Black Lives Matter
For some time now, I have been wanting to respond to the platform that was presented by Black Lives Matter last August. I wish that I could have responded more quickly, but I needed time to read and digest the platform.
Launched in 2012, Black Lives Matter advocates for just treatment of people of color. Many Jewish leaders have worked with the Black Lives Matter movement to protest unfair treatment of African Americans in the United States.
At the beginning of August 2016, the organization refined and presented a platform that includes several sections, including: End the war on black people, Reparations, Invest/Divest, Economic Justice, Community Control and Political Power.
The Invest/Divest section includes statements critical of the United States' support of Israel. A wide political spectrum within the Jewish community found the following perspective particularly offensive:
"The U.S. justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people."
Most Jewish organizations, right-wing to left, including those who have collaborated with the Black Lives Matter movement, were angered by these statements and for very good reason. The statement is distorted, false and incendiary. Several Jews of color have criticized the platform for being anti-Semitic. Rabbis across the political spectrum have denounced this statement as slanderous.
I saw some attempts to defend the statement about genocide on the basis that the authors were using the word differently, to indicate extreme discrimination rather than wholesale murder, but neither that nor any other interpretations were satisfactory to most Jewish leaders, and for good reason.
I believe that to call the treatment of Palestinians by Israelis a genocide is libelous and anti-Semitic. How then should the American Jewish community respond to Black Lives Matter?
Support Black Lives Matter
There are those who claim the accusations are true and we, the Jewish community, should double down and support Black Lives Matter. The group Jewish Voices for Peace issued a statement supporting the Black Lives Matter platform, including the statements about Israel.
"We call on the U.S. Jewish community to end its legitimization of anti-Black racism through its combined attacks on the Black Lives Matter Platform and U.S. Palestine solidarity," the statement said.
Such a reaction is highly problematic to me. A willingness to accept untrue, libelous, anti-Semitic statements about Israel as part of a platform that also seeks legitimate justice for African Americans means the subjugation of one's own legitimacy for the sake of another. And that is untenable!
Stop working on behalf of the African American community
There are those in the Jewish community who argue that we Jews should walk away from Black Lives Matter. Morton Klein, President of the Zionist Organization of America, goes a little further. He argues that it is time for Jewish organizations to recognize that in supporting Black Lives Matter, they are supporting a group that is anti-police, anti-Semitic and anti-Israel. Ultimately, Klein demands that the American Jewish community redirect all of its energy and money to fighting anti-Semitism. This, too, is a dangerous response. A people who have been on the receiving end of discrimination, a people who have at the core of their scriptural tradition the mandate to pursue justice, cannot pull away from the type of advocacy that so many Jewish groups are appropriately involved in.
We need to affirm our obligation to advocate for justice for everyone regardless of race, religion, ethnicity and gender. But we must realize that advocacy for everyone includes advocacy for ourselves. It is absurd, counterproductive, and most unjust for us to ignore comments made about Jews or about Israel that are libelous and anti-Semitic.
In addition, we should affirm that criticizing Israel, indeed even criticizing Israel's treatment of Palestinians and viewing the end to the occupation as an important goal, can be part of a legitimate conversation. But that does not justify making libelous, anti-Semitic statements, statements which need to be repudiated in no uncertain terms.
So my approach involves continued commitment to advocating for racial, ethnic, gender-related justice while vociferously defending Jews and Israel against the kinds of attacks that are hardly just or deserved, as distinct from legitimate criticism of Israel. In practical terms, the third path involves disassociating from Black Lives Matter while strengthening alternative avenues to pursue justice.
In staking out my position, I spoke with many colleagues; some agreed with me, others did not. A young rabbi I respect very much challenged me. She argued that "Jews involved with BLM need support from the organized Jewish community, so the movement will have a stronger analysis of and commitment to fight anti-Semitism. Any serious racial justice activist does not have the option of walking away from the most important civil rights movement in decades. That would be easier than what we have to do. And the last thing we need is for our rabbis and teachers to tell us we are wrong." I thought hard about this response. While Alana did not persuade me to change my mind, she challenged me.
In the end, I am more persuaded by the statement issued by The Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston which affirmed its commitment to finding a different partner to fight racial injustices in this country. In a recent statement, JCRB wrote, "As we dissociate ourselves from the Black Lives Matter platform and those BLM organizations that embrace it, we recommit ourselves unequivocally to the pursuit of justice for all Americans, and to working together with our friends and neighbors in the African-American community, whose experience of the criminal justice system is, far too often, determined by race."
I was especially drawn to a statement written by Rabbi Shai Held of Machon Hadar, who has been a huge advocate for racial equality and who was extremely upset by the anti-Israel sentiment in the Black Lives Matter Platform. In his statement, Rabbi Held affirms the obligation "to speak up when Jews are unfairly maligned" and declares that the Black Lives Matter statement about Israel and genocide is "frankly embarrassing and appalling." At the same time, he affirms that black lives do matter, writing, "There is a long and disgraceful history in this country of devaluing and degrading black lives. The obscenity of the charges against Israel does not change this ugly fact one whit, and all Americans are implicated in the struggle for a just and fair America. So find an organization you feel you can work with and work with them."
So much of the Book of Deuteronomy, which we are currently reading in our synagogues, offers an extended blueprint for creating a society that is self-protective but also responsive to others. Our ancestors understood that our protection of ourselves and our commitment to others are equally important and can be mutually reinforcing.
The great sage Hillel encapsulated this in a way that has been widely quoted, and I'll conclude by invoking it and adding some relevant commentary:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? We should never apologize for protecting ourselves and our interests. Anti-Semitism is no less egregious than any other form of bigotry and hatred.
If I am only for myself, who am I? We should continue to open our hearts and hands to others who suffer injustice. If we need to find different partners, long or short-term, so be it. The mandate of "justice for all" cannot be abandoned.
If not now, when? Before the next injustice occurs -- to anyone.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz, PhD