Does Antisemitism Exist in the Climate Movement?

Photograph by IAISI / Getty Images

 

WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES

In light of Ye, or Kanye West’s, recent antisemitic comments, The Frontline explores whether antisemitism exists in the climate movement.

Antisemitism is on the rise. It took off with the presidential election of Donald Trump in 2016. It’s reaching a new high not only in the form of hateful comments from Republican politicians like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and celebrities like rapper Ye (previously Kanye West) and basketball player Kyrie Irving—but also in the real-life attacks on Jewish people and their places of worship. 

 

The trend should alarm everyone. That includes the environmental and climate movement

 

While activists have made efforts to address the legacies of racism and discrimination in the movement, antisemitism doesn’t receive the same attention and devotion, according to Jewish climate activists. That doesn’t make the space antisemitic, but it does shed light on how much room remains for growth. A truly equitable climate movement should know how to confront these truths with empathy and compassion. 

 

“While we must show up in full force to combat racism, anti-Blackness, xenophobia, and general bigotry, antisemitism is usually the last thing to get recognition, if at all,” said Lindsay Meiman, a climate communicator serving as media director for Stand.earth, a group that works on forest protection and ending fossil fuel dependence. “It’s definitely an energy drain to be organizing around climate work while recognizing there are celebrities and politicians that would like to see my people exterminated. If anything, this strengthens my resolve to organize from an intersectional lens. Whether that’s demanding reparations for Black folks descended from enslaved people or supporting Indigenous sovereignty and Land Back, our fights are interconnected.”

 

Historically, the movement hasn’t created the space to talk about race, gender, sexuality, class, or religion. For most of its existence, environmentalism focused on dying polar bears, melting glaciers, and polluting industries. That didn’t leave much room for everything else—especially not the persecution of Jewish people. 

 

However, climate justice is no longer a fringe sector of the movement; it’s the center of it. Several groups explicitly exist to connect religion and faith to organizing around the planet and well-being. Identity now informs the response to the climate crisis. For many climate justice activists, the reality of exclusion and oppression is why they fight. That’s true for many Jewish people whose religion and culture guide their work, too. 

 

“My spirituality and activism come from a place of collective liberation, love for the land, and love for community and more-than-human life,” Meiman said.

 

Anthony Karefa Rogers-Wright, director of environmental justice with legal group New York Lawyers for the Public Trust and a Black Jewish person, speaks similarly of his faith. 

 

“One of my favorite Jewish laws is on the process of regenerative agriculture—which arguably came from a Jewish law called shmita,” he said. “You don’t work the land and let it grow. Anything that grows out of the land must not be sold. It must be available to anyone who wants or needs food. It’s this idea that we’re not going to work the land or ourselves to death.”

 

In fact, the climate movement could learn a lot from the Jewish religion. The idea of rest is arguably the biggest one, but many Jewish values and teachings encapsulate the societal change necessary to combat the climate crisis. There’s l’dor v’dor, which directly translates to “from generation to generation.” Shomrei adamah is all about protecting the Earth. Bacharta bahayim directs Jewish people to “choose life.” Bal tashchit urges people not to destroy while tirdof tzedek encourages the pursuit of justice. The list could go on and on of Jewish values that connect directly to environmental stewardship.

“We can go back into history and learn about the relationship between companies that are now responsible for major emissions and their complicit trafficking in Nazi regimes.”

Madeline Canfield
Jewish Youth Climate Movement

“There are so many places in the Torah, which is the central book of Jewish people, that really guides us to protect the most vulnerable, to protect the planet,” said Phil Aroneanu, a cofounder and chief strategy officer of Dayenu, a fairly new multigenerational Jewish organization dedicated to environmental issues. Speaking of the l’dor v’dor teaching, Aroneanu explained, “This idea that you’re planting a tree for the future or you’re ensuring future generations can thrive is also pretty baked into the religion and the text historically.”

 

It’s no coincidence that climate change is a top issue for Jewish voters. For younger Jewish people, climate change is the top priority, per 2022 data. For Madeline Canfield, a 21-year-old organizing coordinator for the Jewish Youth Climate Movement, a project of Jewish environmental group Hazon, the connection between the climate crisis and antisemitism is clear. Just as climate change has roots in colonialism and capitalism, it also has a history in antisemitism. 

 

Ivy Lee, the first publicist for the fossil fuel industry, also served as an adviser for the German Nazi party, as reported by Emily Atkin in HEATED. The father of Charles and David Koch—yes, the Koch brothers who love to fund the climate-denying right-wing—also helped build the oil refinery that powered Nazi Germany’s air force.

 

“We can go back into history and learn about the relationship between companies that are now responsible for major emissions and their complicit trafficking in Nazi regimes,” Canfield said.

 

This is a sentiment that Lauren Maunus, advocacy director of the youth-led climate group Sunrise Movement, echoes: “The climate crisis was not inevitable. The climate crisis was created by these same systems that antisemitism is a part of. It was created by extracting materials and resources from the land, and it was created by extracting labor and resources from mostly Black and Brown and Indigenous people. In our [Jewish] history, there’s enslavement and slave labor and forced expulsion.”

 

The ripple effects of this history can’t be ignored, especially when the fossil fuel industry continues to exacerbate climate disasters and fund the politicians who make antisemitic comments alongside their climate inaction. Even if the climate movement as a whole shouldn’t be characterized as antisemitic, that doesn’t mean there’s no antisemitism within it.

 

“I’ve experienced the occasional antisemitic slight in the climate movement only because we all exist in this country where racism, antisemitism, sexism, and so many other oppressions are part of the culture we’ve all inherited, sometimes even without being aware of it,” said Joelle Novey, the director of the D.C. and Metro affiliate of faith-based climate group Interfaith Power and Light.

 

On the other hand, Jocelyn Tilsen, a volunteer with the Pipeline Legal Action Network, which supports activists who have faced arrest in opposition to the controversial Line 3 oil pipeline, is now exploring an independent project to build allyship for Jewish people in the climate movement as a response to the antisemitism she’s witnessed. She said she has seen younger white Jewish women leave climate work after being isolated and targeted based on anti-Jewish tropes. These tropes include being annoying, talkative, controlling, overeducated, wealthy, anxious, or urgent, Tilsen said. Conflict can arise when well-meaning non-Jewish people are unaware of these tropes and how they may be perpetuating them in the climate movement.

“I’ve experienced the occasional antisemitic slight in the climate movement only because we all exist in this country where racism, antisemitism, sexism, and so many other oppressions are part of the culture we’ve all inherited.”

Joelle Novey
Interfaith Power and Light

“One of the mechanisms of antisemitism is to divide movements,” Tilsen explained. Over the years, she’s seen enough instances where organizers face disagreement or conflict and Jewish advocates are blamed and forced out. “It’s a story that happens often,” she said.

 

These issues don’t compare to the hateful, violent, and dangerous rhetoric coming out of the right, but microaggressions are harmful. They are a form of antisemitism. Luckily, with the right tools, education, and willingness, they can also be unlearned.

 

Meiman has experienced “minimal” microaggressions, as she described when compared to what her Black, Indigenous, and other peers of color face, often related to her appearance: “coworkers telling me things like, You don’t look Jewish, as if Jews are supposed to look a certain way,” she said. Another way she experiences antisemitism in the climate space, however, is when Palestinian liberation comes up. 

 

There’s a long history between Israel and Palestine—a history that has led to present-day violence and requires more explanation than can be done here. The problem is when these tensions equate Judaism to Zionism, a debated ideology that some define as support for a Jewish nation-state in Israel and that others (especially Palestinians) define as another form of violent nationalism and settler colonialism. 

 

The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (supported by some 200 Jewish studies scholars) argues that “criticizing or opposing Zionism as a form of nationalism or arguing for a variety of constitutional arrangements for Jews and Palestinians in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean” is not antisemitism. What is a form of antisemitism, per the declaration, is “holding Jews collectively responsible for Israel’s conduct or treating Jews, simply because they are Jewish, as agents of Israel.” 

 

Focusing on these tensions distracts the public, the movement, and the Jewish community from the actual threats Jewish people in the U.S. face, said Eva Borgwardt, the political director of IfNotNow, a movement of American Jewish people working on equality and justice for Palestinians and Israelis. 

 

“Making the antisemitism conversation focused on Israel is actively harmful to American Jews because Palestinians are harmed by Israeli policies every single day,” she said. “Obviously, it is not antisemitic to call that out.”

 

Take what happened to the D.C. chapter of the Sunrise Movement last year. A voting rights rally was planned, including several groups with pro-Israel stances. The Sunrise chapter pulled out of the event and called for organizers to remove the Jewish groups supportive of Israel but didn’t call for the removal of non-Jewish groups also supporting Israel. Though the chapter apologized and acknowledged how its actions perpetuated antisemitism, the local story received national attention.

“We want all of our movements to constantly strive to eliminate all forms of bigotry from our culture.”

Eva Borgwardt
IfNotNow

“Even though Sunrise D.C. could have done a better job of supporting both Palestinian and Jewish liberation in its framing of that statement, the focus on that moment—and that mistake by one local chapter of one climate movement—is part of the weaponization of antisemitism nationally and, specifically, is a tool of right-wing (often Trumpist groups) to distract the national conversation from the extremely violent, harmful, white nationalism and antisemitism that is causing Jews to be murdered in synagogues across the country,” Borgwardt said.

 

And so, the work remains.

 

The climate and environmental space isn’t perfect, but it is full of brilliant leaders who are attempting to create a space built on solidarity and allyship—for both Jewish people and other oppressed groups. As is true with racism and transphobia, the movement at large should work on identifying and unlearning antisemitism.

 

“We want all of our movements to constantly strive to eliminate all forms of bigotry from our culture,” Borgwardt said. “That’s anti-semitism, as well as racism and transphobia, all these things that undermine our work.”

 

That’s the way to win—by coming together and weeding out all forms of hate.

Keep Reading

Newsletter

60 Seconds on Earth,Anthropocene,Art & Culture,Climate Migration,Black Liberation,Changemakers,Democracy,Environmental Justice,Photography,Earth Sounds,Deep Ecology,Indigeneity,Queer Ecology,Ethical Fashion,Ocean Life,Climate Solutions,The Frontline,The Overview,Biodiversity,Future of Food,Identity & Community,Movement Building,Science & Nature,Well Being,