African-American churches are split over Black Lives Matter’s stand on Israel, with younger clergymen rallying to the activists’ defense after a group of more conservative pastors rejected Black Lives Matter’s harsh criticism of the Jewish state.
The schism, which reflects broader divisions between emerging activists and more conservative leaders, was brought into sharper relief when a Black Lives Matter-affiliated platform came out on August 1, calling Israel an “apartheid state.”
Black church leaders, representing hundreds of congregations, jumped to condemn the platform’s criticism of Israel. And on August 22 a group of six African-American leaders and advisers to the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which serves some 9 million people altogether, also condemned the platform.
“It was a vitriolic attack against Israel laced with misinformation and anti-Semitism and an agenda that is not embraced by the broader African-American community,” the clergymen said in a joint statement. “The anti-Semitism and misinformation found in this small segment is so misleading that it makes an experienced leader question the entire document and thus the intentions of the organization.”
But religious figures affiliated with Black Lives Matter dismissed the church leaders as “misguided.”
“Jesus was a Palestinian Jew,” said Nyle Fort, a young African-American minister aligned with Black Lives Matter. Jesus Christ “lived under occupation and was ultimately lynched for speaking truth to power.”
The church leaders were criticizing a section of the Black Lives Matter-aligned platform that called Israel an “apartheid state” committing genocide against the Palestinians. The platform also called for free education for blacks and for reparations for slavery.
As generations of black leaders have done before, the leaders pointed to the emotional legacy of the civil rights movement to stress the need for blacks and Jews to work together.
“Anyone who studies American history will no doubt find the names Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, two Jews and an African-American, who lost their lives trying to provide civil rights for blacks in the South,” wrote Bishop Lawrence M. Wooten, head of the council of churches that distanced themselves from Black Lives Matter’s Israel stance. “We cannot forget their noble sacrifices. Neither should Black Lives Matter.”
In many churches of yesteryear, “the ideal of Israel was sacrosanct,” said Robin D. G. Kelley, a UCLA professor of black studies.
Many in the Jewish community applauded Wooten’s words. The bishop’s support of Israel, the Jewish Press gushed, “should bring any self-loving Jew to tears.”
In Religion News Service, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin wrote an earnest letter of thanks to the black clergy because they “stood up to the anti-Israel forces in the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Mainstream American Jewry cherishes the notion of the “golden era” of black-Jewish relations that Wooten evoked in his letter. But it may not have been so golden.
African-American and American Jewish activists and organizations did come together during the civil rights movement, but even then the dynamics were complex and often troubled, observed Cheryl Greenberg, author of “Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century.”
African-Americans struggled even at the time, Greenberg said, with the ways in which most Jews did not recognize how “they benefited from white privilege.”
Now, despite the church council’s letter and its warm reception, a revival of those moments of fellowship is unlikely.
While a few left-wing organizations came out in support of the Black Lives Matter platform, most Jewish groups recoiled from the characterization of Israel. Some rejected the entire platform.
Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council condemned it, saying that the member’s “reject participation in any coalition that seeks to isolate and demonize Israel.”
And, in fact, it was the St. Louis chapter of the JCRC that drew the church council’s attention to the controversy generated in the Jewish community by the new platform, the JTA reported.
But conservative black churches have taken a backseat in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Instead, there are more left-leaning clergy, like the Rev. Traci Blackmon, the Rev. Starsky Wilson and the Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, who have emerged as what some call “Movement Pastors.” These are figures are, according to Black Lives Matter, “radically transforming the idea of what the 21st-century black church should be.”
On the Black Lives Matter website, the organization notes that today’s movement has “a very different relationship to the church than movements past.”
Today protesters “patently reject any conservative theology about keeping the peace, praying copiously, or turning the other cheek,” Black Lives Matter wrote in 2015 on its website.
Fort, who some said was “at the heart” of early Black Lives Matter protests, said he used to feel like he didn’t have a place in the church.
“I was trying to fuse these two things together, my commitment to God and to social justice,” said Fort. “I was so upset… I felt like there were no churches I could go to and express my rage.”
So he forged his own path, leading protest infused with radical Christian liturgy.
Fort also went on a trip to Israel and the West Bank last May and said he was transformed by the experience. Fort visited the sites where Jesus Christ is said to have walked, and described him as a “brown-skinned Palestinian Jew.”
“I think about the description of Jesus a lot,” Fort said, “and what it means for a black Christian to stand with Palestine.”