By Shane Burley | –
With support for Palestinian freedom hitting a new level, intentional strategies are needed to stop white nationalists looking to hijack the movement.
( Waging Nonviolence ) – As Israel resumes its bombing of Gaza, and settlers attack Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line — the boundary between what is considered Israel proper and occupied Palestine — support for the Palestinian fight for freedom has hit a new level of international consensus. The solidarity work to end Israel’s occupation and militarism have their foundations in a battle against colonialism, imperialism and racist border policies. The movement has an intersectional approach to issues that can be seen at Palestinian demonstrations, as protesters expose how immigration, policing and Palestinian liberation are bound up with one another.
But a small, disingenuous group of white nationalists have been trying to exploit justifiable anger against Israel to push antisemitic narratives, a strategy they have historically used to influence the public with anti-Jewish ideas. While some alt-right figures have made tacit statements in support of Zionism, usually because of its perceived ethno-nationalist characteristics, many are using these recent military actions as a wedge issue to suggest that Jews and Judaism are the motivating problem. While these racist interlopers want to hijack movements for liberation for their own purposes, activists around the world are working to both kick out what is often called entryists — people entering a movement to shift it in a racist direction — and throw up barriers to antisemites trying to join or co-opt the movement.
Why they do this
White nationalist movements like the alt-right are known for using crossover issues, such as immigration, to push nativist and racist ideas into the mainstream and to pull converts to their cause. They have historically attempted to do this in left-wing political spaces as well. Just as white nationalists and far-right ideologues have tried to influence environmental, feminist, animal rights, labor and other social justice movements, they will attempt to shift the framework of the critique around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict away from issues of Israeli statecraft and into a conspiratorial narrative about “Jewish Power.”
“Israel is an obvious target for those who believe in antisemitic conspiracy theories,” said Spencer Sunshine, an independent researcher of the far-right. “Nazis since Hitler have supported various Palestinian political factions. U.S. Nazis have expressed support for the Palestinian cause — and more broadly made overtures to Middle Eastern anti-Zionists — since at least the 1950s. In fact, the largest U.S. fascist demonstration before Charlottesville was a 2002 anti-Israel rally by the National Alliance in D.C.”
Greg Johnson, who runs the largest American white nationalist publisher Counter-Currents, puts the “Jewish Question” at the center of his fascist politics. He is cautioning other white nationalists from showing any sympathy with Israel.
“I don’t think that shilling for Israel is a polite position, a permissible position, a defensible position within the race conscious white community,” Johnson said in a podcast episode on May 16. “I’m kind of glad this uprising is taking place. Why? Well because the organized Jewish community in Israel and in the diaspora spends a great deal of time and money promoting refugee resettlement, promoting censorship, promoting deplatforming.”
The strategy that white nationalists use in this case is often referred to as “entryism,” where they will try to find a crack into a social movement, utilizing the existing movement energy and diverting its goals, methods and members. While they often parrot some of the talking points about Palestinian oppression, they do not actually care about the effects of colonialism and are more than happy to celebrate other forms of occupation when done by people they effectively racialize as white.
White nationalist entryism into the left is not unique to Palestinian solidarity. It happens regularly across social movements such as organized labor, environmentalism and antiwar projects. That’s why intentional strategies are important for how to address interlopers, to set standards and push them out. Here are five ways to create barriers to antisemites from entering the Palestine solidarity movement and to fight back against any attempts at co-optation.
1. Set standards. There should be clear standards that antisemitism is never to be tolerated, and that also means explaining what antisemitism is. Many groups are hesitant to use definitions that are bandied about from right-wing pro-Israel groups, such as the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, or IHRA, definition that many allege to be unfairly silencing speech critical of Israel. Instead, having a clear standard that conspiratorial language, those who demonize Jews and Judaism, and those who reproduce historic antisemitic tropes, such as “blood libel,” are to be banned. (Blood libel was a false claim in Medieval Europe that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood in nefarious rituals, and there are contemporary conspiracy theories that attempt to modernize this claim by suggesting similar actions are being done in relationship to Israel.)
Many people are starting to use the Jerusalem Declaration as a model for this rather than the IHRA definition, which hinges on the idea that antisemitism is “discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish).”
A number of other progressive Jewish groups have issued “5 Principles for Dismantling Antisemitism” as another alternative since even the Jerusalem Declaration centers the definition of antisemitism on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Additionally, the Nexus Task Force put together a white paper that tried to address an actionable definition of antisemitism that did not rope in criticism of Israel. Many groups have become suspicious of organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, both in terms of their pro-Israel slant and the way they gather statistics on anti-Jewish hate crimes, so it is important to find an alternative for setting standards that do not capitulate on core principles.
2. Coalition boundaries. Any good social movement has broad coalitions with flexible ideological boundaries. A mass movement requires a flood of people — that’s its power — and any large contingent will have some ideological variance and disagreement. Within that, there still has to be a sense of what type of ideologies and figures are out of bounds. The Palestinian solidarity movement is built on the universal desire for human liberation — not the belief that Jews are a particularly pernicious threat as Jews. With that understanding, white nationalists and antisemites should be out of bounds by virtue of failing to meet even the basic ideological foundations that the movement was built on.
More than this, the presence of these groups creates a real and viable danger for not just Jews at these events, but all marginalized communities participating in them. If white nationalists can push a conspiratorial view of Jews and Zionism past the limits of their movement, then they can help to move the broader public on one of their key issues: suspicion of Jews as a people. White nationalists have even threatened pro-Israel events, which provides ammunition to right-wing pro-Israel groups who want to suggest that Palestinian solidarity organizing is inherently antisemitic.
A recent example of this happened in Phoenix, Arizona when white nationalist Tim Gionet, known online as “Baked Alaska,” tried to join a Palestinian solidarity event while livestreaming on Trovo. As people realized who he was, and witnessed loud and offensive behavior from his contingent, they wanted him out. “A crowd started chanting at him and he refuses to leave, so they just crowded around him and kind of kept him and his friends from wandering around anymore,” said an anonymous member of the antifascist group AZ Right Wing Watch, who was documenting Gionet’s livestream.
3. No conspiracy theories. One of the most vulnerable places on the left for antisemitic entryism is through conspiracy theories. Most conspiracy theories we encounter today carry the historical structure of earlier antisemitic ones, and that is true even when they do not overtly reference Jews. Everything from “9/11 Truth” to ideas about banking families like the Rothschilds, Soros or Bilderbergs are a structural weakness for social movements that confuse the pathways to power and create an ideological infrastructure where Jews can be slotted in as cabalistic actors.
No conspiracy is necessary when discussing Israel. The facts of the matter are enough to build a movement against the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. When the Left Forum, one of the largest left-wing conferences in the United States, was set to have some antisemitic speakers present conspiracy-laden arguments around Zionism and Holocaust denial, pressure was put on them by antifascists. The forum subsequently removed them, maintaining their commitment to anti-racist politics.
The conspiracy theory problem is not at all owned by the Palestinian solidarity movement, and in reality that problem is often worse in other social movement spaces. This is one of the weakest areas of radical left-wing politics, and it is the most common way antisemitism can creep in. So this is a standard that must be universally maintained.
4. Remove far-right influences. As the Israeli assault on Gaza commenced and the solidarity movement planned actions around the world, the antisemitic slur “Zio” began to be used in earnest on social media. The term was coined by white nationalist David Duke, who often uses a faux concern for Palestinians as a way of railing against “Jewish elites” or a world Zionist conspiracy. His website has become almost solely a vessel for his writing on the conflict, mixing in accusations of ethnic cleansing with deeply transphobic, racist and conspiratorial claims that Zionists are destroying both Palestine and the “West.”
Even when white nationalists themselves are not present, there are terms, arguments, imagery and ideas that have actually originated on the far-right and then have been laundered into the solidarity movement by less discerning, or outright problematic, participants. Figures like Gilad Atzmon, Israel Shamir, Alison Weir and Ken O’Keefe were pushed out of the Palestinian solidarity movement for their elevation of far-right ideas and relationships even though they did not originate in white nationalist circles.
For example, while Atzmon had long utilized antisemitic arguments about Jewish identity, “chosenness,” and Jewish political power, he was still invited in by many coalitions in and outside of Britain. Once his relationship with figures like Greg Johnson became publicized, organizations who had dealt with him and outlets that had published him severed ties and he is no longer welcome at most mainline Palestinian solidarity events. This helped to create a boundary of its own, whereby Atzmon’s presence signals areas of the movement that are out of the bounds of acceptable criticism.
The same was true of O’Keefe’s relationship with David Duke, Alison Weir’s mobilization of “blood libel” accusations, and Israel Shamir’s Holocaust denial, conspiracy theories and justification of medieval antisemitism. Once it was clear that they were making the same arguments that far-right antisemites typically make, it no longer mattered that they had not originated from within fascist politics.
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Many organizations have followed this model of public disassociation. In 2015, the anti-Zionist organization Jewish Voice for Peace issued a letter formally severing their relationship with Alison Weir over antisemitic statements and relationships “because our central tenet is opposition to racism in all its forms, and you have chosen repeatedly to associate yourself with people who advocate for racism.” Multiple organizations and individuals came together to sign and share a denunciation of Atzmon, explaining what he has said and done and making him unwelcome in most left spaces. If these sort of public statements and standards continue, it can create an effective barrier between what is considered acceptable criticism of Israeli policy and those who have turned to antisemitic canards or are fueled by anti-Jewish animus.
5. Take claims of antisemitism seriously. Because right-wing groups have often used disingenuous claims of antisemitism to slander Palestinian activists, particularly in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, or BDS, movement, it is not uncommon to have claims of antisemitism disregarded. This creates a vacuum of accountability and robs movements of strategies necessary to actually address the problem when it rears its head. Movements should take these sorts of issues seriously when claims are made. If standards are set and there is a clear understanding of what is and is not antisemitism, such measures should allow movements to address any oppressive behavior in their midst while not capitulating on their movement’s principles.
At the same time, it should not be derailed by pro-Israel movements who use criticism of Israel and Zionism as the marker for what is and is not antisemitism. Many organizations on the left have had a good track record recently of working to confront antisemitism while also supporting progressive political solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ending the occupation. Jews for Economic and Racial Justice, Jewdas and IfNotNow are all Jewish-led organizations that have shown a strong shared commitment to Palestinian liberation and to ending antisemitism.
Right now, we are seeing a sea change in the international struggle for freedom in Palestine. Israel’s 50-year occupation is starting to be seen in full view by the world community, which means that the movement on the ground has a real shot at changing the underlying conditions that Palestinians are living under. By bridging the struggle for Palestine with a strong anti-oppression, intersectional framework, it only makes the project stronger — allowing the fight against colonialism, Islamophobia and antisemitism to be part of a shared mission for liberation.
Shane Burley is a writer and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of “Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It” (AK Press). His work as appeared in places such as Jacobin, AlterNet, In These Times, Political Research Associates, Waging Nonviolence, Labor Notes, ThinkProgress, ROAR Magazine and Upping the Anti. Follow him on Twitter: @shane_burley1.
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