Black Lives Matter. And Words Do, Too.
Black lives matter. This is a statement of fundamental truth that should go without saying. Yet because of the systemic racism and violence that continues to oppress people of color in the United States and around the world on the basis of their skin color, it must be said loudly, clearly and repeatedly, without caveat.
J Street was founded as an organization with a very specific mission and mandate. We serve as the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans. We advocate for policies that advance shared US and Israeli interests as well as Jewish and democratic values, leading to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We do not engage in advocacy or work related to issues of domestic policy, like the issues of police violence, mass incarceration and systemic racism which the Movement for Black Lives confronts.
Yet for so many of us in J Street, our Jewish and democratic values motivate us as individuals to oppose injustice and oppression and to support full human and civil rights for all Americans, as for all Israelis and all Palestinians. We have deep respect for the mission and the work of the Movement for Black Lives, and deep admiration for their achievements in moving the ongoing crisis of racism and racist violence to the center of our national political conversation.
We recognize and respect that many of the people and organizations which make up the Movement for Black Lives feel deep solidarity with the Palestinian people. As people who work to support a two-state solution and to end the occupation in order to bring about lasting security, freedom and dignity for both Israelis and Palestinians, we feel concern and often outrage over the injustices that Palestinians have and continue to face.
We are well aware that the conversation over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in our politics, our communities and on college campuses is all too often characterized on all sides by the use of extreme and hyperbolic language that does far more to alienate than to illuminate, and far more to exacerbate conflicts than to solve them.
The platform recently released by the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of over 60 organizations, is a detailed and complex document that contains many vitally important policy prescriptions for addressing systemic racism. Yet, in its discussion of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it also contains some truly unfortunate and highly counterproductive uses of the type of extreme and hyperbolic language described above.
The platform’s assertion that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinian people is outrageously incorrect, and deeply offensive to those who have lived through an actual genocidal attempt to exterminate an entire people or who are descended from and related to victims and survivors of genocide – as many J Street members are.
The characterization of Israel as an “apartheid state” is also misleading and unhelpful. The best way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the occupation is to address the unique and specific circumstances and conditions underlying them, without insistence on fitting them within the ill-fitting framework of a different conflict from a different time and place.
The use of this language and these assertions has deeply upset many in the American Jewish and pro-Israel communities, including many of us who feel serious concern for the Palestinian people and who strongly support the Movement for Black Lives.
For American Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, it is vital that we respond thoughtfully and measuredly in this moment. We must bear in mind that the goals and efforts of the Movement for Black Lives are not about us in the Jewish community, nor are they about Israel. Even as we differ with the movement over some of its language, we must not disassociate ourselves from its quest for justice and equality. We must maintain our awareness of and respect for the movement’s broader mission and achievements, even as we push back against its problematic assertions. While we know that we have serious disagreements and concerns about many elements of the movement’s stance and rhetoric on Israel, we also must recognize that their support for the Palestinian people comes from a place of very legitimate concern and solidarity.
We should make sure that as a community we continue to keep our eyes on the fundamental problems that must be resolved, and on the fundamental purposes and values that unite us. Systemic racism and racist violence must be brought to an end – in the United States and around the world. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be brought to an end on the basis of two states for two peoples, with full respect for the rights of both the Jewish and Palestinian peoples to self-determination and independence. The occupation and its basic injustices must be brought to an end. Acts of violence, oppression and hatred by and against Israelis and Palestinians must be brought to an end.
We should all be thinking about what we can do to bring about these outcomes – and the specific things that we as organizations and as people have to contribute. Above all, we must strive to show each other respect and to always recognize each other’s common humanity. When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we must try to speak with nuance and honesty – while also acting with urgency and compassion.
Words matter deeply to all of us. Ultimately, they are a tool we use as part of our mission to save and improve lives and to build a better future. We cannot lose sight of that mission.
Jeremy Ben-Ami is the founder and President of J Street.