'I Can't Stand by and Watch': American Jewish Activists Take to the Streets Following Killing of George Floyd

'It’s very clear to me that our religion is based on the fact that we don’t just say a rosary, we do what's right,' says one protester calling for racial justice

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
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Dr. Vivian Fischer taking part in a demonstration against the killing of George Floyd, Minneapolis, May 28, 2020.
Dr. Vivian Fischer taking part in a demonstration against the killing of George Floyd, Minneapolis, May 28, 2020.Credit: Dr. Vivian Fischer
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri

Standing in the middle of a crowd of protesters in Minneapolis last Thursday, Dr. Vivian Fischer felt a mix of grief, rage, solidarity and fear. The local Jewish resident and her 16-year-old son Max took to the streets to join those calling for racial justice. 

The Minnesotan city has been the center of major unrest following the death last week of George Floyd after on-duty police officer Derek Chauvin placed his knee on the black man’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

Fischer is an urgent care physician. Although she has recently been furloughed, she was one of many medical professionals on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic. She had been very careful about maintaining social distancing since the guidelines were introduced in March, but made the decision to attend the protest and to take her son with her. She wanted to teach him that “you cannot always flee danger – there are times that you choose not to,” she said, and that “speaking out for causes that are not directly related to you is important. 

“There are many voices that will tell him not to speak up for other people,” Fischer said. “He needs to hear from his mom that not only do you vote with your feet, but not just when it’s convenient or safe, and not just when it’s your issue.”

She added: “As humanity goes, this is all our issue.”

Demonstrators taking part in the protest against the killing of George Floyd, Minneapolis, May 28, 2020.
Demonstrators taking part in the protest against the killing of George Floyd, Minneapolis, May 28, 2020. Credit: Vivian Fischer

Triaging pain 

Fischer has been involved in social justice efforts via the Jewish Community Action, a Minnesota-based group founded some 25 years ago. Its aim, according to its website, is to “bring together Jewish people from diverse traditions and perspectives to promote understanding and take action on racial and economic justice issues in Minnesota.”

Jewish Community Action Executive Director Carin Mrotz, who was also at the protests, told Haaretz that the past week has been especially challenging since groups members have been juggling their concerns over racism, police brutality and desire to get involved with the fact that their city has also seen an outpouring of violence. 

Dr. Vivian Fischer, left, and her son Max taking part in a demonstration against the killing of George Floyd, Minneapolis, May 28, 2020.
Dr. Vivian Fischer, left, and her son Max taking part in a demonstration against the killing of George Floyd, Minneapolis, May 28, 2020. Credit: Dr. Vivian Fischer

“It’s been a matter of really triaging our own pain about this while figuring out ways to channel productively as a community that is mostly white and mostly has access to resources,” she said.

With the coronavirus crisis still sweeping the United States and an average of some 600 new cases being reported every day in Minnesota, Mrotz said keeping her activists safe has also been a priority. She urged them all to maintain social distancing and wear masks at the demonstrations.

“It’s like we’ve started to frame the distancing required almost as a metaphor for how white people need to be showing up for racial justice: We do not take too much space, we do not center ourselves and, above all, we don’t create more harm,” she said. 

As anger over Floyd’s death spread across the country, protests turned violent with demonstrators setting police cars ablaze, looting and smashing windows, and being attacked by baton-wielding officers in streets from Atlanta to Los Angeles. Authorities are bracing for more violence, with some states deploying the National Guard to beef up overwhelmed forces.

Protesters taking part in a demonstration against the killing of George Floyd, New York, May 29, 2020.
Protesters taking part in a demonstration against the killing of George Floyd, New York, May 29, 2020.Credit: Gili Getz

Anti-Semitic vandalism has also been recorded. The walls of Congregation Beth El in the Fairfax District of LA were graffitied with “Free Palestine” and “Fuck Israel.” In Minneapolis, too, Mrotz’s own synagogue, Shir Tikvah, was defaced with similar graffiti. 

“We really had to grapple a bit with how much to even talk about that, because we see the connections that the same white supremacy that drives that graffiti is the same white supremacy that drives the police murder of an unarmed black man,” Mrotz said. “They are clearly connected, and also we grapple with how much to talk about our pain when others are in so much more significant pain.”

Jewish duty

Solidarity protests have also been taking place in New York since Floyd’s death, and they too turned violent in recent days. 

When she woke on Friday morning, the morning of the Shavuot holiday, Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg knew she had to go to a demonstration that day. “I felt such a heaviness in my heart and such grief,” she told Haaretz. 

Goldenberg, who belongs to the Reform movement, founded a Jewish spiritual community called Malkhut, which she leads in Queens. She made her way to Foley Square, Manhattan, holding a sign that read: “It’s a Jewish holiday today and this rabbi is here because I’ve had enough.”

Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg in New York with her sign stating: “It’s a Jewish holiday today and this rabbi is here because I’ve had enough.”
Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg in New York with her sign stating: “It’s a Jewish holiday today and this rabbi is here because I’ve had enough.”Credit: Gili Getz

Goldenberg has been active in struggles for racial justice for decades: She first took to New York’s streets calling for justice for Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant who in February 1999 was shot 41 times by four white NYPD officers, all later acquitted of murder.

“I cannot stand by and watch my fellow human be violated and have his life taken from him at the hands of a system that, if I don’t stand up [to it], then I’m complicit,” she said. “What is just as harrowing and upsetting as watching that officer put his knee on the neck of George Floyd and kill him was watching the other [three] officers standing around and not intervening.”

Goldenberg added that “any human being’s pain is [my] pain, any human being’s grief or rage is [my] rage and [my] grief.

“That’s what love is, and I think that’s what divine love is,” she said.

Protesters at the New York demonstration against the killing of George Floyd, May 29, 2020.
Protesters at the New York demonstration against the killing of George Floyd, May 29, 2020.Credit: Gili Getz

Jewish values

Beyond showing up at protests, Jewish Community Action members are also working with local organizations on long-term policy changes when it comes to matters such as policing and bail reform. The group’s activities are guided by Jewish values, Mrotz said. For her, watching Floyd’s death was “the destruction of an entire world.”

She concedes that her group comprises “people who are mostly white, and who mostly have economic privilege. But we still have a deep connection and historical memory of not just being othered but also being targeted,” she explained. “White privilege is so conditional: We have seen it expand to include [Jews] and sometimes contract to exclude us.”

Goldenberg concurred. Jewish people “know what it’s like to be marginalized,” she said. “We know what it’s like to be the victims of state-endorsed, state-sponsored violence. When the forces of white supremacy are raising their ugly head in this country or anywhere, we are not safe as Jews.” 

Protesters at the New York demonstration against the killing of George Floyd, May 29, 2020.
Protesters at the New York demonstration against the killing of George Floyd, May 29, 2020.Credit: Gili Getz

On Saturday, Fischer returned to the protests while wearing her medical scrubs, urging people to stay safe. As she walked through shattered glass and smoke, she admitted breaking her own safety rules for the first time when she saw a black man lying face down on the pavement, refusing to move. She kneeled down next to him and after a short exchange convinced the man, Mohammed, to follow her to the curb. 

“You see how red my eyes [are]? I have been crying all night. They are burning down my city!” she recalled the man saying to her in broken English. 

As he wept on her shoulder, Fischer said she thought: This is the moment when taking a health risk is worth it.

“It’s very clear to me that our religion is based on the fact that we don’t just say a rosary, we do what’s right, we do tikkun olam,” she said, referring to the Jewish concept of repairing the world. “To me, the decision to go and do what you can is very much rooted in Judaism.”

Protesters at the New York demonstration against the killing of George Floyd, May 29, 2020.
Protesters at the New York demonstration against the killing of George Floyd, May 29, 2020.Credit: Gili Getz

‘Outraged and devastated’ 

As the crisis unfolded, comments from President Donald Trump also stoked anger, especially after he tweeted that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” and urged a much tougher response to the unrest in states like Minnesota.

Liberal Jewish organizations spoke out against racism and police brutality in recent days, expressing solidarity with communities of color and condemning the president for his incendiary comments.

J Street wrote that “the killing of Mr. Floyd is but the latest in a horrific and seemingly never-ending string of assaults on the lives of African-Americans and other people of color. As Jews, we can recognize a society pervaded by fundamental and structural racism,” the statement said. “It has been clearly demonstrated in the coronavirus pandemic, whose victims are disproportionately black, brown and Native American.”

T’ruah: The Rabinnic Call for Human Rights said in a statement last week that “Black Lives Matter. And we commit to creating a country that lives by this statement.

It added: “We must not look away from these unjust acts of state violence, especially at a time when we are consumed by concern over COVID-19. Indeed, the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color is part of the same legacy of slavery and systemic racism that leads to state violence against black and brown people.” 

The Jewish Democratic Council of America also released a statement Friday, saying: “Our Jewish values call on us to support equality, righteousness and justice; an injustice to any community is an injustice we feel ourselves. Both the Jewish and Black communities have been a target of the rising hatred and division in our country in recent years. Racism and antisemitism are bred from the same dangerous ideology, and we must stand together against bigotry in all its forms.”

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