AOC calls for strong response to antisemitism in progressive spaces, but also decries ‘false accusations of antisemitism’

The prominent progressive lawmaker acknowledged that there is a line where criticism of Israel crosses into antisemitism, and said that antisemitism harms the progressive movement

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is seen in Cannon Tunnel on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) acknowledged in a webinar on Monday that there is a “line past which criticism of the Israeli government can slip into antisemitism” and said it’s incumbent on progressives to condemn such behavior, while also condemning instances in which “false accusations of antisemitism are weaponized.”

The Squad member’s comments, which came during a session with Jewish Council for Public Affairs CEO Amy Spitalnick and Stacy Burdett, a former Anti-Defamation League and U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum official, marked a notable recognition and condemnation of antisemitism on the left from one of the most prominent progressive leaders in the country, even as they came paired with comments that have frustrated some in the Jewish community.

“Criticism of the Israeli government is not inherently antisemitic, and criticism of Zionism is not automatically antisemitic,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “That being true does not mean that we should not recognize when criticism and when that criticism crosses a line into real harms against our Jewish community.”

Ocasio-Cortez said that progressives must “educate ourselves about [those] lines” and “stand up swiftly” when they are crossed, without fully articulating where she believes those lines are. Spitalnick and Burdett sought to articulate their views on the issue. 

Ocasio-Cortez said she had hosted the webinar, which streamed on her social media channels, because antisemitism “is real and it is dangerous,” “is an assault on our values as Americans and especially as progressives” and “is also a threat to a community that is a vital partner in our struggles against injustice.”

“When the Jewish community is threatened, the progressive movement is undermined,” she continued, adding that it’s not Jews’ responsibility to address antisemitism by themselves.

Ocasio-Cortez also offered a refrain that has become common on the progressive left as it has sought to dispute charges of antisemitism leveled toward the pro-Palestinian movement, dismissing some accusations of antisemitism as disingenuous.

“It is also true that accusations and false accusations of antisemitism are wielded against people of color and women of color by bad faith political actors. And weaponizing antisemitism is used to divide us and create a false choice between the fight for Jewish safety and the cause for Palestinian self-determination,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Defending and standing for the rights of Palestinians is not antisemitic, and we must be able to identify when bad faith political actors make accusations simply to divide us.”

She added later that “many people who support and believe in Palestinian self-determination, in dignity and rights” believe such accusations “are often used to detract from the broader critique that they’re making about the very real reality on the ground in Gaza and the West Bank and and in the entire region.”

She said that this alleged weaponization can lead people to “feel defensive and … shut down and other people’s identities get completely flattened.”

During the discussion, Spitalnick and Burdett walked through the history and manifestations of antisemitism, both historically and in the present day, and on both sides of the political aisle.

“I want to be frank here, there is very real antisemitism that is, in fact, showing up in progressive spaces right now, and it’s deeply painful and hurtful to Jews,” Spitalnick said. While she said she doesn’t believe most pro-Palestinian demonstrators are deliberately antisemitic, “we’ve seen the line into direct harm against Jews repeatedly crossed in recent months and over the last eight months in certain ways.”

Spitalnick said that celebration and denial of the Oct. 7 atrocities, praise of Hamas, “eliminationist rhetoric” about Israel and Jews and the targeting of U.S. Jewish institutions for the actions of the Israeli government are some examples of such behavior. 

Spitalnick also highlighted the key role of Zionism in the Jewish community, saying that making anti-Zionism a litmus test for Jews to exist in progressive spaces or using “Zionist” as pejorative is antisemitic. 

Burdett likewise argued that “empathy and care and inclusion cannot be limited only to Jews who reject Zionism,” emphasizing that would exclude the majority of Jews.

“Envisioning a world without a Jewish homeland is terrifying for a group of people who’ve been banished and expelled,” Burdett said, “and calling every single Jew who yearns for a refuge or homeland a racist — that causes harm. It’s not in service to any future that’s safe for Israelis and Palestinians and it undermines our ability to live in the kind of community of support we want and we need.”

Asked by Ocasio-Cortez about the use of “false accusations of antisemitism,” Burdett said that “there are bad actors using this issue as a weapon in this moment against progressives” because it “fits very neatly into a culture war narrative” of people who are “determined to brand progressives and diversity itself as a threat.” 

She described the webinar as an opportunity to help people in the progressive movement learn how to “express themselves without fueling harm or antisemitism against anyone.”

Spitalnick said that painting everyone involved with pro-Palestinian protests “with a broad brush” as antisemitic “makes it that much harder to effectively call out real antisemitism” but also emphasized that “we’ve seen the line crossed in too many cases in ways that cause direct harm to Jews, and that ultimately threatens all of us.”

Spitalnick told Jewish Insider that she decided to join the conversation to help bring her message to Ocasio-Cortez’s audience, one which the Jewish community has often struggled to reach. 

“I hope that even if a fraction of the people who watched are coming away with a more nuanced and complex understanding of what antisemitism is, of how it’s manifesting in the Israel conversation, in this moment of the pain and the grief and the fear that the Jewish community is feeling right now and how they can show up as better allies to the Jewish community — that’s a win for all of us,” she said.

Spitalnick said that, even though she and Ocasio-Cortez “fundamentally disagree on many things,” including Israel policy, “that’s okay … and also the opportunity to talk to her community about this is one that we shouldn’t be passing up.”

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