Many in the Jewish community were justifiably outraged when the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of dozens of organizations mobilizing for racial justice in America, made the libelous assertion in its recently published platform that Israel is an “apartheid state” perpetrating a “genocide” against the Palestinian people. There were feelings of confusion, disappointment, anger and even the hurt borne of betrayal. Some have called for an outright rejection of the Movement. Unless it changes course on this plank, these voices argue, they “can’t,” or, more accurately, won’t, support it.
This approach is wrongheaded and counterproductive. First, to abandon the Movement for Black Lives is to abandon the Jewish responsibility to fight for equality. The Jewish tradition sees the equality of all human beings as a fundamental religious principle, as close to an axiom as the Jewish tradition gets. Central to our faith is the notion that there is only one God, an assertion religious Jews affirm twice daily when we recite the Shema. The belief in one God means that all human beings are brothers and sisters, sharing as we do the same Creator. In the Torah, this God, the God of all humanity, is depicted as loathing racism (Numbers 12:1-10) and demanding the creation of a society where minorities receive special protection (Exodus 23:9, et. al.) and are treated equally before the law (Num. 15:16). For Jews to cease fighting for racial justice is to jettison a core part of who we are, and who we are called to be. We must remember that we Jews stand for more than just the State of Israel.
A special love for the land and people of Israel is unquestionably a core part of the Jewish tradition, and is rightly central to the moral and spiritual consciousness of most contemporary American Jews. However, supporting and strengthening the Jewish state and its citizens is not incompatible with supporting and strengthening the Movement for Black Lives. It is not zero-sum. Despite what (some of) the authors of the platform might believe, one does not have to choose one value in order to advance the other. The platform has six demands in total, of which the portion dealing with Israel (or, more accurately, U.S. financial and military support for Israel) is found in one part of one demand, “Invest-Divest.”
Surely one policy plank does not invalidate a whole platform. Divestment from Israel is not so central to the platform that one cannot plausibly support everything else in the platform except for that one plank.
If that is true, one might ask, then why did the platform’s authors include divestment from Israel in the first place? And why use such incendiary language? Is it not a distraction from the fight for racial equality? Does it prove, in the words of Rabbi Dan Dorsch, that the way of the Black Lives Matter movement is not the way of Dr. Martin Luther King, and that Jews should not join with the Movement as they did with Dr. King in the 1960’s?
Well, no. Dr. King famously wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” In 1963, King advanced that line of argument to explain why he, an Atlanta pastor, was concerned with the treatment of blacks in Birmingham. But in 1967, King employed the same line of reasoning to argue why he, an American civil rights activist, was joining the fight against the war in Vietnam. In a speech at New York City’s Riverside Church alongside Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, King offered several reasons why his involvement in the antiwar movement was directly connected to his civil rights work.
One reason was that the war effort diverted significant resources that could have been invested in the uplift of poor communities, both black and white. Another was that King felt he could not make a compelling case for non-violence in the pursuit of social change at home without speaking out against state-sanctioned violence in Vietnam. And, finally, King explained that he had to protest the war because of his common humanity - informed by his faith - with the people of Vietnam, caught up in and brutalized by decades of horrific war. He argued in that speech for a “genuine revolution of values,” for all nations to transcend provincial loyalty to cultivate “a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing, unconditional love for all men.”
If one adheres to Dr. King's philosophy and simultaneously believes that Israel is “an apartheid state” perpetuating a genocide against the Palestinian people, then American divestment from Israel is part and parcel of the struggle for civil rights at home, not a distraction. While I vehemently disagree with and am offended by that characterization of Israel, I understand the logic.
But those of us who admire Dr. King and the Jewish leaders who stood with him and yet disagree with the authors’ premise about Israel still must fight for racial justice - as well as engage in an honest conversation about how American foreign policy impacts that fight - lest we betray everything that Dr. King and his Jewish allies stood for.
And those who feel the platform’s assertions about Israel are too dangerous to be disregarded can actively fight against those who seek to advance its attendant policies in the arenas where those policies are being debated. But even that course of action does not prevent one from aligning with the Movement for Black Lives on every other issue, nor does it absolve one of the responsibility to fight for equality.
And make no mistake: Jews who are serious about the fight for racial equality in America should ally themselves with an organized movement - rather than advocate for justice independently - because the cause will only be effective through organized effort, strength in numbers, and “political will and power,” as the platform puts it. Ironically, this point should be obvious to American Jews. After all, the fight for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship is only achieved through the organized effort, strength in numbers, and political power of groups like AIPAC.
As was the case in the 1960’s, the Jewish community has the strength to help make the Movement for Black Lives a success. Abandoning it makes it more likely to fail, and any of us alone are unlikely to rectify centuries of systematic injustice. We Jews ought to be allies with those who fight for equality and dignity, for that is our fight, too.
Rabbi Michael Knopf is the Rabbi of Temple Beth-el in Richmond, Virginia, and is a Clal-Rabbis Without Borders Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiKnopf
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