I, along with many other rabbis who support civil rights and racial equality, was deeply troubled by the Black Lives Matter movement’s recent decision to refer to Israel as an “apartheid state” in its platform. If the movement wants the Jewish community as an ally, it must understand there is no place for accusations that Israel is currently committing genocide. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed recently drew national attention and justified praise from our local Atlanta Jewish community for understanding such truths.
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Reed was approached by local leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement with a list of demands that included ending the city police department’s anti-terrorism training partnership with “Apartheid Israel.” He refused, saying ““I’m not going to do that; I happen to believe that the Israeli police department has some of the best counterterrorism techniques in the world, and it benefits our police department from that longstanding relationship.”
As someone who strongly supports civil rights, but who is also deeply concerned about attempts to delegitimize the State of Israel, I am deeply concerned by this frightening development within a movement that has catapulted onto the national stage as the voice of civil rights in recent months. The nature of this bizarre request within the context of serious discussions of racial inequality in America seems to be chutzpahdik, if not entirely out of bounds.
Yet recently, after reading about the term “intersectionality,” which loosely refers to groups of oppressed people linking together in common cause, I came to understand that many of the leaders of Black Lives Matter consider their movement’s struggle as inextricably linked with the struggle of the Palestinians. This most shocking approach is unquestionably shortsighted and will only undermine the credibility of the movement and the important cause of civil rights in America.
The Atlanta case demonstrates why I believe Jews – and many Americans – will not support the Black Lives Matter movement: its leaders have embraced the message of the failing Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement, rather than the largely accepted two-state solution. The mainstream Jewish community – not to mention the leaders of the Palestinian government – reject the BDS movement as harmful to progress, discriminatory and anti-Semitic. BDS’s exclusive obsession with Israel in the face of so many other world conflicts that it ignores is in a way, discriminatory. Thus, rather ironically, partnering with BDS and adopting their narrative furthers the kind of discrimination that the movement should be committed to ending and discredits it.
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict unquestionably has a place in American political discourse. However, its place should not be during a discussion about racial equality in America, which seems to be the core focus of the movement’s platform. And in the case of the Atlanta incident in particular, Black Lives Matter demonstrated an incredible ignorance of history and present circumstance that dictates that these conflicts should not be linked whatsoever.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict stems from complex issues of theology and localized geography. Its failure to progress further is also due to unique security and territorial concerns that share nothing in common with the need to create a more racially just America. Palestinians were never physically enslaved; African-Americans do not today find themselves facing the prospect of statehood.
Further problematic is that the vast majority of Americans – including many African-Americans like Mayor Reed – are pro-Israel and do not want to be associated with movements that refer to Israel as an “apartheid state.” Introducing a foreign conflict with little-to-no direct effect on our everyday lives as Americans with no apparent connection only discourages us from wanting to become involved, and is a large misstep by the movement.
As a rabbi, I am proud of the role that rabbis have had historically in working to create a more racially just America. In my previous congregation in Livingston, New Jersey, our Rabbi Emeritus, Rabbi Samuel Cohen, flew down with many of his rabbinic colleagues to meet and support civil rights leaders in Alabama. Ten days before he was tragically killed in 1968, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously addressed the international gathering of Conservative Rabbis at their annual Rabbinical Assembly Convention. At that convention, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched arm and arm with Dr. King, spoke of the need of the Jew to “harken to [King’s] voice, to share his vision, to follow his way.”.
Unfortunately, the Black Lives Matter movement’s misguided steps have proven that their way is not the way of Dr. King, as they have created a pathway that the Jewish community and many Americans simply cannot follow. The recent decision by the movement to refer to Israel as an “apartheid state” in its national platform only confirms this decision. If the movement wants to be successful, it would be best that it focus on the cause that launched it in the first place: the cause of racial equality. Otherwise, the American Jewish community and many Americans will sadly sit this one out.
Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the Senior Rabbi at Congregation Etz Chaim in Marietta, GA, a suburb of Atlanta. He is currently a Vice President of Mercaz, the Conservative Movement's Zionist Organization in the United States.