Supplement for New Internationalist Magazine

Interview: Penny Rosenwasser

by Chip Berlet, September 2004

Penny Rosenwasser is active with Jewish Voice for Peace and the Middle East Children's Alliance.

New Internationalist: How do we find the proper balance between our concern for justice in the Middle East and resistance to antisemitism and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories?

Rosenwasser: Both Jewish Israeli people and the Palestinian people have a right to land, resources, dignity, security, peace, and most important…justice.

It is important to understand why some Jews, in Israel and around the world, are terrified. There is a very real legacy of historical persecution, and the resulting fears have been carried down through generations. And there are reminders. In downtown Berkeley I recently learned of graffiti that read "kill the Jews," and saw swastikas, and that is disturbing.

These fears have been manipulated by us Jewish leaders and Israeli Jewish leaders and right-wing leaders reinforcing a Jewish victim mentality. But we are no longer victims--and believing we are victims keeps us from healing our historical fears, and distorts our present thinking. This is not our fault, but I do think it is incumbent on us as Jews to examine and heal those fears. This will make our lives much better and will also make us more effective community leaders and teachers and activists.

I have a friend, Irena Klepfisz, who teaches Jewish studies at Barnard, and who is a holocaust survivor. Her father was a leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and he died in that struggle. So I take it to heart when she says that our fears as Jews are real, but we cannot let these fears get in the way of doing justice.

For me, this obligation to seek justice is drawn from our Jewish prophetic tradition. It is important to me as asocial justice activist to not only speak out against any kind of oppression or bigotry against Jews, but also to speak out for justice for all people, including speaking out against ant-Arab and anti Muslim racism. And this is an obligation, in part, because as Jews, we know what its like to be targeted, deported, and attacked.

In that same vein, just as I will always stand against real antisemitism-the blanket condemnation of Jewish people just for being Jews-I don't believe that criticizing Israeli policies is inherently antisemitic. In fact as progressive Jews were are called upon to speak out against any human rights abuses against any people; and to speak out against any violations of international law including violations by the U.S. government.

I feel it is important to speak out against any anti-Jewish bigotry and important for us as U.S. Jews to speak out against ant-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry.

Sometimes when people on the left criticize Israeli government policies they step over the line. I think it is mostly because of ignorance, of being misled. I was at a peace demonstration recently and I saw someone with a sign that had a Nazi swastika inside a Jewish Star of David. It breaks my heart what the Israeli government and army and settlers are doing to Palestinians. Some of these things are similar to what was done to Jews by the Nazis-but it's not on the same scale as the Nazi genocide. And this is an example of how some people blur the distinction between the Jewish people and the policies of the Israeli government. So I try to make it a teaching moment, and I went up to the person and pointed this out and explained that it doesn't help anyone or anything to have those types of hyperbolic signs.

Some people have even started blaming a Jewish cabal for us foreign policy. They point out that some prominent neoconservatives in the Bush administration are Jews. Hey, there is nothing new in blaming Jews for a worldwide conspiracy-but now some people on the left buy into it, and they should know better. This is scapegoating, and it confuses people because it shifts the focus away from where the real power is, which is not held by some mythical Jewish cabal.

Antisemitism has been historically used to divert attention from the people who really make the decisions. Historically Jews have often been set up as buffers, as the visible faces of the oppressor--whether as tax collectors, small landlords or business owners, teachers or social workers (and sadly, sometimes individual Jews have colluded in making unjust decisions). When we blame U.S. foreign policy on Israel or some Jewish cabal it divides the left and takes the heat off those who are the real decision makers. We need to aim our criticism at the proper targets. U.S. foreign policy is influenced more by corporate interests, the Christian right, and the arms manufacturers than by the Israeli government. It's U.S. foreign policy that has to be changed. Blaming scapegoats diverts us from our work for human rights and justice.

At the same time, when all protests of Israeli government policy are called antisemitic, I think it takes something away from facing real antisemitism-real targeting of Jews, real bigotry and scapegoating. Since 9/11 I have been deeply upset at the increase in the scapegoating of Jews, along with anti-Arab and anti-Muslim scapegoating. We need to challenge oppression, injustice, and bigotry wherever we see it, and support human rights for all people. That is what Tikkun Olam- the healing of the world-is all about.


 

 

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