Twenty years ago, after my first trip as a government minister to 13 college campuses in the United States, I told Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s prime minister, that in my opinion, the main battlefield for the future of the Jewish people lies in American academia. Since then, I appeared dozens of times at different universities, and with each visit I witnessed the new antisemitism growing stronger.
In light of this experience, I insisted in many conversations with liberal American Jews that while left- and right-wing antisemitism are connected and both are very dangerous, it is the left-wing variety that poses the greatest threat. The reason is that left-wing antisemitism today is buttressed by a powerful, all-encompassing ideology that has significant support on social media and in the academy.
This ideology divides the world into oppressors and oppressed, and assumes that moral righteousness always lies with the latter. It assesses the moral value of an action not on its own terms but based on the identity of the agent, asking not “Is this right?” but “Does it help the victimized class?” What is worse, if an action is thought to aid the downtrodden, it becomes acceptable to violate the most basic rights of those deemed to be their oppressors, including the rights of free speech and physical security.
Before Oct. 7, these warnings were usually met with skepticism. How, I was asked, can you compare the Ku Klux Klan-like hatred of the far right with the vision of social justice warriors who want equality and inclusion just like we do? Even when I pointed out clear examples of antisemitism in the progressive movements that American Jews supported, I was told that these groups might have their problems, but that their dream was the same as ours and we had an obligation to help them.
Thus, in 2017, a number of Jewish women’s organizations enthusiastically joined the Women’s March on Washington despite the antisemitic and anti-Zionist statements of some of its organizers. Those who joined defended their choice to work with such questionable bedfellows on the ground that the cause of women’s rights was too important to let their own sentiments stand in the way of solidarity.
But where were those bedfellows after Hamas terrorists gang-raped, mutilated, and tortured Jewish women in unspeakably sadistic ways? For more than 50 days, they remained silent. When some, such as UN Women, were forced to respond under relentless public pressure, they only grudgingly and faintly condemned the attacks.
We heard the same deafening silence from the anti-racism camp. Liberal Jews have fought for equal rights for Black Americans since the days of Martin Luther King, and many joined the demonstrations of Black Lives Matter after the death of George Floyd. During the rallies of 2020, it came out that BLM’s platform carried more than a touch of antisemitism and that some of its activists were promoting blood libels, such as the claim that Israel taught American police how to deal with Black activists. But many liberal Jews dismissed these red flags as irrelevant. Even if we don’t agree with BLM about everything, they argued, we must set our differences aside and unite in the struggle against racism.
On Oct. 7, however, BLM ignored the massacre of over 1,000 Jews. Many of its chapters went even further, hailing Hamas’ murderous rampage as the beginning of a worldwide liberation movement.
Members of these groups are not necessarily bad people. Individually, many are friends and even allies. But they have adopted a worldview that is fundamentally at odds with both liberal values and Jewish identity. Liberalism asserts the primacy of the individual and affirms that human beings are of equal moral worth. Progressivism, as it is understood today, compromises individual rights and asserts the moral superiority of the oppressed over everyone else.
Above all, because progressives see Israel as an oppressor and Jews as members of the privileged class, they believe that we are necessarily on the wrong side of history. To them, Israel is the last remnant of European colonialism and deserves to be attacked and dismantled. Moreover, antisemitism cannot be racism on this view (or at least should be very low on the scale of racial hatred) because Jews are white and successful. Our purported progressive allies are indifferent to our suffering because their ideology has blinded them to basic moral principles and truths, including Jews’ age-old struggle for justice and the reality that Israel is a thriving—if imperfect—democracy amid a sea of repressive enemies.
A historical analogy helps to clarify how well-meaning people can be blinded by a progressive ideology that appears to share liberal principles. Karl Marx influentially portrayed history as a battle between oppressors and oppressed. Yet not all of Marx’s students accepted this premise. Social democrats, who also sought to improve the plight of the working class, saw his work as their foundation but were liberal in their views, promoting equal rights and social improvement rather than an epic battle for the victory of one group over all others.
In the early decades of the 20th century, a number of social democrats who were committed to liberal values thought that Soviet communism shared their basic goals. Some believed this so fervently that, when they traveled in the USSR during the darkest moments of Stalin’s terror, they came back full of glowing reports. They were so desperate to believe in the communist utopia that they failed to see its millions of victims.
Today, the ideological blinders of many progressives make them as insensible to Hamas’ atrocities as those naive liberals were to Stalin’s.
It is time for liberal Jews to accept that neo-Marxist social movements only appear to be our allies. They speak of equality but perpetuate discrimination. They speak of freedom but seek to subjugate the “privileged.” They speak of justice but will use any means necessary to promote their warped ends.
Some people believe that as we fight against antisemitism, our goal should be to prove to progressives that Jews belong in the ranks of the oppressed, that not all of us are white and privileged. But why should we accept the premises of a corrupt and corrupting ideology that stands against the most basic liberal values?
We need not push ourselves into organizations whose ideology denies our equal rights and moral worth. And we must not abandon our Zionism or deny our identity in order to fight for a better future, because this so-called better future will then be rotten from the core.
Instead, we should carry on our own traditions with pride. Jews have a noble history of fighting against racism and injustice. In continuing to do so, without compromising who we are, we will find our true allies.
Now more than ever, Jews must both embrace our unique mission and reaffirm core liberal values. Without the former, we have lost our compass, our reason to carry on as a people. Without the latter, no one—not only Jews, but all individuals and minority groups—will be safe from the destructive effects of totalizing ideologies and the wishful thinkers who support them.
Natan Sharansky is a former political prisoner in the Soviet Union, former minister in Israeli governments, former Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and Chair of the Advisory Board of ISGAP (Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy) and CAM (Combat Antisemitism Movement), and founder and Chair of the Adelson Shlihut Institute of the Jewish Agency.