There is no organization, none (except perhaps the Ku Klux Klan) that exceeds the New York-based Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) in its radical hatred of Israel. But this hatred is veiled. It is obviously known to JFREJ’s own cadre and to people who make the effort to dig behind the facade, but it is not apparent to the casual sympathizer whom the group seeks to entice to its orbit.
This hatred of Israel, in my view, is the core of JFREJ. But before we get to this core, let us look at some of the outward appearances.
Much of the activity of JFREJ is reminiscent of the “cultural work” of the American Communist Party in the 1930’s and 1940’s. (On which see Great Day Coming. Folk Music and the American Left,1971, by the late R. Serge Denisoff,) Where the CP looked back on an American “folk music” tradition, which the CP misrepresented where it did not simply invent, JFREJ affects an interest in Yiddish culture and the Yiddish socialist movement, both of which, I believe, are severely misrepresented by it. Here is a small example: JFREJ’s Yiddish phrases are invariably spoken or sung in the phonemes of American English. And of course there is no contact whatever with the only living communities that speak Yiddish natively, viz. the Hasidim.
And perhaps worst of all, JFREJ’s misrepresentations of the Jewish Socialist Bund, a largely pre-WWI formation in Czarist Russia, would make the Bundist activists and leaders turn in their graves. (For what I take to be the best history of the Bund, see Jonathan Frankel’s Prophecy and Politics, Socialism, Nationalism, &and the Russsian Jews, 1862-1917.) JFREJ seems to believe, or in any case seeks to make us believe, that there is some sort of kinship between them and the truly heroic figures of the Bund. Yes, the theorists of the Bund polemicized against Zionism, advocating, instead, an autonomous Jewish culture in the pre-WWI pale of Jewish settlement. That Yiddish-speaking community is gone, so how these old polemics could have relevance today is a mystery to me. And no, none of the Bundists ever, ever, made common cause with those out to destroy the Jews. And just wondering, dear JFREJ folks, have you as much as heard of the Bund leader Victor Alter, of Henryk Ehrlich ? These were our people, not yours. (For the Bundist position on Zionism, see Jack Jacobs, “Bundist Anti-Zionism in Interwar Poland”, Tel Aviver Jahrbuch fuer deutsche Geschichte, 33, 2005, pp. 239-259.)
Those active in the current very small movement of secular Yiddishism — with which I have a great deal of sympathy — overlap to some extent with those active in anti-Israel agitation. This has been going on for some decades, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me. There are no logical grounds for this overlap, as far as I can see. In much the same way, more than a few people active as Jewish Lesbians are also active in the anti-Israel movement. Again, I can see no logical reason for this overlap. Here is an interview with a JFREJ member on the subject:
(Question) I came to the Meyer Awards on the last night of Hanukkah and I noticed that there were a lot of queer Jews. JFREJ isn’t explicitly [gay] but it seems pretty queer. It seems to me that being a LGBTQ individual and JFREJ sort of go hand in hand.
(Answer) JFREJ is not exclusively queer but we work within an explicit anti-oppression framework. Because of that JFREJ is safe place for LGBTQ people as well a place to to celebrate the LGTBQ community. We’re not explicitly queer but, yeah it can be pretty gay.
But these curious overlaps aside, JFREJ appears to be unexceptional at first blush or even at second. Who wouldn’t endorse justice, racial, economic, or any other kind ? And even a casual look at the group’s website shows nothing very alarming. They wish better pay for domestic workers in New York. Who can argue with that ? They don’t like the NYPD’s stop and frisk policy. Well, some of my best friends feel the same way.
Things get slightly more dicey when, way up there on their very short list of priorities, JFREJ thunders against “Islamophobia.” Of course any kind of phobia — “an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion” — is to be avoided whenever possible. But is Islamophobia the only kind we need to worry about ? Not Judeophobia, for example ? No, not Judeophobia, not according to JFREJ. (US Government statistics show that, proportinately, Jews are victimized by hate crimes more than three times as often as Muslims. See my analysis here.)
Furthermore, when the NYPD engages in surveillance of suspected Muslim terrorists, that practice, according to JFREJ, constitutes Islamophobia and must be stopped, stat. Well, perhaps JFREJ has a point and perhaps it hasn’t. I am inclined to trust the professional judgement of the NYPD but I can see that errors in judgement are always possible. But who can forget the case of Brooklyn’s own terrorist, the blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman ? Here is the indictment of this gentleman, and here is the judgement. Is the NYPD being phobic, as JFREJ alleges, when it keeps an eye on certain mosques, or is it a matter of being safe rather than sorry ?
Well, let’s move on.
A reader’s first strong indication of JFREJ’s inner core comes in its recent declaration in support of the official sponsorship by Brooklyn College of the BDS movement. No, “JFREJ has not taken an organizational position regarding BDS because it falls outside our focus area,” it says. On the other hand, JFREJ holds, BDS must be given freedom of speech at Brooklyn College. Freedom of speech ? Somehow JFREJ forgets that nobody ever tried to prevent BDS from holding its meeting at the College. The controversy arose because Jewish students objected to official College endorsement of the event, of using public resources to promote the BDS hate speech. (I have here written about the incident.) So it would seem that more than freedom of speech here is what JFREJ is after.
Now consider this statement: “JFREJ has not taken an organizational position regarding BDS because it falls outside our focus area.” Brilliant, isn’t it. On the one hand, no, we have not endorsed BDS, so all you right-wingers are liars if you say we have. On the other hand, wink wink, you know where we stand, don’t you. I suppose this is what lawyers call the need for deniability.
Moving right along …
Marjorie Dove Kent is the current Executive Director of JFREJ. She has concluded what she calls a study of Zionism and Palestinian nationalism, entitled What Happened Before That. The booklet mentions Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, a number of times. But there is no mention at all of Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, onetime Mufti of Jerusalem and arguably the founder of the modern Palestinian nationalist movement. Al-Husayni of course gets airbrushed out of this kind of literature, for obvious reasons. Nor is there mention, at all, of the 1929 Hebron massacre, in which 67 Jews were killed, and which left an indelible memory in the Jewish people.
Of the many howlers in her opus, this one, in particular, caught my attention:
Something that gets left out of this history all the time: During the “conquest of labor” stage, Jews were imported from Yemen by Zionists in Palestine to perform unskilled labor in the place of Palestinian Arabs.
Though they were Jewish, they were not included in the Kibbutz settlements. These were exclusively Eastern-European institutions. Remember – Zionism developed during the same time as modern racism and embodied racist ideology in many forms. The deliberate exclusion of Mizrahi Jews from the economic opportunities arising for other Jews created inequalities that still play out in Israeli life today.
True, there are not many Yemenite Jews on kibbutzim. But the one kibbutz where I once spent six months had Yemenite members. If Ms. Kent had ever talked to a single Yemenite Jew she would have been quickly disabused of her notions of the Yemenite aliyah. It would be tedious for me to talk about what is obvious to anyone who knows anything about the matter. As for Misrachi and Sephardic Jews, here is a partial listing of the many political, military, academic, and business leaders of Israel who have come from this background.
And here is Ms. Kent’s conclusion to her study:
The occupation of Palestine is inherently linked to the violence between India and Pakistan, the genocide of Native Americans, and the poverty of Sub-Saharan Africa. All are manifestations of the same systems of oppression. When we fail to attack the systems, we unfailingly attack each other. This is not the way towards liberation. Let us instead mourn the violence we have perpetrated against each other, and seek new systems for real collective liberation
No doubt scholars will disagree about the degree of perspicacity in these lines, but they do bring us further in our search for the core of JFREJ.
This core is actually found in whom JFREJ has chosen to honor over the years. These include Tony Kushner, Debbie Almontaser, Adam Shapiro, and Henry Schwarzschild, among others. Adam Shapiro, honored by JFREJ with a special award in 2003, is among the few anti-Israel activists who does not shy away from actually urging, rather than just winking at, Arab violence against Israel. But the tone-setting annual JFREJ award was the first one, in 1995, to Henry Schwarzschild, who died a year later.
Some years before this award, Scharzschild had resigned from the board of a Jewish publication Sh’ma, with the following explanation:
I now renounce the State of Israel, disavow any political connection or emotional obligation to it, and declare myself its enemy. I retain, of course, the same deep concern for its inhabitants, Jewish, Arab, and other, that I hold for all humankind. …
If those be the places where the State of Israel chooses to stand, I cannot stand with it. I therefore resign all connections with Jewish political and public institutions that will not radically oppose the State and its claim to Jewish legitimacy. Sh’ma is one of those.
Scharzschild resigned from Sh’ma but was happy to stand with JFREJ. In this, he defines the core meaning of this group.
UPDATE, Nov. 2014:
Here is a video of Marjorie Dove Kent, Executive Director of JFREJ, as she is hosting an anti-Israel meeting in New York in November of 2014. JFREJ here is in “partnership” with Jewish Voice for Peace, one of the most virulent anti-Israel groups in the US. (See the ADL description of JVP here.) The video is long and boring but should prove enlightening to those who still think that JFREJ is in some sense benign. Anyone who supports Israel, so JFREJ here, is ipso facto an “Islamophobe.” Spoiler warning: Mayor de Blasio is revealed as a Zionist stooge.
UPDATE, Jan. 12, 1015
Ms. M. D. Kent, now as before Executive Director of JFREJ, co-signs a hate-Israel statement, together with members of Jews Say No and Jewish Voice for Peace.
UPDATE, Feb. 18, 2015
Please read my additional posting, The Two Sides of JFREJ, written in response to the organization’s infiltration of mainline synagogues.