In the weeks since Mike Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a white police officer, Americans have been shocked by images of tanks and tear gas in quaint neighborhood streets, journalists arrested while investigating, and riot police in full military attire pointing sniper rifles at peaceful protesters with their hands up. To many, the images reflect events of almost a half-century ago, as black men and women were assaulted at the height of the civil rights movement. And indeed, the system of racial inequality that began with hundreds of years of slavery and continued through the Jim Crow era has never been fully dismantled in the United States. Black people are overwhelmingly targeted by law enforcement for violence and their resistance to racism is discouraged through force and intimidation. The battle raging in Ferguson, Missouri, is only the latest chapter in a much longer struggle.
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Historically, American Jews have been on the right side of this struggle. More than half of the non-black participants in the historic Freedom Rides were Jewish. Jews not only played a prominent role in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, but also in the labor movement, the women’s movement and the anti-war movement. Jews continue to be leaders in social justice efforts in the United States, in numbers far greater than our population would indicate.
Growing up Jewish in America, I was taught this legacy with great pride. I learned that a commitment to social justice is a foundation of Jewish identity. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of Martin Luther King’s closest Jewish allies, summed up the perspective of the community when he said, “What is a Jew? A person whose integrity decays when unmoved by the knowledge of wrong done to other people.”
Yet for many Jewish Americans the situation in Ferguson called to mind images other than those of the south in the 1960s. As tear gas filled the air in Ferguson, many of my peers and me followed the unfolding events alongside the destruction and killing in the Gaza Strip and demonstrations in the West Bank. It was impossible not to see parallels. The battle in Missouri pitted a community denied equal access to resources or protection of the rule of law against a heavily armed force that attempts to control them through violence, intimidation and immunity. When commentators in the United States remarked that Ferguson looked like it was under police occupation they said what many of us were thinking.
There were also shared lessons from the summer’s violence, despite the differences in context and degree. In both Ferguson and the protests in the West Bank against Israel's military operation in Gaza, the use of overwhelming force backfired because it was so obviously disproportionate. In the Palestinian territories, as in the United States, state violence has been used as a means of control against a people struggling for their freedom. The notion that with enough military might people can be made to accept their lack of freedom is a dangerous myth, in the United States and in the Palestinian territories. People who are systematically denied equal access to resources or rights will never accept such a debased position. No amount of rubber bullets or tear gas or bombs will crush the desire for freedom.
While American Jews have usually been on the right side of the domestic struggle for freedom, we have recently been on the wrong side of the struggle in Israel and the Palestinian territories. To speak for justice in Ferguson while being silent about violence in Shujaiya, or the denial of rights in Ramallah, or the racism in Rishon Letzion isn’t just a contradiction; it calls into question our core commitment to equality and justice. Do we only care about justice when it is convenient, and doesn’t require us to take a look in the mirror? If we Jewish Americans are to continue our tradition of fighting for our neighbors to have equal rights, we cannot hold back when it is our community that is committing acts of injustice.
For many young American Jews, it is not possible to speak on behalf of justice in Ferguson and remain silent as our community participates in denying freedom, dignity and self-determination to Palestinians. This summer, I worked with other young Jews to launch #IfNotNow, a group calling on our community institutions to end their support for Israel's military occupation and support freedom and dignity for all in Israel and the Palestinian territories. In just three weeks, our fledgling movement grew from having eight members to attracting thousands at rallies in over a dozen cities.
We came together because the Jewish-American community must continue fighting for justice for all. To the people of color struggling against racism in the United States, we can offer our spirit, our bodies and our voices, as many of us have for generations. To our brothers and sisters in Israel and the Palestinian territories struggling to end the occupation and win freedom and dignity for all, we can offer the exact same things. We must do both. When we do one without the other we betray the very concept of justice for which we ostensibly speak.
The battles of Ferguson and Gaza have ended, but the struggles against racism and occupation continue. We cannot be on the right side of one and the wrong side of the other. So, which side will we be on?
Max Berger is a writer and political organizer living in Brooklyn. He is one of the founding members of #IfNotNow.