The historically ambivalent relationship between American Jews and the Black community continues with the ascendancy of Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement over the past five years. As long as BLM “stays in its lane” and restricts itself to domestic civil rights issues, Jewish groups are happy to go along. 600 such organizations even signed a statement recently endorsing BLM as the legitimate heir of the U.S. civil rights movement.
But as soon as Black civil rights or liberation movements stray from domestic issues into matters of intersectional solidarity with other movements like the Palestinian freedom struggle, Jewish leaders pounce, raising a hue and cry of anti-Semitism. In 2016, the Movement for Black Lives (MBL) national conference produced a platform which addressed this issue critically. It decried Israeli apartheid and called its treatment of Palestinians “genocide.” Immediately, the usual suspects angrily denounced BLM for raising a blood libel against the Jewish people.
Last weekend, MBL hosted its 2020 conference, which produced a much shorter platform. This document contained no reference to Israel at all. You can almost hear the sigh of relief in this appraisal by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) of the BLM platform:
However, the updated and much expanded M4BL 2020 platform – its preamble, 13 platform issues, “demands,” linked resources, and federal, state and local legislative agenda – constituting hundreds of pages, omits Israel.
Meanwhile BLM’s 14 Guiding Principles (page 7) and its 2020 goals and focus – indeed, its entire website – makes no mention of Israel, and neither does its platform or its 2020 legislative agenda.
I reached out separately to MBL and a co-founder of the BLM movement for comment about what considerations went into this decision. I have gotten no response so far. Has the criticism led the organizers of the conference to retreat from their previous commitments? Did Jewish leaders lobby specifically for changes in MBL’s agenda and platform? Or has MBL determined that it should focus its work, in order to have greater impact, on the domestic civil rights sphere? Whatever the reason, if the movement is retreating from engaging with international solidarity movements it is a great loss.
The history of the Black liberation struggle is full of examples of leaders like Kwame Toure, Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver endorsing the Palestinian struggle going all the way back to the late 1960s. Its vision was a sweeping one that encompassed all such liberation movements worldwide, including the Palestinians.
While the mainstream Jewish community has, along with much of the rest of the country, responded favorably to BLM after the George Floyd protests began, it remains to be seen what such support means. For example, the statement linked above endorsing BLM is quite vague about what it’s endorsing. It doesn’t refer to any part of the movement’s platform: no reference to defunding police, reforming criminal justice, stripping police of immunity. The statement makes no specific commitment by Jews to do anything on behalf of BLM. That is why 600 groups, as disparate as the Anti-Defamation League and Jewish Voice for Peace, could sign it.
While the statement did express solidarity with BLM, it did so in the name of Jewish self-interest:
Black Lives Matter, the recent uprisings across the globe in the wake of the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and so many others, and the decades of political organizing across the country that have led to this moment are movements led by and for Black people. We see through any attempt to suggest otherwise by pointing fingers, scapegoating, or using antisemitic dogwhistles. As Jews, we know how dangerous this is: when politicians target Jewish people and blame us for problems, it leads directly to violence against us.
It suggested that if African-Americans were endangered then we, as a minority, would be equally vulnerable. It raised the issue of anti-Semitism, saying that one of the key reasons for issuing the document was to address anti-Semitic canards (such as the claim that George Soros was funding BLM). But it steered clear of moral or spiritual rhetoric which would have embedded Jewish solidarity in the universalist Biblical prophetic tradition. The argument seemed to be that we as Jews support BLM because it’s good for Jews. The benefits for African-Americans seemed to be either assumed or ancillary.
JCPA’s profile of BLM quite clearly delineates the reason the organized Jewish community has embraced the movement. And it has nothing to do with moral values or communal solidarity:
Only by participating in BLM we can effectively share our concerns about antisemitism, the existing call to end military aid to Israel, or any other issues that get thrown in the mix going forward.
In other words, we endorse BLM for our own parochial motive: Israel. It’s a breathtaking bit of candor.
It’s also worth noting who didn’t sign. The Conference of Presidents, which is an umbrella group representing the largest Jewish organizations, did not sign. Nor did the Jewish Federation of New York, the largest federation in the U.S. Neither the Jewish federations nor Jewish Community Relations Councils (the political action arms of the federations) of Chicago, Minneapolis, Cleveland or Los Angeles signed. Thus, some of the wealthiest donors and most powerful leaders in the largest communities refused to sign. We should not mistake these 600 groups for representing an overwhelming endorsement by the mainstream community, of BLM. There remain considerable pockets of resistance among Jews to what it represents.
However, clearly the overwhelming number of American Jews do endorse BLM. This is not necessarily reflected in the leadership, which is considerably wealthier and more conservative.
A new group of Jews and Non-Jews of Color, Not Free to Desist, was launched in the past few months. It developed a set of “obligations” which mostly revolve around internal reform of Jewish organizations. They ask for a commitment to hire more People of Color including Jews of Color and to compensate them appropriately. They seek hiring senior executives in these NGOs who are POC. They also direct Jewish communal groups to designate specific funds to support projects which advance the agenda of BLM.
But what’s most interesting is what’s left out of NFD’s platform: there is no endorsement of specific BLM demands. No reference to defunding police. No call to end violence against African-Americans. It’s almost as if the group decided it would only focus on its own community and leave the Black community out of its considerations. While it is true that NFD does call for establishing funding to promote social justice projects in alignment with BLM, it’s not clear what those programs would entail and who they would benefit.
All of which makes for exceedingly fuzzy messaging. Heavy on vision statements, light on tachlis. I remain skeptical of whether these initiatives will bring real change in relations between the Black and Jewish communities. Is this a gesture meant to assuage the Black community while American Jews get on with their real business? Or does it signal a real intent to embrace Black lives and interests?
Israel: the Not-So-Invisible Elephant in the Room
Israel is the invisible elephant in the room as far as Black-Jewish relations goes. Ever since Ferguson (and well before as I mentioned above), Blacks and Palestinians have embraced solidarity in their shared struggle for freedom and human rights. But the only major group among the 600 which signed the BLM statement and also endorsed the intersectionality of the Black-Jewish-Palestine struggle is Jewish Voice for Peace.
Statements by American Jewish groups expose their acute resistance to the notion that American Blacks would unite in struggle with Palestinians. The former are also exquisitely sensitive to anything that remotely smacks of criticism of Israel:
When Jews are asked to march with or just assert “Black lives matter,” we are not being asked to “check” our love of Israel at the door or embrace an antisemitic agenda.
In seeking to shape the Black agenda on Israel-Palestine, the leadership reveals its own racism: you cannot dictate what the African-American agenda should be. This should not be the role of Jews. We control our own agenda. And we would resent any outsider who told us what that should be. So how do we arrogate to ourselves the right to do the same to the Black community?
Seattle as Microcosm
Our community in Seattle offers a good example of the contradictions at work. The Pacific NW’s senior rabbi, Daniel Weiner, who has served the largest temple in the city for decades, just penned an op-ed attacking Seattle BLM, accusing it of hate speech (while not mentioning it by name) in protesting against the mayor (who is gay) and the police chief (who is Black):
…Some acts, emerging even from passionate indignation, cross the line from constitutionally-enshrined rights to coarse intimidation, vile messaging and hate speech. Some of our Seattle civic leaders, including the mayor, police chief and council members, endure a nightly assault on their homes and their families for no other reason save that their approach to change has been deemed insufficient in the eyes of a zealous few. That two of these leaders are women and members of historically oppressed communities further deepens this victimization. We deplore these acts of wanton abuse, and fear, as history teaches, that such behavior, if left unchecked, will inevitably lead to violence, tragedy, and a vicious cycle of hate and recrimination. We ask that other leaders, and all people of undaunted hope and good conscience, condemn these assaults, and recommit to a soulful activism that raises the human spirit and renews a common vision.
Weiner is politic enough to understand that he could not engage in a full-frontal assault against BLM. So he contrasted the behavior of Seattle protesters with the “love and non-violence” of John Lewis. This is a typical tactic of all powerful classes seeking to neuter threats to their self-interest. Designate “good” African-Americans and bad. The good are the ones you can do business with; the bad are the rotten apples everyone should avoid like the plague. The bad ones are those which most threaten your interests and most undermine your wealth and power.
Another standard tactic is to minimize the numbers (“the zealous few”) and influence of the bad folks. They are extremists, radicals, violent, disruptive. They don’t represent the majority of peace-loving Black folk with whom we share so much in common. In fact, there is no such dichotomy in Seattle or the U.S. Though there may be individual Black pastors or leaders who decry the activism of BLM or who argue that it detracts in some way with the struggle for civil rights, the overwhelming majority of American Blacks stand firm in support of the movement.
Protesting outside the home of an elected official is a time-honored tradition of American democracy. If you are the mayor you are a public figure and must expect you will be addressed as such, whether in your office or home. If you are a police chief nightly assaulting and maiming citizens exercising their constitutional rights to assemble and protest injustice, you must expect these victims will engage with you wherever you are: whether at police headquarters or your home. Weiner conveniently omits that those who protested outside police chief Carmen Best’s home were met by a caravan of armed white supremacists who menaced them and prevented them from reaching her home. What is more dangerous? Unarmed African-Americans protesting mass violence; or armed thugs blocking access to a public road while the local police stand by and do nothing?
A local Jewish Voice for Peace leader wrote a rejoinder to Weiner published in a local Black newspaper.
Weiner’s high-flying rhetoric reeks of hypocrisy. It is no accident that while two Seattle synagogues did sign the statement endorsing BLM, Temple De Hirsch Sinai, where Weiner is rabbi, did not sign. Neither did the Seattle Jewish federation. Though Seattle has a liberal reputation, our mainstream Jewish communal groups are quire conservative, especially on issues concerning Israel.
Thanks for comments from Yoav Litvin.