Anti-Israel, Anti-Zionist, Antisemitic: Reflections on the San Francisco Bay Area (and beyond) after Oct. 7

The political culture that emerged in the San Francisco Bay Area and across the nation since Oct. 7, 2023, resurfaced generations-old historical trends — and then some. Far from anything new on the leftist scene, reactions to the gruesome Hamas attack on Israel followed a repeatable and predictable pattern of activist behavior. On college campuses and the encampments they constructed, in the halls of Congressional power in Washington, D.C., and especially in a White House struggling to manage an impossible set of competing interests, Americans have divided themselves into factions so intense that friendships and families have suffered great harm. And each of these venues offers us a lens into competing narratives that tell a story so different that the casual observer would struggle to make sense of it all.

The State of Israel — from its founding in 1948 until the mid-1960s — boasted overwhelming support from American leftists who cheered Israel’s labor Zionist founders for bringing Socialist ideology to a practical reality on a national scale. With a state-sponsored labor union, free health care for all and collective agricultural farms dotting the landscape, David Ben-Gurion’s Israel delivered its leftist vision. Even its military slanted left, with a disproportionate number of the Israel Defense Force’s top brass boasting kibbutz upbringings. And Israeli voters agreed, returning Labor governments to power for nearly three decades.

In the early post-war United States, progressive thinkers, writers and activists placed Zionism and its expression in the State of Israel squarely in the vanguard of their leftist idealism. At its San Francisco Bay Area high-water mark, UC Berkeley free-speech movement protesters, staging a sit-in Sproul Hall, interrupted their protest at the sound of Israeli folk music blasting from a turntable brought in for the occasion. Right then and there, dozens of students stood up, joined hands and began a circle dance. There’s no possible way such a scene could ever be imagined among this generation of campus demonstrators at UC Berkeley, my own San Francisco State University or other encampments across the country.

Israel and Zionism’s place in the leftist landscape, in the Bay Area and beyond, all changed in the late 1960s when the nonviolent-focused free-speech movement morphed into a more radical, and at times violent, group of protests directed at U.S. involvement in Vietnam, police brutality against men of color and larger issues of systemic racism in American society. Once again, the San Francisco Bay area led the nation, with its Oakland-based Black Panther Party marching with guns into the state capitol building.

Across the country, the New Left — organized by college students as their own critique of the 1930s’ Old Left — brought focus to the nation’s more militant political culture. In this redux, the Jewish state ceased to be seen as a successful leftist experiment and instead re-emerged as the embodiment of a far different narrative: a colonial, imperial and racist project imposed on the region’s indigenous Arab population by powerful Western powers. In their minds, the State of Israel proved less a case of hope-filled socialist idealism and more a reflection of U.S. anti-democratic culpability in the emerging Cold War against the Communist Soviet Union. Once again, political activists from across the Bay Area took the lead.

In this political climate, some Jewish leftists endured an impossible political squeeze. In solidarity with their non-Jewish leftist friends on a host of political issues, that allyship faltered when it came to Israel and Zionism. What is now termed “PEP” or “Progressive Except Palestine” weighed on many Jewish progressive Zionists who sought ways to save Israel’s leftist reputation in the midst of the new anti-colonial onslaught.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, Jewish leftist communities divided. At UC Berkeley, a Hillel-sponsored “Hate Israel” day forced the departure of anti-Zionists from the campus’ Jewish student organization. With political radicals choosing between a progressive Zionism that sought recognition of the Palestinian struggle within the Jewish nationalist fold and an anti-Zionist ideology rejecting Jewish hegemony in the region, the stage was set for the next two generations of intra-Jewish, and even intra-leftist, discord.

Even as Hamas’s Oct. 7 terrorist attacks proved a once-in-60-years event in terms of its impact in the United States and around the world, in many ways it mimicked that mid-1960s political moment more than it innovated anything new. Much is made of this moment’s inter-generational split between Zionist parents and their anti-Zionist children. Except these sorts of tensions played out generations ago as well. With the rise of the New Left, the State of Israel morphed from a Socialist utopia founded by Labor Zionists to a racist colonial enterprise intent on harming Palestinian national self-determination. Today’s student protesters still cling to that 1960s’-era transformational moment in the progressive left. The Free Speech Movement and anti-Vietnam War protests at UC Berkeley and the student strike at SF State activated a generation of youth to bring their politics into the streets, demanding change. Even as profound strategic and tactical differences separate them, encampment protesters at those same campuses today call on that 1960s’ legacy as their own.

Other markers point to profound differences between the 1960s and today. The Labor-led Israeli governments of the 1950s and 1960s offered its generation of American Jews a version of Zionism rooted in progressive ideology and hopes for peace. The Oct. 7 generation of American Jewish youth, by contrast, have known in their lifetimes only the right-wing revisionist ideology of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin as actualized by Benjamin Netanyahu. The failures of earlier peace efforts eviscerated the Israeli left; deconstructed much of Israel’s Socialist entities; and centered an uber nationalism that seeks the Jewish settlement of the West Bank, opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state and continuing discrimination against even Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Even more, with the national reckoning on race following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May 2020, many in communities of color drew parallels between white supremacy in the United States and Israeli suppression of Palestinian rights in the occupied territories and Gaza. The critical New Left characterizations of Israel from the 1960s returned with a vengeance in post-Oct. 7 America as the Jewish state seemed to personify the worst of global imperialism, capitalism, and ultimately, the genocide of the Palestinian people.

American Jewish supporters of the State of Israel, especially those who self- identified as left-leaning, couldn’t win for losing. Caught in a liminal status that meant rejection from the left for their Zionism and a purge from the right because of their liberalism, American Jews, especially since Oct. 7, cannot find a political home. Here, the political culture of the United States has taken its lead from Great Britain, where an antisemitic left gave British Jews no one to vote for.

In this new formulation, the Israel Defense Forces morphed from a revolutionary force re-establishing Jewish sovereignty after a 2,000-year exile (that included the Nazi genocide) into a modern-day version of white racist police officers beating Black civil-rights activists in the American South. Intersectional understandings of identity crossed national lines as the Palestinian/Israeli conflict overseas offered a model explaining racism at home.

As post-Oct. 7, anti-Zionist rhetoric intensified, then, protesters spoke more and more about the evils of colonialism, imperialism and genocide, and less and less about the culpability of Hamas, Israel’s right to self-defense and the vexing question of how a Jewish state can best wage a just war in a just way. In its most painful illustration, the rape of Israeli women received an activist “pass” from too many leftist feminist organizations, including the United Nations itself. The devaluing of Jewish women’s bodies and lives reflected the worst of the awful intersection of 1960s’-era anti-Zionism and the newfound iteration of the Palestinian cause on the world stage. At this opportunistic post-October moment for Palestinian national self-determination, some anti-Zionist activists proved complicit in the face of the most basic violation of their progressive principles.

In this fraught space, defining the line between antisemitism and anti-Zionism proves vexing indeed. Some leaders in the organized Jewish community — most notably, director of the Anti-Defamation League Jonathan Greenblatt — argued that post-Oct. 7, anti-Zionism amounted to antisemitism in each and every case. Those on the Zionist left, including T’ruah executive director Rabbi Jill Jacobs, disagreed, arguing for a case-by-case analysis to determine when the line gets crossed. While Greenblatt and his backers see student encampments and their Hamas-favoring ceasefire calls as clear evidence of unapologetic antisemitism, Jacobs demands a more serious analysis.

That said, it’s also true that anti-Zionist rhetoric leveraging age-old antisemitic tropes does constitute antisemitism. Just about every poll conducted since Oct. 7 notes historic increases in the rates of antisemitism across American shores. Charges of blood libel have been lodged against the IDF, as have assertions that Jews — whether in the Israeli government or in their U.S. based political advocacy — control disproportionate power that they leverage to bring harm to the Middle East and the world. Distinguishing between legitimate upset during war and illegitimate mischaracterizations of the Jewish people as its nation-state defends itself proves a profound challenge.

Yet, the debate over anti-Zionism and antisemitism masks a deeper issue at play: the impossibility of waging war against a non-state terror organization using civilian infrastructure as a shield. For decades, Hamas has counted on its civilian defense strategy, bolstered by its construction of tunnels beneath Gaza, to deter Israeli military offensives. After Oct. 7, the State of Israel broke that unwritten pledge, going after Hamas where it operates, even with overwhelming civilian casualties and attacks on previously safe harbors of schools, hospitals and refugee camps. For many in the United States, including encampment protesters, such a brazen military strategy goes against a pluralist and human-rights based approach to democracy that has centered domestic social justice work since the 1960s. For Israelis, whether secular nationalist or religious fundamentalist, such America-centered assumptions prove naive at best and a risk to the State of Israel’s very security at worst. For Hamas, a rejectionist and eliminationist approach to Israel and the Jewish people take it outside the bounds of any sort of negotiated agreement, whether U.S-based pluralist or Israel-based nationalist.

Formulating useful strategies in this sort of political culture proves a fool’s errand. That said, at least among American leftists — and especially, progressive Zionists struggling to find a political home — a few ideas can help. First, we must abandon rejectionist and eliminationist thinking. The State of Israel isn’t going anywhere. Nor is Palestine. The only question, then, is how many people will die until its leaders figure out a path forward. While the hard-right politicians in the Israeli government reject Palestinian statehood and the Hamas leadership continue their call for Jewish genocide, those seeking peace here in the United States can seek a via media, a centrist resolution — whether two-state or confederation, or some other creative plan that recognizes the realities on the ground, protects both sides in the conflict and imagines a new way forward.

My own university, San Francisco State, embraced this sort of thinking. More than 20 years ago, at a time when peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians stalled due to travel restrictions between the West Bank and Israel, our faculty invited Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators to get on planes and fly to San Francisco. The Israeli diplomat departed from Tel Aviv while his Palestinian counterpart boarded a jet in Amman. Hours later, they sat side-by-side in a 300-person lecture hall packed with students. There, they spoke to each other face to face — something only a U.S.-based university could accomplish. They shared their perspectives with one another, to be sure, but they also educated and empowered our students, who gained unprecedented access to peacemakers. Who knows, maybe one of our student’s ideas for peace resonated with the panelists, who could bring it to the table during the next round of negotiations.

What a mess right now, with splits so deep and painful that it will likely take decades to heal: in the Middle East, in the United States, on the college campus and even around the dinner table of many Jewish families. Yet, while the various diplomatic brokers do their best to bring long-standing peace, the rest of us halfway around the world still enjoy the privilege to pause, take a few deep breaths and think about creative new ways to bring people together rather than drive them apart.

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