Protesting Zionism, climate activist group won’t rally in DC with Jewish groups

The statement shocked many Jewish groups who said the position essentially excludes Jews.

Dawn breaks at the Capitol in Washington,  Jan. 11, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(RNS) — The D.C. chapter of the environmentalist group Sunrise Movement said on Wednesday (Oct. 20) that it won’t march in a voting rights rally in Washington this Saturday (Oct. 23) because some of the participating groups profess Zionism, or support for a Jewish homeland in Israel.

Sunrise took aim at three Jewish American groups in its statement: the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Another  Jewish group participating in the rally, Bend the Arc, was not included in the Sunrise statement.

“Given our commitment to racial justice, self-governance, and indigenous sovereignty, we oppose Zionism and any state that enforces its ideology,” Sunrise DC wrote in a statement posted to Twitter.

The Sunrise statement immediately came under fire from numerous Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, that saw the DC chapter statement as antisemitic because it targeted Jews, and no one else, for their Zionist views. It also suggested that anti-Zionism equals antisemitism, a position that is hotly debated in the American Jewish community.

 “Anti-Zionism is considered antisemitic by over 80% of American Jews,” the AJC tweeted. “To shun Zionists is to shun the overwhelming majority of Jews.“

The three Jewish groups singled out by Sunrise advocate for many liberal positions on U.S. domestic issues. Their work is not mainly on Israel issues, though they support the right of Jews to a nation.

On Thursday, the three organizations each issued statements saying they were committed to fighting for voting rights in coalition with other groups. 

On Thursday, the national Sunrise Movement responded to the DC chapter with a statement saying, “we reject all forms of discrimination, including antisemitism and anti-Palestinian racism.”

It added: “Sunrise DC made a decision to issue this statement, and we weren’t given the chance to look at it before it became public.”

But the national Sunrise Movement did not find fault with the DC chapter: “As a national movement that supports freedom and dignity for all people, we will always welcome anyone who acts on our principles and chooses to join the fight for collective liberation.”

In contrast, Sunrise’s George Washington University chapter, also in D.C., tweeted that it “unequivocally condemns the Sunrise DC hub’s statement.”  

RELATED: Voting rights demonstration leads to faith leaders’ arrests outside White House

Jewish groups were more vocal following Sunrise’s national response.

“The failure of the Sunrise movement to speak clearly in condemnation of the offensive statement this week from their Sunrise DC hub that sought to erase the presence of the RAC, NCJW, and JCPA from the fight for voting rights, is shameful,” the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism tweeted.

The RAC, as it’s known, is the political and legislative outreach arm for the Reform movement, U.S. Judaism’s largest religious group with some 850 congregations.

Saturday’s Freedom to Vote Relay and Rally is sponsored by the Declaration for American Democracy Coalition. The coalition includes 230 member organizations that support the Freedom to Vote Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and statehood for Washington, D.C. They include the National Organization for Women, MoveOn and the Sierra Club.

Among them are Christian groups, too, such as the Franciscan Action Network, Church Women United and the Unitarian Universalist Association. 

“This isn’t the first time it’s happened where any kind of support for Israel is seen as tantamount to supporting apartheid and war crimes and grounds for being boycotted,” said Dov Waxman, a political scientist at UCLA and director of the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies on the University of California Los Angeles campus. “For liberal American Jews that could lead to their marginalization and exclusion from American public life, if they don’t disavow their support for Israel.”

Sunrise may be best known for backing the Green New Deal, a congressional resolution that lays out a grand plan for tackling climate change. The group has also defended the White House’s far more modest “Build Back Better” program.

Several members of the U.S. Congress tweeted their opposition to Sunrise’s DC chapter, including New York Democratic representatives Grace Meng, Jerry Nadler and Ritchie Torres.

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