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When identity politics become toxic

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For nearly a century, Canadian Jews have been successful pioneers in the art of identity politics. During that time, Canadian Jewish organizations have been at the forefront of advocating for making Canada more inclusive and more tolerant. And Canadian Jews have been the beneficiaries of the evolution of Canada from a bicultural to a multicultural society.

But today, we often hear that identity politics have become toxic, that everyone is locked in their own echo chambers and there is no longer a forum – or even a common vocabulary – for people to communicate and debate. Within various communities – not to mention academia, where there has been an increased focus on race, gender and other types of identity politics – there is a struggle over who has the right to speak.

We know from our history that identity politics can be a constructive and progressive force in society. But how can we distinguish between those forms of identity politics that strengthen societies, increase inclusion and promote tolerance, and those that weaken societies, increase marginalization and promote intolerance?

‘when solidarity among African-Americans is promoted using anti-Semitic tropes, it’s destructive for African-Americans, Jews and society as a whole’

I recently engaged in an online discussion about the Deadly Exchange campaign organized by the far-left, U.S.-based group, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). The campaign opposes American police and security forces collaborating and training with their Israeli counterparts. Deadly Exchange ostensibly addresses a legitimate and serious issue – police violence against persons of colour in the U.S. and African-American concerns about whether police treat them fairly and whether they are more likely to be killed by law enforcement officers.

Introducing the campaign earlier this summer, JVP released an online video [Editor’s note: Youtube says the video has been “removed by the user”] in which it redirected legitimate concerns about policing to address its own agenda of defaming and delegitimizing the State of Israel. In the process, JVP implied that the organized Jewish community is complicit in the mistreatment of African-Americans, which crosses the line from being anti-Israel to being anti-Semitic.

The video was widely criticized for its use of anti-Semitic tropes. In response to that criticism, defenders of JVP were quick to accuse the critics of racism. When I took issue with the reasoning behind JVP’s allegations of racism, I was accused of “whitesplaining.”

This is a clear example of identity politics gone wrong. When identity politics is used to bring groups together, it strengthens those communities and society. But when solidarity among African-Americans is promoted using anti-Semitic tropes, it is destructive for African-Americans, for Jews and for society as a whole.

When African-Americans began to stand up against mistreatment and discrimination, Jews were among their primary supporters. Rabbi Joachim Prinz – who escaped Nazi Germany and became the leader of Congregation B’nai Abraham in Newark, N.J. – was an early and outspoken supporter of the civil rights movement. He wrote letters to U.S. presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy in favour of federal civil rights legislation, and joined the march on Washington in 1963, where he shared the podium with Martin Luther King Jr.

It is no coincidence that Rabbi Prinz also played a major role in building the Zionist movement in America. He recognized that the future of the Jews depended on taking their fate into their own hands, and this conviction also drove his support for the civil rights campaign in the U.S.

African-American leaders likewise saw that Rabbi Prinz’s experience with the loss of Jewish rights in Germany parallelled their own experience of inequality. In his speech at the march on Washington, Rabbi Prinz stated that “the most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

As Canadian Jews, it is in our best interests to speak up and to practice the best kind of identity politics. We should continue to reach out to other communities, including those with which we have had differences in the past.


David Roytenberg lives in Ottawa.