What limits Jewish antiracist work and solidarity in Aotearoa New Zealand?
We are witnessing a racist recruitment field day, in the guise of COVID public health protest. Alternative Jewish Voices joins in the disgust. But what to do? The public displays of racism (including antisemitism) also highlight the unhappy relationship between our Jewish institutions and the antiracist community around us.
Racism is an Othering, essentialising hatred. Recognising Jews as targets of this individual racism, the Jewish institutional community condemns it and identifies with other likely victims. Every such interfaith partnership is positive, but this is only part of the work.
Racism is also a system of racialised advantage, created to sustain a hierarchy of racial benefit.
Our institutions recognise Jewish victimhood. That’s true but insufficient because they fail to acknowledge that we are also beneficiaries of systemic racism and injustice. Their stance places the Jewish community at odds with the social justice activists who work to dismantle racialised – racist – systems.
As a prooftext, on February 22, the NZ Jewish Council circulated ‘key messages’ to guide Jewish comments on the Wellington protest. They advise Jews to use ‘the term “racism” instead of Antisemitism. This is because many New Zealanders don’t know what Antisemitism [is]. Using the term “racism” strikes an emotional chord with a wider section of the New Zealand public.’
The Jewish Council’s cynicism is wholly inadequate while extremism is trying to worm its way into our national political discourse. Racism is not just a word we can parrot, and we are not excused from understanding that.
A meaningful Jewish antiracism requires us to challenge the fragile worldview that sees Jewish victimhood but not our racial advantage in Aotearoa and not – elephant-in-the-room trigger warning!! – the impact of our very own ‘regime of Jewish supremacy,’ Zionism.
The fragile worldview justifies calling anti-Zionism racist in two ways, one near and one far. We’ve all heard the remote justifications for Israel’s ethnic regime. The near argument is the one that prevents us from knowing who our antiracist friends are.
The near argument says that advocacy for Palestinians’ full individual and collective rights is the first step toward overt, actionable hatred of Aotearoa’s own Jewish community. Today a person criticises the occupation of Palestine, tomorrow they essentialise and hate Jewishness, and the next day they act on their racism. By that rationale, anyone – including the world’s major human rights organisations – who cites evidence of the racist reality of apartheid Israel will be dismissed as a liar, a hater of Jews. They will be treated as a local security threat.
It is that argument which treats social justice as antisemitic, and treats social justice activists with enmity. That argument is also deeply disempowering of Jews. The Jewish community is reduced to protesting its victimhood, ideologically unable to join in the proactive, wider work of solutions. That argument sidelines us in a fearful corner.
The slippery-slope argument-to-threat reasoning is only applied unilaterally. It suggests that reasoned, vehement assertions of Palestinian equality and indigeneity can be dismissed as racism – because at some future point, an individual might descend into essentialising racism, or violence.
We agree that an individual might do that. The Zionist slope is every bit as slippery. Some Jewish ultra-nationalists have become illegal settlers who beat and brutalise Palestinians. Some Zionist Cabinet ministers have called Palestinians ‘little snakes’ and urged soldiers to kill Palestinian mothers lest they give birth to more children. Some New Zealand Jewish office-holders are frequent purveyors of the Nazi insults that their own institutions decry.
Most New Zealand Jews would indignantly object that it is antisemitic to blame all Jews for the extremists among us. We agree. It is equally wrong to condemn every advocate for Palestinian’s human equality as a dangerous antisemite (and doing so tends to lose sight of the real, individual racist threats).
And it is just as wrong for us to describe ourselves only as victims. We are agents in this world. We are not excused from the individual work of understanding our lives and our responsibilities within the systems of racism.
There are many paths to understanding onesself within systems of racism and privilege. One person might recognise the advantage they gained though intergenerational home ownership, another might notice their longer life expectancy as tau iwi. Seeing onesself as a beneficiary of colonisation at home, the settler colonial project in Palestine becomes more difficult to rationalise. Before long, one notices that people who are sensitive to systemic racism will pursue it near and far. A person who is moved to act against racism here, is likely to recognise and act against racism elsewhere – including, prominently, Palestine. Antiracism is an expansive, solidarist virtue.
To work beside our antiracist friends in Aotearoa now, we in the Jewish community need to dismiss the shallow advice of the Jewish Council, and get on with the work of situating ourselves more honestly.
At this moment, we are appalled by the rise of racism in our cities, we are (to varying degrees) beneficiaries of Aotearoa’s own systemic racism, and some of us are protecting the system of Jewish supremacy which is perpetuated in our names in Israel / Palestine. To join in the work here, we need to forego our exceptionalism there.
And that would be to everyone’s benefit because there is no exceptional solution to the world we inhabit. Justice and liberation will be mutual, or they will not be. Here and there, we will only be free when we are all free.
A Jewish antiracism envisions a fearless Jewish life, fully at home in the community of Aotearoa.
Alternative Jewish Voices