Boaz Munro has advocated for progressive causes for years. He’s concerned about climate change and cares a lot about abortion rights. He posts on social media frequently about racial justice and generally supports liberal politicians.
While those causes remain important to him, he has become wary of the organizations that promote them.
That’s because, when it comes to the safety of Jews, many of those same groups are either silent, indifferent or hostile, he said.
Since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, and Israel’s subsequent struggle to defend itself and rescue the 240 hostages being held in Gaza, many progressive Jews are feeling abandoned by those whom they thought were allies.
“I would definitely say we’re the only historically oppressed religious or ethnic group that is treated this way by progressives consistently,” Munro said.
The former Pittsburgher, who now lives in California and works in tech, said he’s been aware of the phenomenon for some time. During the Hamas-Israel conflict of May 2021, he noticed “an explosion of antisemitism online.”
“It didn’t surprise me too much that progressive friends would be very critical of Israel — I had known that going back to college,” Munro said. “But what did surprise me was the level of attacks on Jews, and the anti-Jewish memes and statements online that were sort of being smuggled in as pro-Palestinian.”
After the broad outpouring of empathy following the antisemitic attack at the Tree of Life building in 2018, Munro believed that his progressive peers would continue to stand in solidarity with Jews. So, when he called attention on Facebook to physical attacks on Jews in the U.S. during the 2021 Hamas-Israel conflict, he assumed people would condemn the violence regardless of their views on Israel.
That’s not what happened, though.
“What I heard was just a lot of silence,” Munro said. “I posted about it multiple times. And then when people did respond, if they weren’t Jewish, it seemed just as often to be sort of putting me down rather than showing support. Or, if there was support, it was very qualified support.
“The sense I got was that they felt like, ‘OK, well maybe people shouldn’t be attacking Jews but you know, it’s probably exaggerated.’ And ‘Why are you putting yourself at the center of things rather than Palestinians?’ Or, ‘Maybe now you understand what Palestinians are going through.’ It was just sort of a sense of satisfaction, like we were being rightly punished for something, and that really shocked me hard.”
Munro, who is the grandson of Holocaust survivors and has studied Holocaust history extensively, was dismayed by that response. He felt that, “If people are OK with this now, they’re going to be OK with anything,” he said. “And I could just sort of see the whole future ahead of me and it was going to a really dark place.”
After that, Munro realized that “left-wing activists — basically people who focus a lot on identities and standing up for marginalized identity groups — were indifferent to what happens to us at best, and that this was actually quite a widespread sentiment.”
When Hamas savagely attacked Israel on Oct. 7, Munro again witnessed a surge in antisemitic rhetoric from the progressive community. But this time, he said, he wasn’t surprised like he was two years ago.
“I already knew what to expect,” he said. “And now I’m seeing a lot of my Jewish friends, who did not understand this two years ago, are understanding it now. I think the scale and brutality and shock of the massacre is impossible to ignore in the same way that attacks on Jews in New York and L.A. in 2021 could be ignored.”
While Munro still supports many progressive causes, he is less enthusiastic about some of the movements that promote them.
“I’m very, very skeptical at this point of any self-proclaimed progressive organization,” he said. “It would really have to be courageous and stand out from the pack in affirming that Jews deserve to exist and matter and have self-determination, even if they want to support Palestinian causes as well. And if I don’t see that, I’m not going to support the movement, even if it’s just silent.”
George Heym, a criminal defense attorney and “card-carrying progressive,” is also leaving some of the organizations that he feels have left Jewish people behind.
“I’m literally heartbroken,” said the native Pittsburgher, who ran for judge for the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas on a criminal justice reform platform in 2021. “ A movement that I spent years fighting for and alongside, and supporting financially and with my time, has, for the most part, decided that Jewish victims don’t matter, using every rationale in the book.”
“It’s sad,” Heym continued. “Some are overtly antisemitic. And some are, I would say well-meaning, but ignorant of the facts — and willfully ignorant, frankly.”
The realization first came clear after Allegheny County Council member Bethany Hallam — a progressive whom Heym supported during her 2019 campaign — posted on social media a video and a poem that seemed to celebrate the savage Hamas attack of Oct. 7, he said.
While aware that “there was kind of an antisemitic undercurrent, particularly regarding Israeli/Palestinian issues” among progressives, Heym was nonetheless “shocked” by their reactions to the Hamas attack.
He recalled the social media posts of a man who is “relatively big in the progressive community” and someone with whom Heym worked in the past.
“He posted this long antisemitic screed on Facebook, basically pulled from antisemitic sources,” Heym said. “You know, that Israel has no connection to the land and all those kinds of things. But the bottom line of his post was, ‘Therefore, I cannot condemn the actions of Hamas because they were provoked for the past 75 years.’”
Heym responded to the post by writing, “Do you realize how antisemitic this is? You’re refusing to condemn rape, murder, torture, kidnapping.”
After some back-and-forth on Facebook, in which the individual doubled down on his positions, Heym blocked him, “because I realized he is a guy who fights for every other group under the sun. Yet when it comes to Jews — show me how there can be some kind of provocation that is large enough to justify what [Hamas] did. That’s how he sees the world. And I was shocked, broken. I couldn’t believe this person, who I thought was a good person, could go that far.”
Heym said he has never asked anyone to change their perspective on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.
“I’m not saying you must take Israel’s side,” he said. “All I asked for was people in the progressive community and the politicians that represent me to unequivocally condemn rape, murder, torture and kidnapping.”
‘Scared and confused’
Regent Square resident Ellie Gordon, now in her 30s, has been an activist for progressive causes since childhood.
“I wore a little bracelet band that said, ‘Stop global warming’ when I was in elementary school,” she said.
She’s involved in groups supporting women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, voting rights and environmentalism. She first noticed antisemitism coming from others in these groups while in college, she said.
“There are folks who were anti-Zionist and anti-Israel and, at the time, I felt weird about it, but I didn’t know enough to understand how directly that was connected to antisemitism,” Gordon said.
“When there were starting to be some marches against Israel, that’s when I started noticing that I was feeling unsafe — the way that people were talking in communities that I was in. It made me feel scared and so confused — like, I thought that we were all the same.”
Despite having “so much in common,” she said, she felt antipathy toward her because she was Jewish.
After college, when she participated in groups advocating for racial justice and bodily autonomy, she would “inevitably encounter one to multiple people, to the entire organization, saying things that were — by that time I had learned — antisemitic.”
Those statements, usually related to Israel, went beyond the government’s policies, Gordon said, and veered into challenging Israel’s right to exist.
Since Oct. 7, she said, things have been “particularly painful.”
“There are people at organizations and people that I’ve been volunteering with for years and who I thought were my friends who are — I find this hard to say — but they are essentially like celebrating a terrorist group who massacred people,” she continued. “And it’s so confusing.”
Now rethinking her involvement in some progressive groups, as well as her voting strategies, Gordon said the Hamas/Israel war has been an unwelcome awakening.
“I have become fearful about being involved in volunteering with these things that I care about,” she said.
And when filling out her ballot, she said, “I have to try to do deep-dive research to see if some person is antisemitic and if they’re going to be endangering the lives of myself and other people in the Jewish community. And am I going to volunteer for a politician again, without knowing about their stance on this? I’m going to be volunteering for a lot of causes a lot less and I’m going to be doing a lot less advocacy because I can’t support people that are so hateful.”
She’s concerned that advocacy groups will be losing needed support from the Jewish community if they don’t reject antisemitism.
“Without accepting and respecting all parts of someone’s identity — like being Jewish — they’re going to be losing a lot of the contributions that we deeply need, and that we deeply want to make,” she said. “And that’s a scary thing.”
‘I just want to be with my people’
Squirrel Hill resident Talia Balk, 17, has been an outspoken advocate for many progressive causes, including abortion rights, racial justice and equality for LGBTQ people. But since the Hamas/Israel war broke out, she’s been feeling “very isolated,” she said.
“I see so many people speak up for every social justice cause on the planet and act like activists and then the minute it’s about Israel, everyone’s quiet,” the high school senior said. “And it’s hard not to take that personally.”
It’s also hard, she said, “to watch people you consider to be friends and supporters and adults you look up to in your life, be advocates for absolutely everything except for your people. What are we supposed to think about that?”
Lately, Balk said, she is looking to her Jewish community for comfort.
“When big tragedies like this are occurring, you need community and you need people who understand you,” she said. “It’s good to talk to people who have different opinions than you. It’s good to open your eyes. But, honestly, I don’t care about any of that right now. Right now, I just want to be with my people. Because the people who aren’t my people are not advocating for me like I thought they would.”
It took at least five days after Hamas’ brutal attack on Israeli civilians before any of her non-Jewish friends reached out, she said.
“And I remember I said to my Jewish friend, ‘Wow, finally someone said something.’ And she said, ‘No one said anything to me,’” Balk recalled.
The slow response — or silence — of her non-Jewish friends, she said, was hurtful. When incidents of injustice against other marginalized communities arise, Balk is “always the first to reach out and make sure my friends are doing OK,” she said. “And so I kind of expected nothing less. But I got a whole lot less.”
Balk, who plans to major in political science and gender studies at college, still holds firm to her progressive values, she said, but she’s grappling with how best to engage.
“My beliefs are my beliefs, and that’s not going to change,” she said. “But it does make it harder to want to support people who aren’t supporting me. It does.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.