A constructive approach to countering antisemitism on the left

Placard reading 'Never again is now'
A participant holds a placard reading 'Never again is now' during a demonstration against antisemitism in Berlin on 7 February 2024. (Image: EPA/CLEMENS BILAN/AAP).

Safe spaces, open conversations, empathy: antisemitism expert ZACHARY SCHAFFER suggests some tips on managing the rise in anti-Jewish rhetoric within the progressive left.

A Greens MP uses a harmful antisemitic trope. Jewish creatives are doxed, boycotted and threatened. As universities return, Jewish students are feeling unsafe.

As the Israel-Hamas war enters its fourth month, the Diaspora Jewish world is experiencing the fallout in rising antisemitism. In Australia, unprecedented growth in antisemitism is threatening the social cohesion and multiculturalism that forms the bedrock of our national identity.

There were 662 antisemitic incidents reported across the country in October and November 2023, from verbal abuse to racist graffiti and bomb threats, according to preliminary research from the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ).

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese warned Australians about the “tragic” spike in social unrest following the Israel-Hamas war.

“I have not seen a rise in social disharmony like I’ve seen in recent times. Now, people have very strong views about the conflict in the Middle East, but we don’t want to bring conflict here, and one element of that has been the rise in anti-Semitism,” Albanese told 3AW.

Placating the progressive left

While the experience of antisemitism is not unfamiliar – it is the involvement of the progressive left, which has commandeered the pro-Palestinian effort and created a movement against Zionism, that has brought a new and overwhelming sense of disappointment, betrayal and isolation for many Australian Jews.

Zachary Schaffer headshot
Project Shema’s co-founder Zachary Schaffer. (Image: Project Shema website).

This outcome is not surprising for Zachary Schaffer, who co-founded training and support organisation Project Shema to nurture compassion and understanding for Jews in the progressive community.

He says the left finds it difficult to “notice and identify anti-Jewish harm” because of “misunderstandings” surrounding the Jewish identity and meaning of antisemitism.

“Because many people have a misconception of the Jewish community as exclusively a religious community, many folks understand antisemitism only as a religious bigotry, or as anti-Judaism. But within our community, we know that to be a Jew is more than being an adherent to a religion, but it’s to be a member of a community, people, or nation,” Schaffer told Plus61J Media.

Schaffer says that a contemporary understanding of antisemitism must move beyond religion to encompass all sides of the Jewish identity – including its connection with Zionism.

“Contemporary antisemitism usually presents as anti-Jew, or Jew-hatred, and not anti-Judaism. Jewish people are ultimately attacked for being Jews, accused of various conspiracies, blamed, and scapegoated for the ills of society,” he adds.

This important distinction was a focus point of US-based Schaffer’s trip to Australia last week, where he educated almost 400 Jews across Australia on navigating antisemitism as part of a tour facilitated by the Australian Jewish Funders (AJF).

“We won’t be effective in these conversations if we can’t have empathy for the people we are trying to reach.”

Project Shema’s Zachary Schaffer

While it is easy to dwell on the negative implications of racism and discrimination, Schaffer takes a refreshingly constructive stance, which was reportedly well-received by an audience tired by ongoing anti-Jewish rhetoric.

He suggests engaging in open, honest and respectful conversations to best address antisemitism.

“Antisemitism is a systemic bigotry baked into the fabric of society, our culture and our systems. We recognise that all of us are conditioned and socialised into anti-Jewish ideas, biases, and bigotries. This means that our community needs to be nuanced about the way we talk about these things because there is a difference between bigotry and ignorance.

“If it’s a relationship you value, pause to clarify and verify what you heard,” Schaffer advises.

“Someone can say something problematic or harmful without having any malice toward the Jewish community… We won’t be effective in these conversations if we can’t have empathy for the people we are trying to reach.”

A man delivering a lecture to a full room
Zachary Schaffer educated just under 400 people about antisemitism during his recent trip to Australia. (Image: AJF/Supplied).

Schaffer says we should place greater value on having conversations with our peers rather than going head-to-head with those who are showing hostility, whether online or in person. He suggests directing efforts towards educating others about Jewish history and multifaceted identities instead of a heated debate.

One important tool that can help facilitate these conversations is the creation of a safe space both for and by the Jewish community, which can be used to unpack biases, listen to concerns and promote a sense of belonging.

“Just as we demand that others create safe and inclusive spaces for the Jewish community, we must do the hard work to nurture safe and inclusive spaces for all types of Jews and allies within our communities. [We] must recognise the intersectional identities of Jewish people that include ethnic and racial diversity, LGBTQ+, disability, and more,” Schaffer concludes.

AJF hosted Schaffer and Project Shema with support from JCA, Loti and Victor Smorgon Family Philanthropy and Besen Family Foundation.