Black Lives Matter Platform and Israel
By Cherie Brown
In the new Black Lives Matter Platform, there is a section on International issues that focuses on Israel. The platform describes the current oppression of Palestinians and the ongoing occupation by labeling it genocide. The use of this term, ‘genocide’, stirred up enormous upset amongst many Jews, both from the mainstream Jewish community and the progressive Jewish community.
Many Jews alive today had relatives who were murdered in the Nazi Holocaust in the middle of the 20th century and find the use of the term genocide to describe what is happening to Palestinians offensive. Some Jews (like the JCRC of Boston) responded by saying they will now have nothing to do with Black Lives Matter. Other groups, Truah, for example, took offense with the use of the term genocide but called for continued support of Black Lives Matter and ongoing dialogue about the disagreements.
What can we do as progressive Jews to think well about these issues?
1) Black Jewish coalition work in the US, even when we hit rocky points in the partnership, remains key. Without falling into the all too common trap of romanticizing our past support for each other ( in the Civil Rights movement, for example), we can still claim the centrality of the relationship and learn how to fight for an honest partnership that includes ongoing conversation on both racism and anti- Semitism.
2). The organization I direct, (the National Coalition Building Institute) has been leading diversity programs on college campuses across the U.S. In this past year, particularly on campuses where there were strong battles over BDS ( Boycott, Divest, Sanctions resolutions), I found disturbing trends. There was very little room for dialogue, conversation, or divergent points of view.
On one campus, progressive Jewish students who were trying to voice a nuanced position opposed to both the occupation and BDS were shouted down. On another campus, a Jewish student, completely uninvolved in Middle East peace efforts, was told she couldn’t run for student government because her Jewish identity would make it too difficult for her to be impartial. Many Jews on campus report an atmosphere of intimidation when Jews question the validity of BDS, even if they otherwise support Palestinian rights.
Throughout the past year, as these events unfolded, I witnessed Palestinian solidarity groups reach out to Black Lives Matter campus groups for support and alliance. And I watched Jewish students finding themselves more and more isolated and confused. The natural alliance between Black people and Palestinian liberation makes sense and can be celebrated. The disruption of Black Jewish alliance building, however, should not have to be accepted as an automatic consequence. The Black Lives Matter platform section on Israel was just an extension of the rigid position taking I had been seeing on campuses all this past year.
3). As progressive Jews, we sometimes find ourselves in an untenable position. Many of us are in deep solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement. We are outraged by the oppression of Palestinians and we have worked diligently for years to end the occupation. At the same time, we claim our right to remain proud of Israel, as imperfect as she may be, just as many are proud of the U.S. as imperfect as she may be. We do not believe that every criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic just as we don’t believe every criticism of the U.S. militarism makes us anti-American. It concerns us when people jump from critiquing horrific Israeli policies to making claims like “genocide”. It concerns us when we hear people generalizing from oppressive Israeli policies to all “Jews” as a people. We do not want to accept the anti- Semitism that exists in a number of liberation movements.
I have listened to and supported many young adult Jews in these past few weeks, who have been working hard with Black Lives Matter groups, and are now terrified to find their voices and to speak out as Jews about anti- Semitism (terrified that they will simply be labeled racist).
4) Understanding the concept of Jews as both “oppressed” and “oppressors” has never been easy. Some Jews have supported policies toward Palestinians that are oppressive even though they themselves come from families that were victims of oppression, hatred and genocide. I’ve written in Tikkun magazine about the ways that Jews continue to face oppression. Anti- Semitism does exist. Yet because of this fact, many Jews fail to acknowledge the ways that Jews act out oppressor behavior( the Occupation, for example). Those who do understand the ways that Jews act out oppressive behavior often have trouble always acknowledging o
5). In this current political climate, with issues being more polarized than ever– there is a strong pull against dialogue. All too many claim, “you are either for me or against me”. “You are on my side or you are on the wrong side”. Yet, the complexities of the Israeli Palestinian conflict require thinking and nuanced position taking. Progressive Jews are having a particularly difficult time in this polarized climate to create spaces for honest listening and dialogue on this key issue.
5) In coalition building work, it is often helpful to remember what causes each other pain, and whenever possible, to refrain from using painful trigger words. The word genocide is such a strong trigger word for Jews. How could it be otherwise? I don’t think the key point is to argue back and forth– does the current occupation and oppression of Palestinians rise to the level of genocide? The oppression is horrible. But scoring points, using the most inflammatory words possible, using restimulating language has been a hallmark of the Trump campaign. When it also slips into the platform of an important progressive movement like Black Lives Matter, we all lose. We get unnecessarily divided from each other.
In the week when the Black Lives Matter Platform was released, the critical issues for Black African Heritage people( mass incarceration, a racist judicial system, racial profiling etc) should have been the only issue of conversation. Instead, Blacks and Jews were once again unnecessarily set up against each other through the use of inflammatory language. This was a set back for Black Liberation work, for Jewish Liberation work and for Palestinian liberation work.
6). As painful as these weeks have been, this most recent divide can also be an incredible opportunity. The sustained authentic relationships that have been built and can be built between Black Lives Matter activists and Progressive Jewish activists with honest and at times painful conversation can carry us through this rough spot with renewed commitment and understanding.
Cherie Brown is the founder and executive director of the National Coalition Building Institute. She is also an adjunct faculty at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.