization believes we can be “convinced over time” that Israel should not exist as a Jewish state.

Amnesty International USA executive director Paul O'Brien addresses the Women’s National Democratic Club, Washington, D.C., on March 9, 2022. Source: Twitter.
Amnesty International USA executive director Paul O'Brien addresses the Women’s National Democratic Club, Washington, D.C., on March 9, 2022. Source: Twitter.
Amanda Berman
Amanda Berman

Dear fellow progressive American Jews,

Dramatic as it may sound, I am writing with sadness and fear to warn you that, more than ever before, you are likely to face attempts to weaponize your Jewish identity in efforts to harm and endanger the Jewish future. And while those that pursue these efforts will be speaking the language of human rights, justice and anti-oppression, the binary they will present to you—the false choice between being a Jew and a Zionist, or being a supporter of human rights for all peoples—is a lie.

Last week, I attended an event at the Women’s National Democratic Club in Washington, D.C. (which has no formal relationship with the Democratic Party), in which the executive director of Amnesty USA, Paul O’Brien, presented Amnesty’s recent report accusing Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, of the vile crime of apartheid.

There is no question that there is an urgent need for an elevated, human rights-oriented conversation about the future of the Palestinian people and the pervasive Israeli policies that contribute to Palestinian indignity and suffering. Amnesty and the global human rights community have every right, and even a mandate, to investigate human rights violations perpetrated and suffered by both Israelis and Palestinians, against their own people and each other—the same way they investigate human rights violations everywhere else.

But as you may have heard by now, the event—like much of the work of the global human-rights community vis-à-vis the Jewish state—focused far more on undermining Israel’s legitimate existence as a sovereign Jewish state than it did on advancing the human rights of Palestinians.

There were many parts of the presentation and dialogue that stunned, including Mr. O’Brien’s comments, first, that Amnesty takes “no position on Israel’s right to survive,” and later, that “Israel should not exist as a Jewish state.” But, frankly, what may have been most shocking was how comfortable he was publicly stating that Amnesty’s goal with the apartheid report is to “move the Overton window” on the conversation about the territory “from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea”—i.e., the existence of Israel in any part of the Jewish people’s ancestral homeland—and that the organization’s strategy is to “start [the conversation] first and foremost with the Jewish community.”

Essentially, Amnesty aims to tokenize progressive Jews to be the face of the campaign, believing we can be “convinced over time” that Israel should not exist as a Jewish state.

As a progressive Jew myself, one who considers the progressive movement my ideological home and the space that most reflects my values as a woman and an American, I felt horrified knowing that well-intentioned, justice-oriented Jews would be exploited by supporters of such a renowned organization to carry the flag for explicit, outright anti-Semitism cloaked in the language of human rights.

Knowing full well, from my own experiences, the identity crisis that can be provoked when approached—especially by other Jews—with the expectation that we turn against our people’s survival in order to be welcomed in the “community of the good,” I wanted to help my fellow progressive Jews (and anyone else who could benefit) with some questions you can ask those who are carrying this message:

• Do you know that the Jews are not just a religious group, but a people, and that Zionism is simply the national self-determination movement of the Jewish people?

• Do you know that almost every state in the world has an ethnic and/or religious majority and that the majority’s needs are central to the laws and governing of those states?

• Do you know how many Muslim-majority and Christian-majority nations there are, and how many of them are nationally defined and recognized as Muslim or Christian states?

• Do you deny the actual, legitimate existence or right to exist of any other country, or deny its membership in the community of nations, based on its [real or perceived] human rights record?

• Do you know what the “Palestinian right of return” is, and what it would mean for the existence of the world’s only Jewish state?

• Do you know anything about the history of the Jewish people, or our cultural, spiritual, historical and emotional ties to the land of Israel?

• Do you know that the Jewish people’s return to our indigenous homeland, and our expulsion of the British colonial forces from the land in 1947, was one of the most inspiring and successful decolonial movements in history?

• Do you know anything about the re-establishment of the Jewish state of Israel in the 1940s or the decades of global organizing that preceded it, or the brutal wars that threatened its survival from its first moments and throughout its life?

• Do you know anything about the 850,000 Jews from the Middle East and North Africa who were ethnically cleansed and fled their homes throughout the 20th century, with nowhere to go except Israel? Do you fight for their—and their descendants’—“right to return”?

• Do you know that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not about race and that there are no distinguishing racial characteristics of Jewish and Palestinian people? Do you know that apartheid is a specific type of atrocity based entirely on “racial domination”?

• Do you know anything about the historical precedent of apartheid? How would you explain its appropriate application to a country where Arabs sit on the Supreme Court, in the governing coalition, in the parliament and in the leadership levels of business, academia, law and technology? Do you know that the Arab leaders at the highest levels of the Israeli government have outright rejected Amnesty’s apartheid libel?

• Do you see a connection between the apartheid accusation and classical anti-Semitic tropes of Jewish evil, Jewish power and global domination, Jewish money and/or Jewish bloodlust?

• Do you worry that applying the explosive term “apartheid” to a country like Israel—imperfect, institutionally discriminatory, chronically sectarian, riddled with inequities and inequalities, like all other countries—cheapens the term “apartheid” and harms the global human rights community’s ability to accurately identify, document and ultimately seek prosecution for real crimes against humanity?

• Are there any other Americans, with any other ethnic heritage, that you ask to be the face of a campaign accusing foreign governments of human rights abuses? Would you ever ask Chinese Americans to lead the charge against Chinese sovereignty because of China’s occupation of Tibet, or its imprisonment of a million Muslim Uyghurs?

• Do you know about the U.N. Security Council’s “Agenda Item 7”? Do you think that an obsessive, disproportionate focus on Israel among the human rights community might have some relationship to institutionalized anti-Semitism?

• Are you aware that, after Amnesty’s U.K. chapter did a 100-page report on Islamophobia, they rejected doing a report on anti-Semitism because, as they said, “unfortunately, we can’t campaign on everything”?

And finally: Do you think it is appropriate to attempt to weaponize my Jewish identity against my Jewish community or convince me to participate in the delegitimization of the world’s only Jewish state, especially if you don’t have expansive answers to each of the above questions?

I also want to remind my fellow progressive Jews that standing up for yourself and your people does not mean you must be silent on the plight of the Palestinians. We can—we must—fight for their sovereignty and self-determination with the same fervor that we fight for our own. This is not a binary—except to the extent that organizations like Amnesty work so hard to try to make it one.

For 2,000 years pre-1948, Jews were violently denied self-determination everywhere we lived. Jews, and the international community, supported Israel as a Jewish democracy knowing that, in the context of a world order defined by nation-states, it was the only way to ensure Jewish self-determination. Without Israel, without sovereignty, Jews would be plunged back into a state of total, systemic powerlessness, our self-determination and our communal security ripped away. Mr. O’Brien and Amnesty need to know that despite their self-declared conviction regarding “Jewish self-determination,” without supporting the sovereign existence of the Jewish state, this phrase is nothing more than an empty platitude.

So to my fellow progressive Jews who have felt this squeeze before, and to those who will feel it in the future, please know: Your Jewish community stands with you. Truth, righteousness and liberation for all are not and cannot be exclusive to any people, but they are core values of your people. You can believe in, and fight for, the Jewish future without abandoning your dreams of the same free, sovereign, self-determined future for the Palestinian people. In fact, recognizing the humanity and the inalienable rights of both peoples is the only way for progress to ever occur. And anyone who tells you otherwise is perpetuating anti-Jewish blind spots, biases and bigotries that will harm us all.

Amanda Berman is the founder and executive director of Zioness.

This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.

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