Behaving Like Jews

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I am going to behave like a Jew
and touch his face, and stare into his eyes,
and pull him off the road.
-Gerald Stern, “Behaving Like a Jew”

It’s been almost a month since a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown. In the wake of the shooting, residents of Ferguson concerned about police brutality and racism turned out in the streets to protest peacefully, and were met with tanks, riot gear, and tear gas. A small number of people were involved in either looting local businesses or throwing bottles and other small-scale weaponry, which was used to justify the police crackdown. Journalists, local politicians, and scores of people doing nothing but exercising a constitutionally protected right to free assembly were arrested and harassed.
During this period of unrest, my Facebook newsfeed was full of outrage and despair. But very little of that passion was directed at Ferguson. Instead, it was largely about Operation Protective Edge, in Gaza. Every day I was greeted with scores of articles defending Israel’s right to defend itself, justifying the scale of force in Gaza, and reporting on both rocket fire and tunnels dug by Hamas into Israeli territory. To be fair, however, I also saw numerous articles reporting on peace demonstrations, critiquing the scale of Israeli response to rocket fire, and mourning the loss of life on both sides.
Though this is merely anecdotal, it seems fairly representative of the institutional American Jewish response to events in Ferguson. While individual rabbis and Jewish leaders have called attention to and even protested against the violence in Missouri, and many articles, including those in Tikkun, have argued strongly for a Jewish ethical obligation to the Ferguson protestors, major, mainstream Jewish organizations have been largely silent. The Anti-Defamation League offers a lesson plan for talking about Ferguson with students on its website, but its only official statement is a denunciation of the presence of the New Black Panther Party at the Ferguson protests. Of the mainstream American Jewish religious movements, only the Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism issued a press release regarding the violence in Ferguson.

Institutional American Judaism was once at the forefront of the civil rights movement. Famously, prominent rabbis like Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with civil rights leaders in the American South. Many of these Jewish leaders were inspired to ally themselves with powerless people of color in the United States because of their own experiences of oppression in Europe. We continue to celebrate the history of Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement over half a century ago, but have little to show for it today: what prominent American rabbi or lay leader went to march with the people of Ferguson?
We know that American Jewish institutions are capable of raising their voices for causes they hold dear: witness the recent strong public defense of Israel. Why have the same organizations been so quiet about the violence and anti-democratic tendencies in their own back yard? It would be impossible to answer that question definitively, but I would like to suggest one contributing factor that should trouble American Jews. Is it possible that the institutional American Jewish community – that is, the major organizations representing various facets of American Jewry, who have the money and visibility to exert the most influence in the public sphere – has been distracted, or worse, that its commitment to social justice in America has been adversely affected by its focus on Israel?

Israel support

Is support for Israel distracting away from Jewish commitment to social justice issues in the US? Credit: Creative Commons/SocialJusticeSeeker812

In its most benign interpretation, this theory would suggest that American Jewish institutions are so thoroughly occupied by their attention to Israel, not just in the recent crisis, but on an ongoing basis, that they no longer have the energy, interest, or time (not to mention funding) to fight injustice at home. That is, perhaps these organizations have made a conscious or unconscious decision to direct most of their energy toward support for Israel. The front page of the website of every major American Jewish organization, bar none, mentions various programs and initiatives designed to support Israel, so it is clear that Israel is a top priority. While this makes sense, and organizations must always make decisions about where and how to direct their necessarily limited energies, it would be worthwhile for American Jews to ask whether this focus on Israel draws Jewish attention away from engagement with important social and political issues in America that have always benefited from Jewish involvement and support. As many people have pointed out, Jewish tradition necessitates our involvement. Sympathy and solidarity with the powerless and oppressed has become a hallmark of what it means to be Jewish in America. It is part of how being Jewish has come to be defined.
Does this withdrawal from active institutional defense of civil rights in America, then, reflect a change in how the American Jewish community defines itself and its Judaism? Partly, it demonstrates a changed relationship to power. Certainly, Jews in America are relatively prosperous and successful, largely insulated from the kind of anti-Semitism that has been on the rise in Europe and, for the majority of us who are white, privy to the privileges of whiteness. But this cannot fully explain a withdrawal from active engagement in the crisis in Ferguson. Rather, I think it is partially the result of a more troubling, hidden connection to the American Jewish focus on Israel, one that only becomes clear when we draw the lines between the two conflicts. To be clear, the recent war between Israel and Hamas and the confrontation between police and protestors in Ferguson are not the same. Each situation has its own particular and unique history and context. But when tanks rolled down city streets and confronted unarmed protestors at the same time that a powerful military bombed areas densely packed with civilians, it was possible to see the ways in which power and powerlessness played out similarly in each situation. Even those involved in the conflicts recognized it: Palestinians in Gaza began to share advice on dealing with tear gas with Ferguson protestors on Twitter. And it was also easy to see which side of the power equation American Jewish institutions stand on: with Israel, with its tanks and its tear gas and its dominant military. I am not arguing whether this stand is justified – that argument is furious and ongoing. But any alliance with power has its consequences, and I am asking us to consider seriously the possibility that American Jewish organizations, steadfast as always in support of Israel, saw the inevitable parallels, imperfect as they are, between the people of Ferguson and the people of Gaza, and remained quiet. If so, American Jews must consider the possibility that our attention to Israel has paradoxically caused us to forget how, to paraphrase the words of the poet Gerald Stern, to behave like Jews.
Melissa Weininger is a Lecturer in Hebrew at Rice University.