Jewish Community: Black Lives Matter No Matter What

Jewish Community: Black Lives Matter No Matter What August 5, 2016

I’m going to take a break from my gleeful Trump posts to deal with an important issue that is coming up in the Jewish world. I apologize for the length, but I think this controversy demands a thoughtful response.

bumperIn case you missed it, the release of The Movement for Black Lives’ new platform, Vision for Black Lives, has raised the ire of many in the organized Jewish community.

Organizations ranging from the institutional (Boston Jewish Community Relations Council) to the progressive activist (T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights) have slammed the document’s support for BDS, its characterization of Israel as an “apartheid” state, and its condemnation of America’s complicity “in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.

Before moving on to Jewish reactions to the platform, I want to briefly address my own take on these three items.

First to BDS. I have written enough about how—while I do not personally support boycotts, divestments, and sanctions—I have little patience with those who demonize its supporters. Now to the charge that Israel is an apartheid state. The fact is that I really don’t have any other word to describe a nation with a large chunk of territory in which two populations live side by side under two completely different sets of laws. And finally, my response to describing Israel’s policies as genocide is that I do not believe it to be an appropriate or accurate description. Though I think there is strong evidence that Israel would love to disperse and be rid of Palestinians, I don’t see any reason to use a word that describes the most horrific crimes against humanity. Calling it that only closes the eyes of stubborn people to the real injustices taking place.

So those are my particular feelings about a very small section of what is really a wide-ranging document which overwhelmingly deals with criminal justice abuses, reparations, economic justice, community control, and political power.

As I thought about what I would write here on the blog—and obviously I must address this—I decided to share an exchange that I had on Facebook with one particular rabbi. I really cannot think of any better way to express what I’m feeling than what I said to him. I’m not going to share his name, though I will say that he is a dynamic young man from the liberal side of the Jewish divide who runs an outreach program primarily directed to young people. And also that the Forward named him one of today’s “most inspirational” rabbis. I have slightly edited our dialogue to eliminate side issues.

It started with a post to his many Facebook followers that was a kind of open letter to Black Lives Matter (BLM) leaders:

The Inspirational Rabbi:  Newsflash to the Black Lives Matter leadership:

A plurality of Israel’s Jews are of color—to suggest it’s somehow a situation in Israel of white Jewish people keeping down brown Arab people is simply false.”

The Palestinian population has skyrocketed since 1948 – to call Israel’s actions towards the Palestinians “genocide” is ridiculous, false and doesn’t help those of us trying to support many of your legitimate claims. It alienates those of us who actively call for an end to the occupation, for the elimination of discriminatory laws, and for a peaceful two-state solution; not to mention making your domestic claims / demands require a more intense inspection before simply accepting them as legitimate due to a concern over rash hyperbole.

…How are people like me supposed to support you now

The Atheist Rabbi:  You write, “A plurality of Israel’s Jews are of color.”

Citing Israeli demographics is not a legitimate rejoinder to the statement from Black Lives Matter. Race is constructed differently in each society according to the hierarchy it desires to maintain. In this you fall into the trap that Ta-Nehisi Coates addressed in “Between the World and Me”:

Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism— the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them— inevitably follows from this inalterable condition.

… But race is the child of racism, not the father.

Just as America racialized “whiteness” and “blackness” (see James Baldwin) Israeli society has racialized Jewishness which they call “nationality.” They elevate Jews to a place of privilege above all other human beings under their rule. And lets not forget that the very same Ethiopian Jews who are always paraded around to prove that Israel’s not racist have suffered more than enough bigotry to retire that argument. Space does not permit me to detail other abuses directed at African refugees and, of course, Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank.

It should not surprise us that black American activists would identify with the Palestinian cause. If one truly cares about black lives in this country, this should not “alienate” anyone. It should be viewed as an opening for dialogue, especially for those who claim that they “actively call for an end to the occupation, for the elimination of discriminatory laws.” (And, by the way, it’s not working. We’re coming up on fifty years of Israeli rule over the West Bank and Israel’s right wing has never held more power. Is it any wonder that oppressed people would identify with the cause of the Palestinians?) Perhaps by learning more about the oppression of black Americans we might acquire increased empathy for the plight of Palestinians; empathy that extends beyond platitudes about a “two-state solution.”

Finally, you pose the question: “How are people like me supposed to support you now?”

The cause of Black Lives Matter is neither less honorable nor urgent because they do not see eye-to-eye with you on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Support for their cause is required by those of us who understand the ways in which black people are abused and degraded in our own American society. Since when does social justice require that victims of oppression must agree with your every cherished notion?

The Inspirational Rabbi:  What if BLM’s platform called for discrimination against gays / outlawing gay marriage or for outlawing abortion because it disproportionately impacts the black community — are you still ready to wave their organizational signs and endorse their platform if/when it includes statements that run counter to your perceptions of right and wrong?

I say wholeheartedly now that I’ll never vote for a candidate who’s anti-gay rights — that’s a line in the sand for me — even if I love / agree with the rest of their platform. Is that not reasonable? Why different here?

The Atheist Rabbi:  … being an ally means listening and attempting to understand the anguish of others whom we claim to support. Behind this statement lies their pain. That’s what I choose to hear. What you asked was, “How are people like me supposed to support you now?” … I believe that my reply was clear. We support them because their cause is just.

The Inspirational Rabbi:  I suppose my follow up question would be: How do you determine what their singular “cause” is after releasing such a broad platform? Is Hamas’s cause just because in broad based terms it aims to restore Palestinian sovereignty to the land, even though their platform contains horrendous statements and an expressed desire for Jewish extermination? Do they too deserve our support because “their cause is just”? (I’m not likening BLM to Hamas of course – just pushing the argument to see where we end up — trying to understand.) Does it not require a bit more nuance?

The Atheist Rabbi:  1) I do not believe that there exist any parallels between a call to diminish the rights or dignity of LGBTQ+ people and advocacy for Palestinian rights.

… 2) [You ask], “How do you determine what their singular ‘cause’ is after releasing such a broad platform?” Their primary cause is quite clear to me. It is to address police brutality and other institutional and structural racism directed at black people. This particular statement’s main points overwhelmingly deal with criminal justice abuses, reparations, economic justice, community control, and political power. I think it’s also worth mentioning that this is not some kind of “official statement.” Black Lives Matter is an informal designation for an umbrella movement. This platform represents a step toward organizing. It is not enforceable and does not speak for every supporter of the cause.

You posed the initial question, “How are people like me supposed to support you now?” For what it’s worth—and that may be nothing to many people—my several replies to that and your other questions are the best I have to offer.

The collective freak-out of the Jewish world about this platform does not surprise me. However, I must admit that the inability of so-called progressive Jews to contend with it does.

My interlocutor directed his followers to a piece in the Forward that he said “is well put and most closely resembles how I’m feeling at the moment.” Here’s a link to the piece, “Black Lives Matter Lost Me With That Israel-Bashing Platform” by Rabbi Ari Hart, a founder of “Uri L’Tzedek: Orthodox Social Justice.”

It’s an expression of both how fragile one’s Jewish ego can be and just how ethnocentric and conditional is the support for Black Lives Matter. And if this is how my colleague and this rabbi are responding, I’m not sure they were really allies to begin with.

As for me, here’s a link to another piece in the Forward that expresses a little of what I’m feeling at the moment:  “Don’t Like Black Lives Matter? Get Ready To Lose Young Jews Like Us” by Ally Little and Michelle Weiser.

This piece contains some very wise words from two young people who are unconditionally committed to social justice. It’s also suggested reading for The Inspirational Rabbi and all Jewish leaders who claim to care so much about both social justice and Jewish continuity. If you’ll pardon my crudeness, your butt-hurt reactions are not advancing either one.

(Image: the bumper of my own car, proudly expressing my continuing support for Black Lives Matter…and my choice for president.)

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