[Managing Editor’s note: Cherie Brown, the founder and executive director of the National Coalition Building Institute, recently published an online piece in Tikkun that addressed controversy over a portion of The Movement for Black Lives platform the dealt with Israel/Palestine. You can read that piece here. The article below, from Donna Nevel, is a response to that article. Neither represents the official position of Tikkun. For Tikkun’s official stances, please refer to the editorials published in the print magazine, which you can subscribe to at www.tikkun.org/subscribe.]
The Movement for Black Lives recently put forth a profound platform that, as Robin D. G. Kelley wrote, “is actually more than a platform. It is a remarkable blueprint for social transformation that ought to be read and discussed by everyone.”
Cherie Brown’s piece on what progressive Jews should be thinking about in relation to this platform – specifically what it says about Israel and Palestine – does not remotely reflect the deeply thoughtful, kind, loving, liberatory nature of that platform or of the Palestinian-led work for justice in Palestine and the world-wide solidarity among so many different communities. Rather, her article caricatured and misrepresented that work for justice.
1. Brown writes: “Many Jews on campus report an atmosphere of intimidation when Jews question the validity ofBDS, even if they otherwise support Palestinian rights.”
In addition to this acontextual statement and lack of any documentation for the assertion she makes, Brown’s description of what students are experiencing on campuses leaves out a crucial picture of the (well-documented) harassment and intimidation of Palestinian students, Muslim student groups, and those promoting justice for Palestine. For detailed information that Brown did not include about what’s happening on campuses, please see two reports – one from Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), (“The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the U.S.”) that documents the suppression on U.S. campuses of advocacy for Palestinian human rights, and another from Jewish Voice for Peace (“Stifling Dissent: How Israel’s Defenders Use False Charges of Anti-Semitism to Limit the Debate on Campus”)that documents how Muslim and Arab students are being targeted, the bullying tactics of a range of American Jewish organizations, and the ways Israel advocacy groups intimidate student government to silence debate.
2. Brown writes: “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.”
Nothing about the Palestinian or Black communities coming together or The Movement for Black Lives platform on Israel necessitated a disruption of the “relationship” between Blacks and Jews – and, in fact, that wasn’t the case for thousands of Jews. Two growing progressive Jewish organizations, Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now, as well as thousands of other Jews, applauded the platform and continue to work in solidarity with Black and Palestinian activists.
But, more than that, this wasn’t about the Black-Jewish relationship nor should it have been. The authors of The Movement for Black Lives platform articulated a vision of liberation that includes solidarity with other communities facing structural violence. If Brown believes that is “rigid position taking” and is a cause of the disrupture between Blacks and Jews, then perhaps she should look more deeply at the role of American Jewish organizations, both conservative and liberal, in promoting or remaining silent about Israeli-state violence and injustice and in spending enormous resources to distort the intention of and/or attack the Palestinian-led, global movement for justice and strategies like Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) that are about holding Israel accountable to violations of human rights and principles of equal rights for all.
Further, even the notion of disrupture assumes that it was a meaningful relationship to start, which one can’t help but wonder about given the nature of some of the responses coming from Jewish groups.
3. Brown writes: “At the same time, we claim our rightto 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.”
Yes, Brown has the “right” to remain proud of Israel. Many of us (and our numbers are certainly growing) also have the right to be very much NOT proud of Israel for the antidemocratic, oppressive, brutal nation-state it is.
And she writes: “It concerns us when we hear people generalizing from oppressive Israeli policies to all “Jews” as a people.Wedo not want to accept the anti- Semitismthat exists in a number of liberation movements.”
What is she referring to here? Where is her documentation for this accusation, an accusation that is repeatedly and recklessly hurled (by supporters of Israel) at the movement for justice to discredit it? I do find it hard to believe that Brown doesn’t know well that the movement for Palestinian rights stands very clearly against Israeli state policies – not Jews. Further, the movement has a clearly articulated position of opposition to all forms of oppression and racism, including anti-Semitism. These positions are extremely visible.
4. Brown writes: “Ihavelistened to andsupported manyyoung 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).”
They are terrified to speak out as Jews about anti-Semitism because the platform speaks of the Israeli government’s ongoing violence and policies of displacement and dispossession against Palestinians? Why would they be talking about anti-Semitism at this moment? Even if one differs with the use of the word genocide, to suggest that Jews can’t then talk about anti-Semitism feeds into a dangerous narrative that conflates critique of Israel with anti-Semitism.
5. Brown writes: “Understanding the concept of Jews as both ‘oppressed’ and ‘oppressors’ has never been easy.” And she writes:” Those whodounderstand the ways that Jews act out oppressive behavioroften have troublealwaysacknowledgingor havingcompassion for the underlying history ofoppressionof Jewsthat fuels their oppressive behaviortoward others.”
Jews have been oppressed. And Israel is an oppressor. Why is this hard to reconcile even if we wish it were otherwise? Jews have experienced different forms of anti-Semitism throughout history. Israel is a nation-state and an occupying power. While Israel claims to represent all Jews, it in fact, does not and never has. Of course I know that Israel is considered the Jewish state and that many Jews and Jewish institutions around the world have supported Israeli policies (though those numbers are changing, particularly among younger Jews), but to say our history of oppression (she means all Jews?) is what fuels our oppressive behavior toward others (again, she means all Jews?) conflates all Jews (past and present) with the Israeli state (and with U.S. imperialism).
6. Brown writes: “Yet, the complexities of the Israeli Palestinian conflict require thinking andnuancedposition taking. Progressive Jews are having a particularly difficult time inthis polarizedclimate to create spaces for honest listening and dialogue on this key issue.”
She also writes: “In coalition building work, it is often helpful to remember what causes each other pain, and whenever possible, to refrainfrom using painful trigger words.” And then adds “But scoring points, using the most inflammatory words possible, usingrestimulatinglanguage 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.”
A number of things:
One critical principle of dialogue, I would think, is not to dictate the terms of the discussion to those with whom you are in dialogue. She talks about “nuance,” but if someone believes that what Israel is doing to the Palestinian people is not really nuanced – from the Nakba (catastrophe, in Arabic) of 1948 to the ongoing Nakba – then saying that is not cutting off dialogue. It is part of the dialogue.
The way Brown talks about trigger words is, again, about who she thinks should dictate the conversation. Being sensitive to a people’s histories does not mean not naming what another people is experiencing, even if it is hard to hear.
As part of the political work I participate in, I am committed to reaching out to other members of my community, the Jewish community(ies), and to engaging together about Israel and Palestine, about Islamophobia, about racism and white supremacy. But I sure don’t see my role as silencing the use of words that describe reality or the reality of thoughtful, deeply committed individuals and groups whose own history of challenging injustice is profound. I do see engaging with that language within our community(ies) as important – whether it’s agreeing with it or not. I hope the author will rethink what it really means to say the Movement for Black Lives was trying to “score points” and “use the most inflammatory words possible.”
7. Brown writes: “In the week when The Black Lives Matter Platform was released, the critical issues for Black African Heritagepeople (mass incarceration, a racist judicial system, racial profiling etc) shouldhave been the only issue of conversation.”
Brown continues to insist what the issues should have been in discussion. Again, why is that something she should be determining?
Nobody I know doing work for justice doesn’t acknowledge challenges – it is part of reflective, honest, thought-provoking work for liberation, always. I do hope Cherie Brown and others for whom her piece resonates will reflect on it more and think about each line and what assumptions are being made because I think we – and I speak now as part of Jewish communities – have a real opportunity to continue to participate with integrity in movements for justice and for dignity for all peoples.
Donna Nevel is a community psychologist, educator, and coordinator of PARCEO, a participatory action research center. She is a long time organizer for justice in Palestine/Israel, against Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism, and for justice in public education.