Almost from its inception, American Jews have been associated with the progressive movement. For over 100 years, Jews have fought for social justice, social change, workers’ rights, racial equality and numerous other issues dear to the heart of the American left.
One can view this as immensely admirable or appallingly foolhardy, depending on one’s ideological sympathies. Some see it as an expression of the most basic values of Judaism as articulated in ancient times by Rabbi Hillel: “If I am for none but myself, what am I?”
Others believe it is a form of self-abnegation that prioritizes the rights of everyone except the Jews themselves, and thus violates Hillel’s concomitant admonition: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
What cannot be denied by either side, however, is that the American progressive movement, like all other political movements in the U.S. except Zionism, is overwhelmingly non-Jewish. Indeed, it could hardly be otherwise in a country that is overwhelmingly non-Jewish. Jews may be overrepresented, but the majority of progressives are gentiles and have the privilege of being gentiles.
Two quips perfectly express the inevitable consequences of this simple fact. The first comes from the great sage Groucho Marx, who famously remarked, “I’d never belong to any club that would have me as a member.” The other, far more sinister, has been attributed to Karl Lueger, an anti-Semite who served as mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910, and once told a Jew he wished to appoint to a municipal position, “I decide who is a Jew.”
Marx’s hilarious but enigmatic statement seems to say that any club that allows Jews would, by definition, do so only on its own terms, terms Marx would never accept. Lueger’s, on the other hand, is a pure expression of privilege: He might allow the Jew into the club, but he, and he alone, would decide whether the Jew would stay.
Both these statements could easily apply to the current state of the progressive movement, as demonstrated by the ferociously anti-Zionist congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). Tlaib recently said, “I want you all to know that among progressives, it has become clear that you cannot claim to hold progressive values, yet back Israel’s apartheid government.”
This is quite bad enough, but Tlaib has often made it plain that she considers not just the Israeli government but the existence of a Jewish state itself as a form of apartheid. Her meaning is clear: If you support Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, you’re out of the club. Pro-exile Jews like the members of Jewish Voice for Peace are permitted entry. But when it comes to others, Tlaib decides whether they are Jews.
Even more ominously, Tlaib pledged to conduct a purge of any Zionist members of the progressive movement, saying, “We will continue to push back and not accept this idea that you are progressive, except for ‘Philistine,’ any longer.”
American Jewish progressives should take this threat extremely seriously. Left-wing movements are very, very good at purges, and have ruthlessly conducted them since the left’s birth in the French Revolution. Moreover, Tlaib is hardly alone. She is a member of The Squad—a group of congresspeople considered rock stars among progressives—and has strong allies throughout the movement. The purge will definitely be attempted.
The question, then, is what American Jewish progressives will do in response to this threat. The first option, it seems, is denial. Tlaib herself gave an example of this when she said that she has a “good working relationship” with the left-wing lobby J Street—which bills itself as pro-Israel—and “they agree that I have a unique lens and perspective on what is happening in Palestine.”
That “unique lens” is the belief that Israel should not exist. J Street, then, appears perfectly comfortable allying itself with someone who both rejects what the lobby claims to be its basic values and reserves the right to toss it out of its own movement on a whim. Giving J Street the benefit of the doubt, it seems that its response to the threat of being purged is to simply ignore it.
Others are less willing to bury their heads in the sand. Groups like Zioness and numerous social media activists are attempting to carve out a place for Zionism in a progressive movement increasingly dominated by anti-Zionists like Tlaib. They may or may not succeed in doing so, but the fight is admirable, and more than worth making.
What is most striking about Tlaib and her purge, however, is its extraordinary irony, because the truth is that Jews have a far greater right to the progressive movement than privileged late-comers and hijackers like her ever will. The Jews are indigenous to American progressivism, and Tlaib and her allies have no right to dispossess them and colonize the movement that the Jews played such an extraordinary role in building for more than a century.
Moreover, in embracing an anti-Semitic purge, Tlaib and those like her seek to transform progressivism into the most reactionary force imaginable, and this has enormous implications for the movement. History has long since proven that societies, organizations and movements that purge their Jews always, in the end, impoverish and ultimately annihilate themselves. Anti-Semitism inevitably destroys the vessel.
Whatever one may think of the progressive movement, then, it ought to be clear to those who believe in it that it cannot survive Tlaib’s purge. It will render progressivism at best hypocritical and at worst monstrous. If they wish to save the movement for the century to come, then Jewish and non-Jewish progressives who reject Tlaib’s brand of privileged racism and hate must steel themselves for what is coming, and observe Hillel’s third dictum: “If not now, when?”
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his writing on Substack and his website. Follow him on Twitter @benj_kerstein.
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