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Jewish Solidarity with Black Lives Matter: We Can’t Have It Both Ways

Brant Rosen
August 5, 2016

by Rabbi Brant Rosen

livesTHE BLACK LIVES MATTER movement has just taken a huge and important step. A new coalition called Movement 4 Black Lives recently released “Vision for Black Lives,” a policy statement released by thirty grassroots organizations and endorsed by sixty others.

“Vision for Black Lives” is the product of a collaborative research and writing process that took more than a year by an eight person team -- and is intensely relevant to the current political moment. Team member Marbre Stahly-Butts summed up the purpose of the statement this way: “Democrats and Republicans are offering anemic solutions to the problems that our communities face... We are seeking transformation, not just tweaks.”

Given what counts for political discourse in our country of late, I believe the M4BLM platform offers a deep and important analysis how systems of oppression intersect -- and the devastating impact they have on people/communities of color. There are six essential demands to the BLM platform, each articulated under the categories: End the War on Black People, Reparations, Invest/Divest, Economic Justice, Community Control and Political Power.

I encourage you to read through this platform thoroughly. I believe it is particularly vital because it doesn’t come from a political party, think tank or special interest lobby, but rather directly from the grassroots communities most impacted by racism and oppression. And it represents a huge step toward the creation of a real movement for social and political change in our country. As journalist Collier Myerson recently wrote in Fusion:

This is a really, really big deal. By shedding its previous identity as a largely reactionary, structureless movement, Black Lives Matter seeks to definitively lead the national discussion on the safety, health, and freedom of black people. Painting the movement with a broad brush is a seismic shift. And it’s a shift that Occupy Wall Street never put in motion, a failure which many point to as the reason for the movement’s eventual dissolution. The list of demands set forth by M4BL explicitly unifies organizations across the United States — and though the goals are purposefully lofty, it’s a significant move towards harnessing the power of local groups into something bigger.

VISION FOR BLACK LIVES has been welcomed enthusiastically by many allies in this growing movement (such as those fighting for immigrant justice, for instance). Alas, I was not surprised to read the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston’s angry response, which “disassociated” itself from this “false” and “malicious” statement. Why? Because in the midst of this vast and extensive platform, the M4BLM statement referred to Israel’s “genocide” against the Palestinian people and expressed its support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

Actually, I wouldn’t expect anything else from an organization such as the Boston JCRC. JCRCs around the country have never made a secret of their anger toward the Black Lives Matter movement. Earlier this year, in fact, David Bernstein, the president and CEO of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (the parent organization of JCRC’s around the country), wrote an op-ed in which he thoroughly denounced “the solidarity between the Black Lives Matter and Palestine movements” and made a strong pitch for finding allies that will help them drive a wedge between these movements. (Notably the Boston JCRC statement referred to its “friends and neighbors in the African-American community” who share their views on Israel and Zionism.)

I was very disappointed, however, to read a statement released by Tru’ah -- a progressive rabbinical organization that advocates for human rights that has in the past articulated strong support of BLM. I was very saddened to read their recent response to the M4BLM platform, which spent almost all of its wordage decrying the genocide reference and BLM’s support for BDS.

Though I have many friends and colleagues in T’ruah whose work I respect greatly, I find this statement much more disturbing than the one released by the Boston JCRC. The latter group made has never made any secret of their dismissal of the BLM movement. T’ruah however, purports to stand in solidarity with them. The end of their statement even ends thus:

We are grateful to The Movement for Black Lives for opening questions of race and justice in America, for working to ensure the equality of every member of our society, and for energizing so many of us to stand up for justice. We join with The Movement for Black Lives in committing to these pursuits, and also insist on standing up for the dignity and safety of both Israelis and Palestinians.

As opposed to more conservative Jewish establishment institutions, I always had the impression that T’ruah truly “got it” when it came to the BLM movement. On T’ruah’s website, for instance, you will find a powerful “Prayer for Black Lives Matter.” You will also find a post written by Rabbi Susan Talve and Sarah Barasch-Hagans entitled “10 Rules for Engagement for White Jews Joining the Black Lives Matter Movement,” a smart and insightful document that appears to grasp the complex issue of allyship.

Among the rules listed are “Practice Deep Listening and Less Talking;” Do Your Own Communities’ Work” and “Hold Yourself Accountable.” In the rule, “Go outside of your comfort zone while staying in your lane,” the authors write:

Pay attention. Don’t hide when it gets messy. We all have a role to play and we will all make mistakes. Accept guidance. Remember this is a movement to awaken compassion. No name calling. “Call people in” rather than calling them out. Give the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. We are all sad and scared (or should be). Faith communities can be bridge builders, healers, and witnesses in this movement to make Black and Brown lives matter.

Sadly, T’ruah itself has broken with this critical rule through the release of this statement. If they truly purport to stand in solidarity with BLM, they should not have publicly “called them out” because their new platform landed outside their comfort zone. If they were to be true to their own articulated values, T’ruah should have reached out to them, engaged with them and tried to understand where they were coming from, thus opening a real dialogue. T’ruah does not give the BLM “the benefit of the doubt” when it issues an immediate counter-statement such as this; tantamount to a group in a position of power saying to an oppressed group, “we will stand in solidarity with you but only on our terms.”

THE CLAIM that Israel is committing “genocide” against the Palestinians undeniably pushes all kinds of buttons for many Jews. But there are also Jews and Israelis who feel it is not an inappropriate word to use, particularly in regard to Israel’s regular military assaults against Gaza. Likewise the BDS call is extraordinarily controversial for many Jews -- but there are also Jews who support it. And it is simply not true to claim, as T’ruah does, that “the BDS movement (rejects) Israel’s right to exist.” On the contrary, the goal of the BDS call is equal rights for Palestinians as well as Jews.

But even if T’ruah feels it is wrong for BLM to refer to Israel in this manner, it can’t claim to stand in solidarity with them while publicly calling them out over the parts that make them uncomfortable. On the contrary, they should hold themselves to their own standard by “calling BLM in,” engaging with them and be “bridge builders” -- especially in the places where there is pain or disagreement.

At the end of the day however, I don’t think this is T’ruah’s issue alone -- it’s a challenge for the entire progressive Jewish community at large. If we claim to ascribe to a power analysis that views systems of oppression as intersectional and interrelated, we simply constantly cannot make an exception when it comes to Israel. The black community is increasingly finding common cause with Palestinians -- and for good reason. Both are oppressed by the same systems, the same weapons, and the same security companies. It is not by coincidence that American police departments around the country are increasingly trained by the Israeli military.

If we are going to stand in solidarity, with BLM, we need to make these connections we well. No matter how uncomfortable it might make us.

Rabbi Brant Rosen is Midwest regional director for the American Friends Service Committee. He blogs regularly at Shalom Rav, where this post originally appeared.