Why We Jews Cannot Abandon the Movement for Black Lives
Since its release three weeks ago, the new Black Lives Matter platform has divided the Jewish community over how to respond. Now that the dust is settled, perhaps there is space to consider that both sides might be right – and that supporting Black Lives Matter and standing up for Jews (or, for some, Israel) are not mutually exclusive.
Virtually all are in agreement that the accusation that Israel is committing “genocide” against the Palestinians is not just false, but also offensive, and yet communities and organizations have differed widely in the nature of their reactions.
Much publicized has been the extreme response by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston (JCRC), which renounced the platform and initiated a boycott of the entire Black Lives Movement. But organizations that take this tact are making a major mistake, and betraying Jewish values in the process.
For more than a century, Jews and Black people have stood together in solidarity against anti-Semitism and racism, and to turn our backs on the Movement for Black Lives now would be a slap in the face to our righteous Jewish forebears. Remember that the Ku Klux Klan was reinvigorated in the early twentieth century by two events: the 1915 release of the racist film Birth of a Nation and the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jew, in Georgia that same year.
Louis Brandeis, the first Jew to sit on the Supreme Court, was a fierce advocate for Black civil rights, and Jewish Justice Felix Frankfurter was instrumental in producing the unanimous Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended decades of racial segregation. In the 1960s, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was a prominent ally of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jews were overrepresented among white supporters of the civil rights movement. American Jews will never forget the great sacrifice of Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner in Mississippi in 1964.
Yet, there is an even greater calling to contribute to the Black Lives Matter movement than that of our ancestors. It is the moral calling, the appeal of Jewish values of tolerance and solidarity – that which drove Brandeis, Frankfurter, Heschel, Goodman, and Schwerner to lend their time and work and lives to the cause. The Torah demands that we “not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is threatened.” It lists no exceptions – not when you dislike your neighbor, and certainly not when you have a political disagreement with them. Jewish organizations must support the Black Lives Matter movement, and by extension, the platform of that movement. Not blindly, for the Jewish way is always critical, always argumentative, but we must support it nonetheless.
At the same time, we must call on the Black Lives Matter movement to extend the same courtesy to us Jews.
What drove Black Lives Matter to include the Palestinian cause in their platform was the notion of intersectionality, which describes the intersections between the various kinds of oppression that marginalized groups face. BLM rightly sees connections between police oppression of Black people in the United States and Israeli oppression of Palestinians. These are shared and similar experiences, and bonding over them is not only a strong tactical move but also an important emotional one for two isolated and marginalized groups. It is thus our job as Jews and as allies to the Movement for Black Lives to illustrate the intersection between anti-Semitism and racism in the United States. There is, of course, the extended history of Jewish solidarity with Black civil rights that I have written about above, but there is also one of Black people standing up for Jews in this country. Think of Jesse Owens’ powerful repudiation of Hitler during the 1936 Olympics.
Black-Jewish solidarity is rooted in shared experiences as well. The lynching of Leo Frank left a lasting impression on the American Jewish psyche, and though it by no means equals the devastation that lynchings wreaked upon the Black community, it contributed the forging of strong bonds between Jews and Black people.
Today, the KKK and neo-Nazi groups are resurgent, energized (intentionally or not) by Donald Trump’s campaign for president. Police violence against Black people has been unveiled, and Jews remain the number one target of religious hate crimes. The head of the American Nazi Party recently said that “if Trump does win, OK, it’s going to be a real opportunity for people like white nationalists.” These are organizations who are equally fervent in their hatred of Black people and Jews, and against whom we must stand defiant and united.
That will require American Jews’ participation in the Black Lives Matter movement, but it will also require Black people to understand and aid our struggles. Accusing Israel of committing genocide – an allegation with no factual basis whatsoever – does the opposite.
In a piece in Haaretz on this issue, entitled “What we talk about, when we talk about Israel and genocide,” Bradley Burston notes that “Jews, if nothing else, know the meaning of genocide. In their bones.” He then proceeds to draw the misguided conclusion that discussing Israel and genocide is intended to deny Israel’s right to exist.
What we truly talk about, when we talk about Israel and genocide is the Nazis. Those two words cannot coexist in a sentence without bringing to mind the Holocaust, the horrors of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and Nazi cruelty. The implicit accusation is that Israelis are Nazis, and to compare Jews to their oppressors is an inherently anti-Semitic act.
We need our allies in the Black Lives Matter movement to step forward and renounce this anti-Semitism. Yet, our solidarity and activism on their behalf should not be contingent on this action. Jews do not perform mitzvot in the hope that others will treat them the same way, but rather because it is the right thing to do.
But intersectionality is a two-way street, and to truly forge strong bonds between the Black and Jewish communities in this country, we need to recognize each other’s oppression and work to aid each other, not exacerbate those woes. Black Lives Matter and its affiliates should alter their platform appropriately, and at the same time we Jews must not follow the JCRC of Boston in abandoning them.
The bonds between Jewish and Black communities are too strong to be sundered by a single word in an expansive platform, but they will always take serious work to maintain. Now, in the shadow of Trump and xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism, is the time to do that invaluable work.