2021 at Jewish Currents

The Editors
December 27, 2021
Protesters march against Poland’s anti-abortion law in January.
Photo: Attila Husejnow/SOPA Images/Sipa USA via AP Images.

If 2020 brought a sea change in discourse about race in the US, 2021 marked a watershed in how Americans understood Palestine. Plans to forcibly displace Palestinian families in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah culminated in an 11-day escalation of violence in which Israel and Hamas exchanged fire, resulting in the deaths of 260 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. Israel’s deadly assault on Gaza prompted unprecedented American demonstrations in solidarity with Palestinians. It also accelerated recognition of Israel as an apartheid regime and spurred a new wave of debates over the legitimacy of Zionism and anti-Zionism. As these conversations developed, we sought to help readers navigate them. Here’s a look back at some of our favorite pieces from this year.

Our Spring print issue, published before the May assault on Gaza, included in-depth explorations of Jewish organizations’ approach to Israel and antisemitism. Mari Cohen reported on how young members of the Labor Zionist group Habonim were challenging the movement’s commitment to Zionism, and the questions this revolt raised about the future of left Zionism in the diaspora. Jess Rohan examined the limits of the politics of dialogue practiced by the coexistence camp Seeds of Peace. Alex Kane and Jacob Hutt investigated the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) under CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, finding that he “has repeatedly chosen to support crackdowns on criticism of Israel over protecting civil liberties, putting him in conflict with his own civil rights office.” In our staff Responsa, we took stock of Jewish social justice groups’ stategies in fighting antisemitism during the Trump administration, arguing that while the Jewish left had made important strides in advancing a progressive analysis of antisemitism, it had at times advanced a “capacious, or even paranoid, understanding” focused not on material reality but on discursive tropes, which “unintentionally helped validate a rhetorical weapon as destructive as it is imprecise.” (The column inspired heated debate and a number of thoughtful letters from our readers.)

In May, as Israeli fighter jets bombed Gaza and Palestinian militant groups launched rockets, we fielded and answered our readers’ most pressing questions about the crisis. Joshua Leifer explained how escalating mob violence in the “mixed” city of Lydd/Lod arose in part from the city’s Torah Nucleus, a right-wing religious Zionist group bringing the settler movement’s goals and methods inside the Green Line. As progressive politicians in the US responded to the conflagration, we published a series of scoops from Alex Kane: one that broke the news of a landmark bill, introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others, to block the sale of $735 million in bombs to Israel; another on the State Department’s approval of that sale before Congress had a chance to examine it; and a third on Bernie Sanders’s plan to vote for an extra billion dollars in funding for Israel’s Iron Dome defense system in exchange for a commitment from Democratic leadership to provide humanitarian aid to Gaza.

We also ran two essays that located the roots of the crisis in the Nakba. Peter Beinart urged Jews to reckon with Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948, writing that refugee return “constitutes more than mere repentance for the past. It is a prerequisite for building a future in which both Jews and Palestinians enjoy safety and freedom in the land each people calls home.” Kaleem Hawa argued that repairing the damage done by the Nakba requires enacting “material programs of reparations and decolonization that return Palestinian lands, homes, and dignity.”

After Israel and Hamas reached a ceasefire, we covered the fallout from May’s violence. As a narrative took hold that Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza had sparked a terrifying rise in antisemitic attacks on American Jews, Mari Cohen took a close look at the statistics underlying that claim, finding that the ADL had frequently conflated incidents of antisemitic violence with anti-Israel messages at protests. Arielle Angel searched for the meaning of Jewish peoplehood in an era of brutal Zionist state power, and contemplated the danger—and potential—in remaining commited to Jewish community. Isaac Scher investigated how Israel advocacy organizations quashed a BDS resolution being debated by the Los Angeles teachers’ union. And Hannah Black looked at how the reverberations of the George Floyd rebellion informed the Palestinian uprising, contextualizing this relationship within the history of Black–Palestinian solidarity.

In the same Fall print issue in which Black’s essay appeared, Alex Kane examined a different dimension of the relationship between Black politics and Palestine in his profile of Rep. Ritchie Torres, a darling of the “pro-Israel” establishment, whose personal story of battling poverty, homophobia, and racism “makes him an ideal messenger for their cause.” Earlier in the year, Mari Cohen took the election of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to the US Senate as an opportunity to complicate the traditional narrative of the Southern Black–Jewish alliance, finding that the neat story of intercommunal harmony in Atlanta ignores how differences in class and Palestine politics have sowed conflict.

Throughout the year, our essays interrogated our relationship to contemporary Jewish cultural practices. Mari Cohen described the experience of using the Lox Club dating app, which “encapsulates the state of Jewish dating: Choice of partner is often the only arena in which young, assimilated Jews experience pressure to uphold an identity whose place in contemporary life is otherwise hard to pin down.” (Our staff later continued the conversation with a roundtable discussion on intermarriage and the discourse of “Jewish continuity.) Helen Betya Rubinstein meditated on her exhaustion with the trend of posting Instagram pictures of those who survived Nazi genocide on Yom HaShoah.

Our analysis pieces, meanwhile, helped contextualize and frame tendencies in American right-wing politics. Jules Gill-Peterson argued that the wave of anti-trans legislation sweeping the country exposed the Christian right’s agenda of using “trans people as a pretext for a broader reformation of civil life and citizenship to advance an authoritarian, Christian state policy on sex and gender.” Peter Beinart named the often-unspoken force behind ubiquitious attacks on Palestinians that characterize American debate on Israel/Palestine: anti-Palestinian bigotry. And, in a comic, JB Brager examined the increasingly popular Zionist claim that Jews are “indigenous” to Israel, teasing out its misapprehensions and its utility as propaganda.

We also commissioned dispatches on protest and carceral repression. Katarzyna Boni highlighted the power of the All-Poland Women’s Strike, a response to the Polish Constitutional Tribunal’s outlawing of most abortions. We were once again pleased to feature the work of incarcerated writers on prison conditions, including Christopher Blackwell’s dispatch on how climate change intensified the suffering in his western Washington prison and Stevie Wilson’s report on how guards’ resistance to vaccines impacts prisoners in Philadelphia.

Our review essays touched on everything from identity politics to the future of Jewish fiction. Zoe Hu’s review of Jay Caspian Kang’s The Loneliest Americans explored critiques of the term “Asian American” and the desire for racial authenticity as products of a frustrated political education process. Vicky Osterweil argued that Sarah Schulman’s much-celebrated history of ACT UP reproduced the movement’s failures and exclusions. Judith Butler’s review of a collection of Franz Kafka’s supposedly “lost” writings explored how his works catch glimpses of the divine in creatures who dwell in the boundary between human and animal. And Nathan Goldman argued that Joshua Cohen’s The Netanyahus fails to breathe new life into the familiar tropes of 20th-century Jewish American novels.

As a magazine of the Jewish left, our role is not just to chronicle the movement’s present but to excavate and archive its past. To commemorate the tenth anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, the editorial staff produced an oral history that dove into the legacy of the Occupy Yom Kippur event, and considered how Occupy Wall Street planted the seeds for today’s Jewish left.

Finally, after years of being asked, “When are you going to start a podcast?”, we started one: On the Nose. Our favorite episodes include a staff discussion on the distinction between experiencing discomfort and experiencing actual antisemitism; an examination of the utility of focusing organizing efforts on the Jewish community; a consideration of whether therapy inhibits the possibilities of political depression; and a debate between Vicky Osterweil and Kay Gabriel on how to understand Sarah Schulman’s history of ACT UP.

Thanks for reading and listening. We’ll see you in 2022, as we continue to navigate a world in abject crisis. Happy New Year.