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YOU DON’T HAVE TO AGREE WITH ALL THE RHETORIC TO GIVE IT SUPPORT
by Lawrence Bush
THE BLACK LIVES MATTER Platform, issued at the very end of July by a coalition of some thirty organizations based in the African-American community and endorsed by sixty, is a spirited, radical, impressive mix of universalist politics and black-identity politics, of practical policy and revolutionary rhetoric. Its preamble declares that “we have a shared struggle with all oppressed people; collective liberation will be a product of all of our work” — but it also identifies “the most marginalized Black people, including but not limited to those who are women, queer, trans, femmes, gender nonconforming, Muslim, formerly and currently incarcerated, cash poor and working class, differently-abled, undocumented, and immigrant” as deserving centerstage in the struggle. An old-fashioned black nationalist spirit infuses the document, which describes itself as continuing “the legacy of our ancestors who pushed for reparations, Black self-determination and community control” while also “propel[ling] new iterations of movements such as efforts for reproductive justice, holistic healing and reconciliation, and ending violence against Black cis, queer, and trans people.” Alas, opportunities to make class-based appeals to all Americans are usually not embraced -- as when the Platform calls for a guaranteed minimum income for all blacks, not for all Americans.
The document is notably anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist. It advocates much more than a radical reform of the policing system, the use of violence by the police, and the criminal justice system’s institutional racism, and much more than job-training, education reform, and other policies of economic justice. “While this platform is focused on domestic policies,” the preamble states, “we know that patriarchy, exploitative capitalism, militarism, and white supremacy know no borders. We stand in solidarity with our international family against the ravages of global capitalism and anti-Black racism, human-made climate change, war, and exploitation.” Yet the Platform is very specific, smart, and policy-driven in its push for legislative and community action in six categories: “End the War on Black People,” “Reparations,” “Invest-Divest,” “Economic Justice,” “Community Control,” and “Political Power.”
EACH CATEGORY has subcategories, and it is in the “Invest-Divest” section, under the subcategory, “A Cut in US Military Expenditures,” that the Platform slaps many Jews, including Jewish allies of the Black Lives Matter Movement, upside their heads:
The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicity in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people. The US requires Israel to use 75 percent of all the military aid it receives to buy US-made arms. Consequently, every year billions of dollars are funneled from US taxpayers to hundreds of arms corporations, who then wage lobbying campaigns pushing for even more foreign military aid. The results of this policy are twofold: it not only diverts much needed funding from domestic education and social programs, but it makes US citizens complicit in the abuses committed by the Israeli government. Israel is an apartheid state with over 50 laws on the books that sanction discrimination against the Palestinian people. Palestinian homes and land are routinely bulldozed to make way for illegal Israeli settlements. Israeli soldiers also regularly arrest and detain Palestinians as young as 4 years old without due process. Every day, Palestinians are forced to walk through military checkpoints along the US-funded apartheid wall.
TRU’AH, the organization of progressive American rabbis that has been quite involved in criminal justice reform in the U.S. — especially opposing the long-term use of solitary confinement in the prison system — responded to the Platform as follows:
The core demands embrace goals that we share concerning economic justice, mass incarceration and law enforcement, climate change, education, and the ongoing legacy of slavery. We applaud the leaders of Black Lives Matter for insisting that the United States meet its human rights obligations, and for concretizing these into specific policy recommendations. We stand with these leaders in insisting that every human being—regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or presentation, or abilities—be treated as an equal creation in the image of God, and in accordance with international human rights principles.
While we agree with many of the policy recommendations, we are extremely dismayed at the decision to refer to the Israeli occupation as genocide. We are committed to ending the occupation, which leads to daily human rights violations against Palestinians, and also compromises the safety of Israelis. Our work aims to build a just and secure future for both Israelis and Palestinians, both of whom deserve the same human rights protections as all people.
However, the military occupation does not rise to the level of genocide—a term defined as “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” While we agree that the occupation violates the human rights of Palestinians, and has caused too many deaths, the Israeli government is not carrying out a plan intended to wipe out the Palestinians. There is no basis for comparing this situation to the genocides of the 20th century, such as those in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, or Armenia, or the Nazi Holocaust in Europe, each of which constituted a calculated plan to destroy specific groups, and each of which killed hundreds of thousands to millions of people. The Black Lives Matter platform also does not address the use of violence by some Palestinians, including the rocket attacks against civilians that Human Rights Watch has classified as a war crime. One can vigorously oppose occupation without resorting to terms such as ‘genocide,’ and without ignoring the human rights violations of terrorist groups such as Hamas.
The Reform synagogue movement likewise dissented:
The Reform Jewish Movement is deeply committed to addressing the structural racism that exists in the United States and to doing so in partnership with activists and communities of color -– including those who proudly identify as Reform Jews. While we commend many aspects of the recently released Movement for Black Lives platform that effectively target structural racism, as deeply committed Zionists we condemn in the strongest possible terms the platform’s language on Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
As a Movement, we have consistently expressed our ongoing commitment to Israel’s safety and security, our profound concern for the suffering of the Palestinian people and our support for a two-state solution that would bring about peace and justice for both peoples.
The Movement for Black Lives platform’s claim that U.S. support for Israel makes it ‘complicit in the genocide committed against the Palestinian people’ and labeling of Israel as ‘an apartheid state’ are offensive and odious. In calling for divestment from Israel, the platform ultimately does little to advance peace between Israelis and Palestinians. This language also wrongly and harmfully conflates the urgent need to address the systemic racism faced by people of color in the United States with another challenging and related but different set of moral and political questions within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
We recognize that the Movement for Black Lives is working to address deeply rooted societal challenges. As they do so, we urge them to reject the platform’s characterizations of and positions related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We stand ready to work in relationship to achieve shared goals of a racially just society, nation and world.
Anti-Israel rhetoric like that found in the Movement for Black Lives policy platform is especially troubling because it falsely suggests American Jews –- both of color and white –- must choose between their commitment to combatting racism in the United States and their Zionism. We reject wholeheartedly the notion that effective anti-racism work can only be done by denouncing and excoriating Israel. Rather, as progressive Zionists committed to the future of a Jewish and democratic State of Israel, we see it as our fundamental responsibility to stand up in the face of injustice and fight against the evils of racism, extremism and intolerance wherever they exist.
The Reform Movement is committed to advancing civil rights and racial justice, including ensuring that black lives matter in all aspects of our society, from the criminal justice system to the voting booth and beyond. We will continue to work in relationship across lines of race, faith and class to dismantle structural racism and build a more just and equitable society.
WHAT SURPRISES ME about such statements is not their objection to the defamation of Israel, but their claims to solidarity with what is fundamentally a very radical document. Does the Reform synagogue movement agree with this statement?
America is an empire that uses war to expand territory and power. American wars are unjust, destructive to Black communities globally and do not keep Black people safe locally. The military industrial complex offers massive profits to private corporations from the death of our global diaspora by handing out massive government contracts to expand US military presence across the globe, while resources for domestic infrastructure and social programs to meet the needs of Black people and working-class communities within the US diminishes.
I’ve seen specific protests of specific wars in the Reform movement — it was courageously out front on Vietnam — but it’s never, to my knowledge, named “American empire” as a reality or a problem, nor made the profits of the military-industrial complex one of its foci.
And how about this?
The interlinked systems of white supremacy, imperialism, capitalism and patriarchy shape the violence we face. As oppressed people living in the US, the belly of global empire, we are in a critical position to build the necessary connections for a global liberation movement. Until we are able to overturn US imperialism, capitalism and white supremacy, our brothers and sisters around the world will continue to live in chains. Our struggle is strengthened by our connections to the resistance of peoples around the world fighting for their liberation. The Black radical tradition has always been rooted in igniting connection across the global south under the recognition that our liberation is intrinsically tied to the liberation of Black and Brown people around the world.
Do most Tru’ah rabbis feel that they’re living in “the belly of the global empire”? Do most liberal and even progressive Jews in 2016 hold “US imperialism, capitalism and white supremacy” responsible for the Rwandan genocide, the Islamic fundamentalist threat in Nigeria, the “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia, the devastation cause by AIDS in Uganda? (British imperialism, maybe . . .)
Perhaps contact with the Black Lives Matter movement is radicalizing its Jewish organizational allies. Or perhaps, like me, they’re simply willing to set aside the rhetorical flourishes -- except when it comes to calling Israel “genocidal” -- in the name of sustaining the anti-racist cause.
INDEED, AS EDITOR of a Jewish magazine that was very leftwing in origin, I can’t help but be moved by anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist lingo any more than I can still my heart upon hearing “Viva La Cinque Brigada” or “Which Side Are You On?” And as a progressive who ever since the 1960s and ’70s has believed (or aspired to believe) in taking leadership from the black liberation movement -- which always showed the most courage and vision and had the most at stake in the struggle -- I want to feel solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Yet I’m also aware that a much larger proportion of the black community than the mostly diminutive groups that have endorsed the Platform are expressing their politics right now through support of Hillary Clinton, i.e., the Democratic Establishment, rather than through support of the Palestinians and other people of color around the globe. I’m aware, too, that mainstream liberal organizations like the NAACP that are working on mass incarceration and police reform and other issues of institutional racism seem to believe that such reforms can be achieved -- and are currently advancing -- through the system, particularly if the U.S. Justice Department is on their side.
It’s not so much the vilification of Israel, then, that puts me off, as the ideological mindset that such vilification reveals, the pretense of solidarity among all black and brown people throughout the world, the granting of a claim to innocence to all but the U.S. (and Zionist) imperialists, the political posturing. The Platform feels like something spliced together from two elements, mainstream and radical, as though it were written by representatives of both the NAACP and old Black Panther movement.
All told, however, the Platform is quite brilliant in its analysis of the domestic front and its endorsements of policies that truly could make a difference. And I’d much prefer to see the Jewish community developing its ties to Black Lives Matter activists around those polices than the emergence of headlines like “Jewish Groups Decry Black Lives Matter Platform’s View on Israel” (Washington Post).
In his most famous speech, in 1963, the prophet Martin Luther King, Jr. took note of the “marvelous new militancy which has engulfed” the black community, while warning that it
must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers [sic], as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.
That militancy -- including intemperate rhetorical excess -- is resurgent in at least part of the black community, and the Black Lives Movement Platform does not make a point of reaching out to white allies the way Dr. King “I Have a Dream” speech did. Still, it is for Jews to now remember that our destiny is tied up with their destiny, and therefore not to walk away, especially not in the name of Israel, which indulges in plenty of rhetorical excess of its own.
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.