April Rosenblum’s Progressive Broadside on Leftwing Anti-Semitism
by Rokhl Kafrissen
Many moons ago, before my current incarnation as the Rootless Cosmopolitan — capitalist corporate lawyer by day, socialist by night and on the weekends — I was a lowly administrative assistant, making coffee for smart people in a newly opened fellowship program headquartered in the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. While the work was dispiriting, boring, menial, and poorly paid, it did offer me the chance to meet a wide range of intellectual rock stars.
In the first year of the program, Kathleen Cleaver was one of the fellows. Cleaver, the widow of Eldridge Cleaver, a founder of the Black Panthers, had reinvented herself at Yale Law School and, at the time I knew her, was a professor at Cardozo School of Law (soon to be my law school). It was through Kathleen that I had the opportunity to volunteer at the first-ever Black Panthers Film Festival.
The movies I saw at that festival, especially Red Squad and The Murder of Fred Hampton, truly rocked my world. I’d known something about FBI surveillance; you can’t grow up Jewish and left and not absorb something about FBI surveillance. In fact, when I was a badass little kid in high school, convinced that those men in trenchcoats were surveilling our little anti-Colombian coffee protests outside Waldbaum’s, I periodically threatened to file a Freedom of Information Act request to see my folder, which I was sure was thick with reports on my semi-competent leadership of our high school Amnesty International chapter.
It’s one thing to entertain romantic, self-indulgent notions about one’s surveillance-worthiness. It’s another thing to absorb evidence not just of our government’s surveillance, but its harassment, frame-ups and, when all else fails, murder of those deemed politically subversive. Learning about the dastardly depths of J. Edgar Hoover’s perversion of our government’s instruments of justice was extremely sobering for me. At the Black Panther Film Festival I learned how our government’s institutions can be used to perpetrate one man’s vendettas lawlessly, and almost without check. Hoover’s COINTELPRO (counter-intelligence program) infiltrated agents into radical (and even not radical) groups. These agents brought disinformation and chaos to the groups they stalked. They turned members and allies against each other with astounding effectiveness and instigated much of the criminal activity that the government claimed it was trying to curb.
COINTELPRO was on my mind that day at the film festival, many years ago. As I left the theater of the Schomburg Library, where I had just seen The Murder of Fred Hampton, a man put a flyer in my hand about “Sin and Zionism.” Another guy, a few feet away, was giving out pamphlets about how today’s Jews are only “fake” Hebrews.
The flyers in themselves were upsetting, but even worse was Kathleen Cleaver’s reaction when I asked that these hateful and misguided people be removed. Her response was clear: “Get over it.” Not only did she not do anything about the flyers; she didn’t feel that anti-Semitism was important enough to question or fight — not when there were ‘real’ struggles to be fought.
Hadn’t we all just sat through hours of films about disinformation and COINTELPRO? Was I the only one who understood that this junk anti-Zionist (and anti-Semitic) literature — the kind you’ll find at many lefty or anarchist bookstores — was disinformation, pure and simple? Zionism and the Jews hadn’t caused the problems faced by the African-American community! Jews hadn’t murdered Fred Hampton in his bed! Jews, as always, were being used as the scapegoat, the screen behind which the real enemy gets to hide. As long as that kind of literature has a presence in leftist communities, and is tolerated by leftist leaders, there will always be seeds of discord between Black and Jewish activists — just as J. Edgar would have wanted.
All of which is an overly long introduction to the important, nakhes-shepping news that my friend April Rosenblum was named in December as one of the “Forward 50” — Jews to watch out for, as selected annually by the editors of the Forward! — for her timely, important, deliciously retro, thirty-two-page pamphlet, The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere: Making Resistance to Antisemitism Part of All Our Movements. The pamphlet, which can be downloaded and printed for free, attacks the problem I just illustrated: that anti-Semitism is alive and well and eating away at the viability of the left.
Though only 27, April was born to activism and has been at it most of her life. She was raised radical, the child of political activists who were also secular, Yiddish-identified Jews. Her family was one of the only white families who chose not to flee West Philadelphia as the neighborhood was integrating. Soon April’s school district was nearly all-Black, and when it was eventually desegregated she found herself, for the first time, in school among other Jewish kids. The experience was not a happy one, as the well-off Jewish kids at her new school couldn’t accept a working class girl from the ghetto — who didn’t go to Hebrew school! — as a ‘real Jew’. In a 2002 essay, she wrote of this alienation from the Jews of the suburbs:
Over time, I realized I was with ‘my people,’ there on my own block. Looking around at my neighborhood, a poor, and working-class Black community, it was clear that even in America — . . . the land of opportunity for so many Jews in my grandparents’ generation — inequality continued to press people down . . . I had often thought my outrage at worldly injustice resulted from being Jewish. Now that I realized injustice was ongoing, I felt bound to any people hurt by those in power.
When she began doing solidarity work among Muslims, Arabs, and Jews, April came face to face with anti-Semitism on the left and the left’s lack of analysis about this persistent phenomenon. In 2005, she took a year to research what would become The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, a pamphlet that is so smart, so comprehensive, so earnest and generous, that it’s already become both a quick reference work for me, as well as a frequent ‘gift’ to other activists and political folks. Just like April herself, the pamphlet seeks to educate, in a way that is never strident or offensive.
Visually and substantively, The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere evokes grassroots educational efforts such as the feminist masterpiece, Our Bodies Ourselves. It’s full of sidebars, glossaries, and cut-and-paste graphics that lend it an air of the handmade. It also carefully includes representations of all kinds of Jews, so that the pamphlet projects a vision of inclusion and respect. This smiling happy rainbow of Jews (and non-Jews) is balanced out by photos that seek the humanization of Palestinians who have suffered under Israeli occupation: for example, of a Palestinian journalist, Nasser Ishtaya, holding his infant daughter, who died because her ambulance was delayed at an Israeli roadblock.
Such images play both upon and against our expectations. What does it mean to see a disturbing photo, like the one of Ishtaya holding his dead daughter, near a photo of Ilan Halimi, the French Jew who was brutally tortured to death by a Muslim gang? The effect is that the pamphlet becomes an anti-polemic. April wants us to feel the shock and horror these images inspire, and then think about what lies beyond our visceral reactions. One of the major themes of her pamphlet is the building of empathy and coalitions. This means being able to acknowledge the horror inflicted upon Palestinians while being able to acknowledge the complexities of life in Israel and the choices faced by Israelis as well as the continuing anti-Semitism felt by Jews around the world.
The pamphlet gives progressive Jewish activists a way to talk about anti-Semitism today. It’s easy to say that Jews are no longer persecuted, she notes — if one buys into the idea that all American Jews are well off and secure. But not all American Jews are well off or secure, and more importantly, not all Jews are American. Many of the photos in the pamphlet are from Argentina, where April went during her year of research, to find out more about contemporary anti-Semitism. Her exploration of the reality and brutality of contemporary anti-Semitism gives the lie to the idea that Jews are free from persecution and protected by power. April also analyzes the many ways Jews have traditionally been used by those in power to misdirect the anger of the exploited. She documents how the ancient tropes and conventions born of these complex relationships survive today. To fight the use of these tropes, we have to know where they come from and how they’ve been used before.
Her pictures capture real-life anti-Semitism in America: the anti-war signs that link Palestine, Iraq, and neocons; the anti-war graffiti with a devil in a swastika armband below the words, ‘No War for Israel.’ Such versions of anti-Semitism, if unchallenged, drive a wedge between Jewish and non-Jewish activists and drive Jewish activists away from important social justice work because they are scared or fed up. April links the historical purpose of the tsarist Protocols of the Elders of Zion — to strike at the growing revolutionary movement by breeding suspicion of Jewish revolutionaries — with our government’s COINTELPRO. As April says, the past didn’t go anywhere. Jews still have to fight a two-pronged battle, against injustice and against disinformation and prejudice planted by the enemies of social change.
Today this means having a thorough grasp on the uses and abuses of anti-Zionism, which April covers quite well. She even includes a chart that compares neutral criticisms of Israeli policy to unintentionally anti-Semitic reiterations by activists — and, further, to intentionally anti-Semitic versions of the same statements.
Jewish liberation, April clearly knows, is tied up with the liberation of our neighbors. For people on the left to lose each other as allies, whether due to fear, prejudice, or disinformation, is to stack the decks against progress.
Rokhl Kafrissen conducts “The Rootless Cosmopolitan” column for Jewish Currents, writes a Rootless Cosmopolitan blog and has been researching the experiences of Jewish radicals during the McCarthy period.