Jewish activist communities have historically been allies to communities of color in the fight for racial justice and equality in our country. Jews were among those who worked to establish the NAACP in 1909. In the early 1900s, Jewish newspapers drew parallels between the Black movement out of the South and the Jews’ escape from Egypt, pointing out that both Blacks and Jews lived in ghettos, and calling anti-Black riots in the South “pogroms.” Historically, Jewish leaders stressed the similarities rather than the differences between the Jewish and Black experience in America, and emphasized the idea that both groups would benefit the more America moved toward a society of merit, free of religious, ethnic, and racial restrictions. In more recent history, Blacks and Jews fought side by side in the Civil Rights Movement. The kinship and relationship between the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has been regularly and continually celebrated.
What has been less often discussed is the relevance of the social circumstances that created and, in some cases, still sustains a rift between Black activists and white Jewish anti-racism activists. In the late 1960s, the birth of the Black Power movement shifted the emphasis in Black activist communities toward self-determination, self-defense tactics, and racial pride. While this shift was crucial to the evolution of Black consciousness and identity in America, the expansion from the singular nonviolence and racial integration approach espoused by King left many white Jewish activists with little input in the Black community and an anti-racism movement that seemed to be moving on without them.
Since the 1960s, efforts at coalition building and solidarity work for justice between white Jewish and Black communities have suffered and never reached the pinnacle that was reached during the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. The rapid decline of American anti-Semitism since 1945 (alongside the nation’s continuing and pervasive anti-Black racism) and the increasing gap in accumulated wealth and education between Black and Jewish communities have widened the rift of perceived shared interests between Black and Jewish activists. Many of the civil rights struggles that joined Blacks and Jews in the middle of the last century—i.e., anti-lynching, desegregation, voter registration, etc.—were typically organized around divisions in society that easily identified injustices between persecutors and their victims (a division in which Jews could also identify as victims). Between the late 1960s and the present, much of the anti-racism work that has galvanized Black activists has shifted and come to be concerned more specifically with disparities in access, privilege, and power between those with and without white skin privilege in our country.
A Weakened Coalition
In 2013, the lack of deep and abiding connections between Black and Jewish communities of activists became apparent to me in the disparate responses I encountered to the events surrounding the killing of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman.
Here’s a quick summary for any readers who need a reminder of what happened: in July 2013, after more than sixteen hours of deliberation, a jury of five white women and one Latina woman found George Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter. Previously, on a drizzly February night, Zimmerman had shot Martin, an unarmed seventeen-year-old, in a gated community in Sanford, near Orlando. Citing Florida’s stand-your-ground law, Sanford police originally did not charge Zimmerman or take him into custody. Only after social media outrage and civil rights protests alleged racial profiling and discrimination did Governor Rick Scott appoint a special prosecutor, who brought the charges against Zimmerman six weeks after the shooting. In the July 2013 hearing, the jury found that while Zimmerman justifiably used deadly force in his struggle with Martin on the night of February 26, 2012, they also believed that such force was “necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm” to himself—Florida’s definition of self-defense.
In the days following the verdict, I found myself inspired by the groundswell of activism that was led by young people of color across the United States and troubled by what appeared to be a great silence among many of the white Jewish social justice activists I know in regard to the events that transpired. There were the usual Jewish advocates for racial justice issues like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, which organized groups in New York to attend rallies and continued to address and connect the issues in the Trayvon Martin case to New York’s stop-and-frisk law and other pervasive issues of fear, safety, and control in New York’s policing policies.
The Anti-Defamation League’s public statement said it did not question the verdict but also argued that the case “raised serious questions about the wisdom of stand-your-ground laws and the easy access to concealed weapons permits,” noting that “had neither been in place, this tragedy may have never occurred” and calling for “continued and much-needed discussion about the lingering impact of racism in society.”
Tikkun and the Tikkun Daily blog published roughly twenty pieces about Trayvon Martin and Zimmerman’s acquittal, including a piece by executive editor Michael Lerner, as well as numerous pieces on stop-and-frisk.
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