Jewish Groups Embrace BLM, With Conditions

Some Jewish groups appear to be putting aside Israel-related grievances with the Black Lives Matter movement. Others aim to show support without backing its more radical demands.

Mari Cohen
June 23, 2020
A protester carries a "Jews for BLM" sign at a New York City protest, June 2nd, 2020. Photo: Joshua Leifer

IN AUGUST 2016, the Movement for Black Lives, a broad coalition of organizations associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, released a detailed platform that included a range of policy demands touching nearly every area of political concern, from criminal justice, to education, to the environment, to economics. One section of the platform, dealing with foreign policy, urged the United States to divest from global military activity and reinvest in Black and working-class communities. In addition to condemning US military actions in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa, the platform called for an end to US military support to Israel, arguing that Israel is an “apartheid state” and that the US is “complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.” 

Local and national Jewish organizations reacted to the lines about Israel with outrage. The Boston Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and various rabbis announced they would stop working with the Movement for Black Lives and the Black Lives Matter movement altogether, while liberal groups, like J Street and the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), expressed support for many of the platform’s goals but condemned the use of the word “genocide” and “apartheid.” In turn, these organizations faced criticism from Black Jews and anti-occupation Jewish groups, who claimed that Jewish Israel-advocacy organizations had centered themselves in their responses. The Jews of Color Caucus organizing in partnership with Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) called the backlash “part of a white supremacist power structure that is trying to maintain the status quo.” 

Four years later, amid the national uprising sparked by the recent police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, major Jewish organizations are signaling their commitment to racial justice while downplaying the earlier controversy. Several organizations have deleted statements criticizing the 2016 Movement for Black Lives platform from their websites. The shift seems to suggest that the nationwide racial justice reckoning is making inroads in Jewish organizations with pro-Israel politics. For example, a resource on racial justice philanthropy from the Jewish Funders Network linked to information about the Movement for Black Lives’s call for $50 million in philanthropic support. The NCJW has urged members to follow the Movement for Black Lives’s week of action, despite its earlier critical statement, which is no longer available on its website. (According to a representative, NCJW launched a new website in 2017, and most older content was not transferred.) 

“The 2020 uprising demonstrated that Black struggle has some of the most revolutionary potential to change conditions in this land for the better,” said Reuben Telushkin, a field organizer with JVP who is also involved in Black Yids Matter, a collective of Black Jews around the US that coalesced in 2016. “If you’re not in support of this collective moment of Black uprising, then it puts you in the position on the side of the oppressors. And no one wants to appear to be on the side of the oppressors.” 

But just because mainstream Jewish groups are shying away from past denunciations of the Movement for Black Lives doesn’t mean that all of them are ready to embrace the movement or its platform. Some groups have committed to racial justice work with more moderate organizations like the NAACP, while maintaining distance from the Movement for Black Lives and its more radical demands. 

The Boston JCRC, a coalition of Boston’s Jewish organizations, stated in 2016 that it would would reject “participation in any coalition that seeks to isolate and demonize Israel singularly amongst the nations of the world” and “dissociate ourselves from the Black Lives Matter platform and those BLM organizations that embrace it.” Now, the JCRC no longer displays the statement on its website. JCRC Executive Director Jeremy Burton said in an interview that he now believes the JCRC made a series of mistakes when it attacked the Movement for Black Lives platform in 2016. 

“I’ve lost count of the number of times during a meeting with a group of people, public or private, 2016 and what happened comes up,” Burton said. “I’ve come to accept that the work of teshuvah is ongoing, and talking about the damage created by mistakes is necessary.” 

Burton said that those mistakes included not consulting with Black community partners before denouncing the Movement for Black Lives platform, as well as releasing the statement without a sufficient process for gauging the views of the myriad organizations represented by the JCRC. Burton said the JCRC and its member organizations have relationships with a variety of local Black groups, clergy, and politicians, including Boston’s NAACP, though no official relationship with the Movement for Black Lives. 

Burton said that this time his organization has not drawn red lines against working with groups affiliated with the Movement for Black Lives. The JCRC will not partner with “Jewish-identified groups” that are anti-Zionist; the council ratified the policy in January 2019 after Boston’s Workmen’s Circle (now Worker’s Circle) co-signed a statement with the local JVP chapter opposing the equation of antisemitism with anti-Zionism. But unlike groups like Hillel International that prohibit working with all anti-Zionist groups, the JCRC’s policy does not apply to non-Jewish organizations, Burton said. “We’re very clear about our role as one organized Jewish community to define the boundaries of speaking for and on behalf of the mainstream Jewish community in Boston,” he explained. “The flip side is honoring that we don’t get to tell other communities who speaks for them.”  

But for many Black or left-wing Jews, the recommitment to intracommunal red lines does not represent an improvement. “That artificial manufacturing of majority opinion reinforces a false binary that these Black organizations don’t have Jewish members that are anti-Zionist, or that these Jewish organizations don’t have Black members who are anti-Zionist,” Telushkin said in response to the JCRC’s policy. “It’s really emblematic of a desperate attempt to manufacture a consensus that is undemocratic.” 

In contrast to Burton, David Bernstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA)—which serves as the national hub for 125 Jewish Community Relations Councils and Committees, as well as organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Congress—maintained that any organization with anti-Zionist politics, Jewish or not, was still beyond the pale for partnership. “When members of the Jewish community ask, we draw a very bright line between the Black Lives Matter movement and a specific formal organization like the Movement for Black Lives,” he said. “We make sure they understand that the Black Lives Matter movement writ large is about protecting Black lives and not necessarily about a specific agenda that might affect Israel or Jews.” Bernstein said the JCPA plans to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the NAACP for joint work on criminal justice and police reform. 

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of the human rights group T’ruah, said she was encouraged to see Jewish organizations addressing racial justice instead of focusing on Israel. “One of the tragedies of what happened four years ago is that almost all of the conversation in Jewish circles was about the very small section about Israel and Palestine, which meant that we lost the opportunity to talk about the other 199 pages [of the Movement for Black Lives platform],” she said. In 2016, T’ruah released a statement that applauded much of the platform but criticized “the decision to refer to the Israeli occupation as genocide.” That statement has been deleted from the organization’s website. 

“The Black Lives Matter movement is not at its core about Israel. It’s about protecting Black lives. We are 100% on board with that goal,” Jacobs told me. “Some of the organizations involved with BLM have different positions than we have on Israel and Palestine. We are able to stay and continue to work, and we do our Israel work elsewhere.” 

While the 2014 Ferguson uprising, which coincided with Israel’s war on Gaza, often included chants that linked the American Black struggle to the situation in Palestine, the current wave of Black Lives Matter protests have not prominently highlighted Black–Palestinian solidarity. “Because [Zionism] is not a conversation that Black folks have put at the forefront, in this moment, the white Jewish institutional community may feel a little more able to engage in the conversation by ignoring that struggle. But I think that struggle is very real, relevant, and ripe,” said Shoshana Brown, an organizer with Black Yids Matter. “The NYPD trains with the IDF. If we’re talking about defunding the police in New York City, that has a direct relationship with Israel.What does that mean for white Jews, for people who identify as Zionist, to be in a conversation around real concrete systemic antiracism and not be addressing how those systems are enmeshed with Israel?”

Telushkin pointed out that the impulse of Jewish groups like the JCRC and JCPA to partner with mainstream organizations like the NAACP, instead of more radical Black groups that see Palestine solidarity as an important part of their politics, is consistent with a long history of Jewish engagement with Black politics. After the Six-Day War in 1967, radical Black Power groups adopted more internationalist, anti-colonialist positions, including a condemnation of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and an identification with the Palestinian struggle. By contrast, the NAACP, which had supported the Vietnam War, doubled down on a commitment to Israel, partially in the hope of retaining widespread Jewish support. “We still see that dynamic today, where Jewish organizations will seek out the quarters of Black organizing that are palatable to them, rather than the ones that are actually on the move, breaking new ground, building mass movements, like the Movement for Black Lives,” Telushkin said. 

There is some evidence that Jewish institutions’ recent, more conciliatory approach to Black Lives Matter is also, at least in part, a strategic consideration—the product of a recognition that their previous position had hampered Israel-advocacy efforts. In articles and internal memos, mainstream Jewish leaders have argued that supporting the Black Lives Matter movement more vocally is a better strategy for bolstering support for Israel than issuing controversial public statements.   

In June 2019, the JCPA partnered with the Reut Group—a centrist Israeli think tank with close ties to Israeli government officials—to create a document that laid out steps for countering solidarity between Palestinians and marginalized groups in the US. Titled “Navigating Intersectional Landscapes,” the report stressed the importance of “driving a wedge” between “Israel’s delegitmizers” and “intersectionally-aligned communities.” 

To do this, the Reut Group recommended that Jewish organizations distinguish groups specifically focused on anti-occupation and Palestine solidarity activism from social justice groups that are focused on other issues but support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) or Palestinian movements out of a sense of solidarity. For example, the report suggested that Jewish groups avoid publicly calling out women of color, like Angela Davis or Michelle Alexander, who are not primarily known for Palestine activism, unless they were “bluntly anti-semitic,” because doing so “perpetuates negative stereotypes about Jews as a white and privileged group struggling to retain an existing social order that many deem exclusionary.” 

Last week’s newsletter of pro-Israel “talking points” from the Focus Project—a joint public relations initiative of pro-Israel groups including the JCPA, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League, and StandWithUs—drew a distinction between American Jews’ overwhelming support for Black Lives Matter, and support for “any particular organization, such as the Movement for Black Lives” and the “anti-Israel plank” of its 2016 platform. “That language, which prompted a strong reaction from Jewish American organizations, has not resurfaced this time,” the newsletters said. “The evolution is both hopeful and palpable to many Jewish Americans.” However, the newsletter added, “The movement deserves continued awareness and engagement among its members to guard against intruding, baseless, outside issues”—an oblique reference to Israel/Palestine—“whose adoption would only harm the cause.”

In fact, the Movement for Black Lives platform has not changed since 2016, but a redesign of the website has made the nitty-gritty policy suggestions from all areas of the platform less prominent, including the planks about Israel; those planks can now be viewed only in a downloadable PDF. The movement plans to roll out a new, updated platform for 2020 in the coming months. The Movement for Black Lives declined to comment for this article. Rachel Gilmer, co-director of the Black and Brown youth organizing group Dream Defenders, who is cited as one of the original authors of that portion of the platform, did not respond to requests for comment by press time.  

Telushkin and Brown said that one measure of Jewish organizations’ actual commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement will be whether they agree to make specific changes to end police violence, like stopping the use of police as security for Jewish institutions and pushing back against exchange programs between Israel and US police departments. “I want to see action,” Brown said, “not just words.”

This article has been updated to clarify the circumstances under which the NCJW’s statement about the Movement for Black Lives’s platform was removed from its website.

Mari Cohen is associate editor at Jewish Currents.