Opinion

White Jews Left the Movement for Racial Justice. But It’s Not Too Late to Return

Jewish institutions' condemnation of the Black Lives Matter platform laid bare an uncomfortable truth: The glory days of Heschel marching with King are long gone. We didn't earn a place at the platform drafting table.

Protesters in New York City. Sign in Hebrew reads: 'Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue.'
Protesters in New York City. Sign in Hebrew reads: 'Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue.' C. Carolina Kroon

Several weeks ago prior to writing these words, Terence Crutcher was shot to death by Betty Shelby. He was a black man, she a white police officer. He was unarmed and had his hands in the air. They always shoot. It just isn’t worth hesitating — making oneself vulnerable.

Watching the video, shot from a hypnotically circling helicopter, was like watching a diorama; a model miniature. We have become so accustomed to the tropes of black deaths and police violence that they assemble and reassemble themselves effortlessly, and regularly. He had his hands up; she didn't; this one mistook his gun for a Taser; that one thought the wallet was a weapon; she made a sudden movement; he didn't move at all. A wife/friend/daughter/caregiver screams or pleads with the police: "he doesn't have a gun;" "he just needs his medication;" "please, please don't shoot her." But the pleading never works. If it did, we wouldn't be watching the video. They always shoot. 

Two months ago the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of over 50 organizations including the Black Lives Matter network, released the Vision for Black Lives, a policy platform that outlined vital, concrete actions that our local and federal government could take to end police violence, invest in racially disadvantaged communities and repair relationships with black people in America. 

One word, in a manifesto for a new future for black Americans

In one section, the authors call on the government to redirect federal grants to ethically compromised foreign armies and instead invest in struggling communities in the United States. In one paragraph out of hundreds the authors name Israel as one of many problematic nations, and use the word "genocide" to describe the Palestinian experience of Israeli state violence and occupation.

Demonstrators chant slogans during a march by various groups, including "Black Lives Matter" ahead of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 17, 2016.
Lucas Jackson, Reuters

As a Jewish person who is also black, it was almost painful to read the full Vision For Black Lives. The platform is breathtaking in its breadth and scope. I had to browse through it multiple times before it fully dawned on me just what I was really reading: a blueprint for thoroughly dismantling centuries of institutional anti-black racism in America. 

This, the document seemed to shout, is what you would do if our lives actually mattered. It was painful because of how transparently earnest and hopeful it is. Not just the sheer amount of labor that obviously went into it, but the amount of vulnerability and hope evidenced. The release of the platform felt vertiginous — like a long held secret spilling out into the open. Dozens of people from scores of organizations meticulously cataloging their greatest dreams for their community. Black people — my people — describing what it would look like for our nation, finally, to love us.

So when the Jewish community came undone over one paragraph — in some cases, over one word — in the massive policy tract, my experience of what followed was deeply angering and frustrating, like watching from the bottom of a canyon while two estranged parties shouted at each across the yawning chasm. The Jewish institutional world, led almost exclusively by white people, communicated in statements and counter-statements, op-eds and Twitter feeds. Jews of color could only watch in horror, an afterthought at best. 

White Jews long ago stopped seeing racial justice as 'our' struggle

Why was it so easy, I kept wondering, as I read one press release after another, for them to condemn with such rapidity? Would you not, before denouncing someone’s dream, at least hesitate? Approach aggrieved, but with curiosity, love and humility? At one point, I believe we would have, but white Jews long ago stopped seeing racial justice as “our” struggle. And then stopped showing up.

This summer some uncomfortable truths were laid bare. Our communities — communities of color and Jewish communities, grassroots racial justice organizations and Jewish institutions — aren't invested in each other. We don't have the kinds of real, meaningful relationships that prevent painful ruptures like the one we just experienced from occurring in the first place and speed the healing when we do make mistakes. 

There are some exceptions. At Jews For Racial & Economic Justice in New York, where I work, we have worked for 25 years in deep partnership with other organizations led by people of color. That means that we have personal relationships and friendships with leaders in other communities. We go to their planning meetings and fundraisers and they come to ours. So when our friends, allies and neighbors — most of them black and brown — are out in the streets fighting for justice, they know that we will be there with them.

A long drift away from the days of Heshel and King

But unfortunately this kind of long-term mutual commitment across racial and generational lines isn't the norm in today's Jewish communities. We've come a long way since the glory days of the civil rights movement — of Heschel marching with King, and Jewish Freedom Riders desegregating bus stations. Driven by the inertia of assimilation, upward mobility, and the politics of respectability, we as a Jewish community have drifted away from our history of challenging the foundations of injustice. 

And more importantly we have drifted away from our relationships with black people and their ongoing struggle for racial justice. When Black Lives Matter emerged in 2013, it had been decades since the mainstream Jewish community was actively involved in grassroots racial justice. Racism didn't go away, Jews did.

Martin Luther King Jr. in the front line of the third march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Second from right is Rabbi Joshua Heschel, March 21, 1965
AP

Thus, when it came time for the sprawling coalition that is the Movement For Black Lives to write their visionary platform, there was no meaningful plurality of black Jews in the room to weigh in on the language they chose. When it comes to that particular moment of the writing process, there is accountability to be had on all sides, and there are plenty of Jews of color now engaging in an ongoing and healthy dialog with representatives of the Movement For Black Lives. But that doesn't change the basic fact that most white Jews have never been to a local Black Lives Matter action or donated to one of the grassroots organizations in their area working for racial justice. This estrangement doesn't reflect the best aspects of our history as a people.

Jews need to take risks and show up

Our best selves emerge when we take risks and show up. I have never been more proud of our New York Jewish community than when, this summer, hundreds of Jews turned out in the streets of New York for JFREJ's Jews4BlackLives mobilizations following the killings of Alton Sterling, Korryn Gaines, Philando Castile and Delrawn Small. And small numbers of Jews have been present as individuals and sometimes through institutions at Black Lives Matter actions all over the country. But despite these important exceptions, the reality is that the Jewish community has overwhelmingly been at the edges of this movement, or absent entirely.

When I show up to a meeting or action in a community of color, I am welcomed as a black person, but I sometimes face ignorance and confusion about my Jewish identity. This is saddening and occasionally even crosses into anti-Semitism. As a black Jew, I will never stop fighting for my place within the black community — I will show up proudly black, and proudly Jewish and demand to be loved and respected for both of these identities. And when the next platform is drafted, I want to see black Jews at the table, shaping the vision and language.

But the reality is that for many people of color, their only experience of Jews is as more white people. White strangers who go about their lives disengaged while we watch our siblings being stopped and frisked, our civil rights violated and our friends harassed or jailed. We want neighbors, allies and friends, not onlookers. Instead of Jews being strangers, I want communities of color to think of Jews instinctively as their friends and allies and family — as the people they know intimately from planning meetings and protests and campaigns. These kind of deep, enduring and lasting relationships — bound in struggle; grounded in work both mundane and exhilarating — these relationships are the best vehicles we can ever create for building mutual understanding and trust, for fighting anti-Semitism and white supremacy.

Teshuva: When did we stop answering the call to fight?

We are entering the season of teshuva, tefilah, tzedakah. The moment in our calendar when we look long and hard at who we are so that we can create a foundation of truth for who we want to become. We can reflect on where, collectively, we went astray. On why the pain of past traumas allowed us to so cavalierly dismiss the pain right in front of us. On what would cause a people to suffer so much that they would describe their experience as genocide, and why that would resonate so much with another community, an ocean away, that they would take up their cause. 

We can reflect on why we, collectively, stopped answering the call to fight alongside our black and brown neighbors and the Jews of color in our midst — why we often don't even know their faces. As the Rambam states, we must do differently after our self-reflection. We will, I hope, learn to be vulnerable. Rather than rushing to refute and denounce, we will lean in and we will listen and ask to be listened to. So that the next time we feel hurt or afraid, we will also know that we are looking into the face of a friend, and before hurting them in turn, we will hesitate.

Leo Ferguson is a Community Organizer at Jews For Racial & Economic Justice. He is the founder of JFREJ’s Jews of Color Caucus, one of the leaders of the Grace Paley Organizing Fellowship and was co-organizer of 2016’s Jews of Color National Convening. Follow him on Twitter @LeoFergusonnyc