Anti-Semitism Should Never be Tolerated from the Left

Back in June, I passed by a protest in front of Manny’s, a café in the Mission that calls itself, “A people-powered and community-focused meeting space.” Several groups, including the Palestinian Youth Movement, Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, and Critical Resistance, run the boycott. They claim that Manny’s is “woke-washing,” in other words, despite its progressive rhetoric, it is no more than another tool for gentrification. Nevermind that there was a sushi bar in the space before. I heard second hand that Manny, who is Jewish, felt unfairly attacked and that while he is an observant Jew, he wasn’t on board with a lot of Israel’s policies, as is true of many Jewish Americans, those who identify as Zionists or not. I didn’t really know what to make of it, or how he feels, and didn’t give it too much thought until I came upon the protesters a few months ago.

On this fateful day, I asked one of the women, “Hey, what’s this all about?” She gave me a flyer that attacked Manny’s for gentrifying the Mission. OK, I’ve been living in San Francisco since 1992 and people were complaining about the Mission gentrifying then. So I asked her something to the effect of, “Why are you singling out Manny’s when stores are selling $100 yoga pants, $8 lattes and $10 juices all over Valencia Street?” That’s when the woman handed it over to a man who got on his bullhorn and started telling me to check my white privilege. At that point I just said, fuck it, I’m not going to engage (with these idiots).

Urban displacement has profoundly affected a lot of long-time San Franciscans, myself included, and I’m sure disproportionately impacted people of color. The Mission, which has been the epicenter of Latinx culture since the ’60s, has for sure been whitewashed, if not woke washed. Overpriced eyeglass and furniture shops have replaced independent bookstores, and vintage clothing boutiques have given way to $200 jean stores. San Francisco leads the nation in housing prices. In 1996 I rented a two-bedroom apartment for $1600 in the Mission. Now, the same apartment would cost close to $5000. But is boycotting Manny’s the most effective way of bringing attention to this problem? Is dissing random people who are just asking questions about the protest the way to create equity?

Then there is the elephant in the room, the additional line of attacking Manny’s because he is, “a Zionist.” As said, I don’t know where he stands on the Palestine/Israel situation but if that is part of the tactic, should the protestors not also find out how other business owners on the street feel about the subject? Why single him out? Is it because he’s Jewish? I never got that far in my conversation with these folks.  Given how it all played out – don’t think it was lost on me that the woman I was talking to handed me over to a large male who used his microphone as an intimidation tactic – I’m not interested in talking to them again. Any organization or protest that so quickly defers to patriarchal power loses its legitimacy, end of story.

I fully support the rights of the Palestinians, and that includes BDS. As I’ve written in the past, I think Zionism is a form of nationalism that is intolerable but so is anti-Semitism, whether it comes from the right, left or center. Given the experience I had, I question the protestors’ motivations. Granted, these were just a few people; perhaps some of the others in the coalition have sound reasons for protesting Manny’s. I’ve read a few things online such as this piece on Waging Nonviolence’s website that give me cause for concern. Without knowing the full story, I don’t feel I can make a sound judgment on whether this one establishment, which is owned by a Jewish American, is more deserving of a boycott than other businesses in the Mission. Anti-Semitism may have nothing to do with it, but still, the optics don’t look good.

Herein is the problem that the left needs to address. Anti-Semitism from the right is much more pervasive and violent. Nationalism, fascism and alt-right thought is predicated on bigotry so, in a twisted way, it’s understandable. The left prides itself as being anti-racism, anti-elitism, and against anti-Semitism so it should steer clear of any activities that can give the wrong impression. There are bound to be transgressions, and they are the exception, not the rule, but it only takes one slip of the tongue, misconstrued or ill worded statement for the right to pounce. Jewish Americans are extremely defensive of any rhetoric that has shades of anti-Semitism. I do not think anti-Zionism is the same as anti-Semitism, and I urge other Jewish Americans who, regardless of what they think about Israel, to distinguish between the two. Conflating them plays into right-wing tactics.

All of us need to be vigilant when it comes to prejudice. Hate takes many forms, and it’s not always as overt as a white supremacist walking into a synagogue with a semi-automatic. Historically, racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and homophobia were no strangers to left-wing circles. While it may run counter to the values most on the left hold, we cannot pretend that bigotry, ignorance, and hate are even today absent in our ranks. What should set us apart is that we know the difference. We do not talk about how there “are very fine people” chanting “Jew will not replace us,” or for that matter, think it’s ok to boycott a business just because the owner is Jewish. If the left is going to present a strong and persuasive vision for an equitable society, it cannot tolerate such inconsistencies and should address this issue before it becomes fodder for right-wing criticism.