Posted by Sofiya Volobuyeva on October 30, 2019 in Blog

Earlier this week, J Street held its annual conference in Washington. Arab American Institute Executive Director Maya Berry spoke on a panel called “Fighting Anti-Semitism and its Weaponization in American Politics,” moderated by Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. Berry was joined by Peter Beinart (City University of New York), Halie Soifer (Jewish Democratic Council of America), and Eric Ward (Western States Center). The panel discussed the rise of antisemitism, as well as its weaponization by the Trump administration and others against critics of the administration and of Israeli policies. The speakers contextualized antisemitism within the alarming trend of rising bigotry and hate crime in the United States.

The panel opened with speakers’ reflections on personal experiences with antisemitism, including being accused of espousing it. Beinart recalled the fragility many in the Jewish community feel when confronting anti-Semitism, and how many seek comfort in Zionism and the idea of a Jewish state as a safe haven as a result. Berry cited federal statistics (understood to be an undercount of actual hate crime) showing a 37% increase in anti-Semitic incidents, with this being the third year in a row that has seen an increase in general hate crime.

While unequivocally condemning anti-Semitism, regardless of whether it comes from the right or the left, Berry cautioned against the use of an overly broad definition of anti-Semitism, that conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, on college campuses. She also emphasized FBI Director Christopher Wray’s statement about the biggest threat of violence we face as a society coming from right-wing white supremacists. Berry also criticized J Street’s policy positions that enable the conflation of the BDS campaign with anti-Semitism, and the risk this conflation can lead to in damaging our political discourse and restricting free speech.

In the ensuing Q&A, Berry addressed the question: How can young Progressive Zionists in America argue that progressivism is compatible with Zionism? She began by stating that Zionism, conceptually, does not inherently have to be racist, but that political Zionism as it has played out in practice at the expense of Palestinian rights and was affirmed by Israel’s Nation State Law, was indeed racist. She pointed to the fact that AAI founder James Zogby began his work in support of Arab American civic engagement specifically in reaction to the attempted marginalization of our community for speaking out in defense of Palestinian rights. Berry optimistically yet frankly claimed that these discussions cannot move forward without “ripping the band-aid off” and being honest about today’s realities.

Watch the full video: