Jewish Groups Struggle to Both Criticize and Honor Black Lives Matter

Jewish responses spanned the political spectrum following scathing criticism of Israel by a group affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement. But strikingly, even statements by some centrist groups strove to strike a balance — reflecting their apparent recognition of the broader movement’s impact as an emerging force in American life.

The wide range of communal responses also reflected, in some respects, the impact of a new generation of activist groups and increasing racial diversity within the Jewish community.

The August 1 “platform” issued by the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of 60 grassroots organizations within the decentralized Black Lives Matter movement, is a lengthy, multi-section document with a segment on U.S. foreign policy that describes Israel as “an apartheid state with over 50 laws on the books that sanction discrimination against the Palestinian people.”

The platform refers to “the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people” and demands a withdrawal of American aid to the Jewish state, along with U.S. military assistance to many other countries.

One of the largest Jewish groups, the Anti-Defamation League, was careful not to take issue with criticism of Israel or its occupation of Palestinian lands per se, or to declare the movement itself beyond the pale. The group’s national director and CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, instead focused on the Movement for Black Lives’ language.

“Whatever one’s position on the relationship between Israel, its Palestinian citizens, and the residents in the West Bank and Gaza,” he wrote, “it’s repellent and completely inaccurate to label Israel’s policy as ‘genocide.’”

Greenblatt also deplored the platform’s “gross mischaracterizations of Israel as ‘an apartheid state.’”

“The Platform completely ignores incitement and violence perpetrated against Israelis by some Palestinians, including terror inside the country and rocket attacks lobbed from Gaza,” Greenblatt noted in an August 5 blog post.

Still, despite these and other disagreements with the platform, the ADL leader said, “the document appropriately highlights the need to address mass incarceration and a wide range of racial inequities and socioeconomic issues facing African Americans today.”

The Reform movement’s Religious Action Center also called the two hot-button terms “offensive and odious,” while recognizing that “the Movement for Black Lives is working to address deeply rooted societal challenges.”

In contrast, the American Jewish Committee, one of the community’s other large, historically multi-issue civil rights group, accused the Movement for Black Lives of “seeking to hijack” the Black Lives Matter movement with “a platform that evinces contempt and bigotry toward Jews.” Unlike the other two groups, it made no comment about the platform’s broader aims.

“In asserting that U.S. support for Israel makes it ‘complicit in the genocide committed against the Palestinian people,’ and labeling Israel as ‘an apartheid state,’” the AJC said in its August 5 statement, “MBL libels Israel, while diluting the moral seriousness of those terms.”

In some cases, the platform’s “genocide” reference drew a notably more intense reaction from Jewish groups than its description of Israel as “an apartheid state.” T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, an early supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, described itself as “extremely dismayed” at the genocide reference; it made no mention of the apartheid description.

“We are committed to ending the occupation, which leads to daily human rights violations against Palestinians, and also compromises the safety of Israelis,” T’ruah explained in a statement. “However, the military occupation does not rise to the level of genocide…. The Israeli government is not carrying out a plan intended to wipe out the Palestinians.”

The group added, “We applaud the leaders of Black Lives Matter for insisting that the United States meet its human rights obligations, and for concretizing these into specific policy recommendations.”

But IfNotNow, a relatively young group whose founders have roots in J Street U, criticized the critics.

Singling out the Boston Jewish federation in particular for announcing that it would henceforth refuse to work with Black Lives Matter groups that endorsed the Movement for Black Lives platform, IfNotNow declared: “We refuse to be distracted or lose sight of the real threat facing our community today. It’s not 11 words in the Movement for Black Lives platform — it’s the occupation and our community’s support for it that compromises our values and integrity.”

Since Black Lives Matter took shape in 2013 to protest police killings of African Americans, Jewish groups across the country have struggled to strike the right tone in their responses to the movement. Right-wing Jewish groups, including the Zionist Organization of America, have condemned Black Lives Matter since the movement’s early days. But the fact that Black Lives Matter is an amorphous, decentralized movement has posed difficulties for some groups. Black Lives Matter began as a hashtag, a shorthand used for easy online searches; there are dozens, maybe even hundreds, of groups that have been associated with the name — and they may disagree with one another.

The Movement for Black Lives platform was seen at least in part as an effort to organize and clarify the movement’s goals. Most of the lengthy platform has nothing to do with Israel and is largely a call to “end the war on black people” in America.

Notably, the platform also calls for anti-discrimination laws to be expanded to include protections for transgender, queer and gender-nonconforming individuals. There is also a proposal to set up black economic cooperatives and demands for economic reparations and free education for black people.

“We know some within the Jewish community, including members of our own organization, are expressing deep pain and outrage over some of the language and policy solutions” in the platform, said Stosh Cotler, CEO of Bend the Arc, a Jewish social justice group.

“We also acknowledge the pain and outrage felt by some members of the Movement for Black Lives that prompted the inclusion of this language in the first place. It is with sincere anguish that Bend the Arc holds these two realities simultaneously.”

For some Jews of color, particularly African- American Jews, who had embraced the popular movement, the language of the new platform was especially troubling.

“It broke my heart,” said Stacey Aviva Flint, a student at Chicago’s Spertus Institute who is African American and Jewish, and writes on parallels between black and Jewish nationalist movements.

“I understand what Zionism was about when it first started. You had a group of people who were seeking self-determination. And self-determination was also something that African Americans desperately needed and wanted,” Flint said.

“[In past months], I really thought: ‘A movement is starting. I want to support this, as African Americans are being targeted by the police,’” Flint said.

“This dashed my hopes.”

Flint said that calling Israel an apartheid state would only “muddy” Black Lives Matter’s message. “Now people don’t see Black Lives Matter as a legitimate platform,” she said.

Shais Rishon, an African-American Jew who writes for the magazine Tablet under the name MaNishtana, expressed disappointment with the critical Jewish responses to the Black Lives Matter platform. “I wish my Jewish community would join the Black Lives Matter movement,” Rishon wrote on his public Facebook page.

Recalling his own experiences of marginalization and exclusion in Jewish spaces, he wrote: “In addition to being African American, I proudly declare myself a Jew, an Orthodox one at that, despite the fact that New York rabbi Morris J. Raphall soundly endorsed slavery’s legitimacy during the peak of the secession crisis.

“If I am capable of showing up for and on the side of Judaism —and am expected to, no less… then the Jewish community can likewise show support and be present for BLM.”

Jews of color have also taken center stage in a series of Black Lives Matter-inspired protests in New York City. The Jews of Color Caucus, which is a smaller body within the group Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, most recently staged a protest of more than 100 in Downtown Brooklyn.

Speaking on the topic, but before the new platform was released, Yehudah Webster, a founding member of the caucus, said, “It’s important for white Jews and Israelis to recognize, yes, the Palestinian-Israeli situation is unique, but still it does play into this global system of white supremacy.

“I consider myself a Zionist, but being a patriot means pushing your government and people to be better. That’s why I want Israel to be the best it can be.”

Contact Sam Kestenbaum at kestenbaum@forward.com and follow him on Twitter, @skestenbaum

Author

Sam Kestenbaum

Sam Kestenbaum

Sam Kestenbaum is a staff writer for the Forward. Before this, he worked for The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah and Beijing. Contact him at kestenbaum@forward.com and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum and on Instagram at @skestenbaum.

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