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ITS SLANDER OF ISRAEL NOTWITHSTANDING
An editorial from the Autumn 2016 issue of Jewish Currents
WHEN THE BLACK Lives Matter movement (#BLM) emerged two years ago in angry protest over police racism in Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore, Maryland, and other localities across the U.S., a new phase of the American civil rights movement began. It was peopled, as in the 1960s, primarily by young black activists — and supported, as in the 1960s, by many progressive Jews, including some who took to the streets in solidarity to protest. The movement was challenging the fundamentally racist equation, black=dangerous, an equation that too often makes driving while black, walking the streets while black, wearing a hoodie while black, peddling loose cigarettes while black, or playing with a toy gun while black, into fatal “provocations” when police come around. In short order, #BLM became the militant arm of a widespread movement to challenge the racist use of incarceration as a tool of social control — which means challenging the War on Drugs, the prison system, the militarization of police forces, and much else.
A responsive federal Department of Justice under Eric Holder used its investigative powers to reveal the extent to which black communities are being exploited by municipalities to produce income through police harassment, and spotlighted how police departments, nationwide, need to revise their guidelines for the use of force and improve the training of officers in the skills of de-escalation and community policing. Legal challenges and community activism brought some relief from “stop-and-frisk” police harassment in New York and other cities. The result — despite dogged efforts by conservative opinion-shapers to distort the slogan “Black Lives Matter” to mean “black lives are all that matter” — has been to move the country towards reckoning with the persistent and pernicious reality of racism throughout the criminal justice system.
This past summer, #BLM went way beyond criminal justice reform by releasing a document titled “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom and Justice.” The timing was brilliant; both the Democrats and the Republicans had issued their political platforms to significant fanfare, and America was talking politics, as it does during presidential campaign seasons.
Created by more than fifty grassroots organizations, the #BLM platform is organized into six categories of proposals and demands:
• “End the War on Black People,” which addresses the criminalization of African Americans, including children in the public school system;
• “Reparations,” which calls for a minimum guaranteed income, free quality education, and corporate and government reparations, for the descendants of slaves;
• “Invest-Divest,” which demands universal health coverage and a reallocation of military expenditures “to invest in domestic infrastructure and community well-being”;
• “Economic Justice,” which focuses on progressive taxation, breaking up oversized banks, government-funded jobs programs, restraint on globalization, and environmental restoration;
• “Community Control,” which demands an end to the privatization of education, and calls for local control over the law-enforcement and educational bodies that serve communities of color, and for “participatory budgeting” at all levels of government;
• “Political Power,” which demands an expansion of the right to vote, universal access to the internet and other technological tools, and an end to superPACS and other means by which private wealth influences elections.
THE PLATFORM is a hybrid of practical policy demands that a well-organized progressive coalition could actually see implemented, and revolutionary anti-imperialist rhetoric that will chiefly serve to alienate liberal allies. For example, the preamble states: “As oppressed people living in . . . 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.”
Such self-important jargon includes a passage on Israel (in the “Invest-Divest” section) that is an affront in its abuse of the words “genocide” and “apartheid”:
The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and its complicity in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people. . . . [This] 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 fifty laws on the books that sanction discrimination against the Palestinian people . . .
Thanks to this paragraph, headlines about the platform have typically read like the one in the Washington Post — “Jewish Groups Decry Black Lives Matter Platform’s View on Israel” — and rightwing Jewish groups such as the Zionist Organization of America have used the opportunity to defame even the Anti-Defamation League for using educational materials that “ignore #BLM’s vicious blood libels . . .”
Yet the predominant response of liberal Jewish organizations has been to continue to give support to the broader demands of the movement. Tru’ah, the network of progressive American rabbis that has been deeply involved in criminal justice reform, applauded the document “concerning economic justice, mass incarceration and law enforcement, climate change, education, and the ongoing legacy of slavery,” but was “extremely dismayed at the decision to refer to the Israeli occupation as genocide” while ignoring “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’ . . .”
The movement for Reform Judaism similarly condemned “in the strongest possible terms” the platform’s language on Israel while commending “many aspects of the. . . platform that effectively target structural racism.”
The . . . 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.
J Street expressed “deep respect for the mission and the work” of #BLM “and deep admiration for their achievements in moving the ongoing crisis of racism and racist violence to the center of our national political conversation,” while viewing the Israel-Palestine statement as “outrageously incorrect and deeply offensive to those who have lived through an actual genocidal attempt to exterminate an entire people or who are descended from . . . victims and survivors of genocide — as many J Street members are.” Nevertheless, J Street noted,
For American Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, it is vital that we respond thoughtfully and measuredly in this moment. We must bear in mind that the goals and efforts [of #BLM] are not about us in the Jewish community, nor are they about Israel. Even as we differ with the movement over some of its language, we must not disassociate ourselves from its quest for justice and equality. We must maintain our awareness of and respect for the movement’s broader mission and achievements, even as we push back against its problematic assertions.
DISPIRITING though it is to see the vital work of #BLM sidetracked — with potential for derailment — by radical jargon, we are gratified that these Jewish social-justice organizations have opted to scold but stand fast with #BLM. As a movement, #Black Lives Matter will not, after all, have any effect upon the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, but its impact within the U.S. has already been profound. Progressive American Jews simply have too much invested in civil rights history and in the development of America’s better nature to permit the political posturing of some #BLM theorists to dissuade us from engaging in anti-racist work — especially at a time when even conservative state governments have begun to voice doubts about the wisdom, expense, and morality of throwing so many young people of color into prison.
In his most famous speech, in 1963, the modern prophet Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took note of the “marvelous new militancy which has engulfed” the black community while warning against “a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers [sic] . . . 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.”
A “marvelous new militancy” is now resurgent in parts of the black community, and the #Black Lives Matter movement would be well advised to follow the example of Dr. King and make a point of reaching out for allies. No other phase of the civil rights movement had transformative impact upon America’s conscience comparable to Dr. King’s, who won the hearts and the commitment of Americans of every race, religion, and creed.
At the same time, it is for Jews of every color now to remember that “our” destiny is tied up with “their” destiny, and to keep our eyes on the prize.
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.