“[T]here is no doubt that the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ resonates with Jewish beliefs and history. Jews hear the words not as divisive but as a call to moral action.” So writes my colleague, Jeffrey W. Goldwasser, rabbi of Temple Sinai in Cranston, in the very first paragraph of his column, “Black lives matter to Jews,” in the Aug. 5 issue of The Jewish Voice.
Goldwasser supports his view by pointing to powerful voices within our biblical and rabbinic traditions: All of us, men and women, black and white, are created b’tselem Elohim, in the image of God. Every year at our Passover Seders, we Jews personally re-experience the slavery in Egypt; and every Yom Kippur, the prophet Isaiah urges us “to break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke; to let the oppressed go free and release all who are enslaved.” (Is. 58:6)
Goldwasser further argues that our historical experience as an oppressed minority ought to make us especially sensitive to the experience of black Americans: “We know from our history – and many of us from our personal lives – what it feels like in our bones to be treated as ‘other.’ ”
Even as Goldwasser’s passionate affirmation of our black-Jewish alliance was being prepared for publication, a number of groups associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, under the auspices of the Movement for Black Lives, made public a platform titled “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom & Justice.” Within this massive document are a few sections that have inflamed even the most ardent Jewish supporters of Black Lives Matter because of extreme anti-Israel bias.
The single most offensive paragraph reads in part: “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 Palestinians ... Israel is an apartheid state with over 50 laws on the books that sanction discrimination against the Palestinian people.”
While the American Jewish community is divided in its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, representatives of our major Jewish organizations are speaking with one voice in their condemnation of the platform’s use of the word “genocide” to describe Israeli treatment of Palestinians. I consider the use of the word “genocide” in this context as a gross and grotesque distortion. We Jews, burdened by the memory of the Holocaust, know the meaning of true genocide.
While many Jewish leaders have expressed outrage or even a sense of betrayal at the anti-Israel bias in the platform produced by the Movement for Black Lives, these same men and women acknowledge that the Jewish and black communities must continue to work together in the pursuit of racial and economic justice for all Americans.
In the online edition of the Aug. 19 The Jewish Voice, Goldwasser expresses this combination of profound disappointment and an overriding need to continue to work together: “I take great offense at the anti-Semitic accusation of genocide against the State of Israel and denounce those, in the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) movement, who seek to vilify Israel with one-sided attacks.” Nevertheless, in the very next sentence, Goldwasser writes: “My letter in support of black lives is a call for Jews to respond to the imperatives of our tradition to stand up for individuals whose lives are threatened. I am grateful that, here in Rhode Island, the relationship between the Jewish community and the African-American community has been strong and growing stronger.”
A bit of perspective is in order. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the platform of the Movement for Black Lives is more than 40,000 words. In its online version, the platform refers the interested reader to an abundance of related model programs and relevant articles supporting its six major demands: End the War on Black People, Reparations, Invest/Divest, Economic Justice, Community Control, Political Power.
The platform is bursting with fresh approaches to seemingly intractable problems; some of the proposed solutions might work while others will be tried and found wanting. The point is that the platform, whatever its flaws, is an ambitious, comprehensive, and – for the most part – constructive document; it gives a voice to important segments of the black community, even as other segments, such as the NAACP, have chosen as of now not to lend support. While the anti-Israel rhetoric in the platform is misguided, painful, infuriating to many of us in the Jewish community, we must not dismiss the document as a whole because of those relatively few statements that we find so distasteful.
One Friday evening in January of 1996, Casby Harrison, then a prominent young lawyer here in Rhode Island, came to Temple Habonim in Barrington to speak to the community about his participation as a black man in the Million Man March the previous October.
It was not surprising that a couple of congregants badgered Harrison for participating in an event that was organized by Louis Farrakhan, who was at the time considered to be an unrepentant anti-Semite. With remarkable patience and a wry sense of humor, Harrison explained to us why he chose to join the march despite Farrakhan’s involvement. But the heckling persisted. Finally, Harrison’s wife, Mary Silvia Harrison, rose up from her seat, faced the congregation, tears of frustration staining her cheeks, and stated with firm dignity: “THE MILLION MAN MARCH IS NOT ABOUT YOU JEWS!”
It seems to me that as we Jews continue to work with the black community in our mutual quest for racial and economic justice for all Americans, we must remind ourselves that – whatever its flaws, whatever its virtues – the platform of the Movement for Black Lives is not about us Jews.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.