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Nazi Eagles and Confederate Flags: Why Orthodox Jews and Black Lives Matter Are Natural Allies

The Jewish and black communities face a common enemy in white supremacy. But being targets of the same hate is not the only reason for Orthodox Jews to show up

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People participate in a march in Brooklyn for Black Lives Matter and to commemorate the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth on June 19, 2020 in New York City
People participate in a march in Brooklyn for Black Lives Matter and to commemorate the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth on June 19, 2020 in New York CityCredit: AFP

Many Jewish Americans, particularly Orthodox Jews like me, with strong religious and personal ties to Israel, have been hesitant to embrace the Black Lives Matter movement.

We are no less alarmed than any black American by racism and police brutality, and every bit as dedicated to the cause of civil rights. But there is wariness about BLM’s attitude toward the Jewish state. 

After all, in 2016, a coalition of groups affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement drafted a platform that included the wild accusation that Israel is guilty of "genocide" and referred to her as an "apartheid" state." It went on to accuse Israel and her supporters of pushing the U.S. into wars and embraced the BDS campaign to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel.

Lost in all the angst and umbrage, though, is an important fact. There is Black Lives Matter and then there is "Black Lives Matter."

That is to say, there is an organization by that name, and then there is the broader national popular movement that has adopted the three words as its slogan.

Members of the Orthodox Jewish community watch as protesters walk through the Brooklyn borough on June 3, 2020, during a Black Lives Matter protest in New York CityCredit: AFP

The 2016 platform has been removed from the group’s website - a search for it on the web yields a 404 error message, signaling that the pages no longer exist. A search of the blacklivesmatter.com site’s search engine for "Israel," moreover, offers no results at all.

More important, though, is the fact that Black Lives Matter has morphed beyond the group that coined the phrase. It has become a concept, the contemporary stand-in for what was once called the civil rights movement. And, no less than that older movement, the current one should engage all Jews.

Back in 1964, the late and lamented Dr. Marvin Schick, writing in The Jewish Observer, the monthly then published by Agudath Israel of America (for which, full disclosure, I work), contended (in the language of the time):

"It is our historical and religious heritage that compels us to sympathize with the plight of the Negro. It is unthinkable that a people so oppressed throughout history would not today rally to support the cause of the American Negro, now afflicted by the irrational forces of hatred and bigotry. Anything short of this by American Orthodox Jewry is to reject the principles that we have stood by through the millennia of persecution and to which we must remain equally faithful in a free society."

During recent protests, black civil rights activist and leader of the Crisis Action Center, Rev. Kevin McCall, told a crowd of hundreds of Orthodox Jews who marched down Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway in solidarity with the black community, that Terrence Floyd, the brother of George Floyd, whose death at Minneapolis police’s hands set off the national demonstrations, "is grateful that right here in Brooklyn where he lives, the Jewish community understands what happened to his brother."

For those of us who are visibly Jewish, there is a complicating factor: that we have faced hostility from individuals from the black community. Last year, a group of young black men thought it amusing to greet me with "Heil Hitler"; and a few months ago a black man on a city bus glowered at me and ran his hand, holding an imaginary knife, across his throat.

But from my substantial contact with the black community I know that the haters aren’t the norm. And I know that being black in America is still difficult, even dangerous.

What the black and Jewish communities both need to come to terms with is that the worst actors in each group are not who represent the group; the best ones are. And the path forward for both communities is to focus not on the worst but on the best of the other. Americans both Jewish and black should be natural allies.

Charlottesville should have been sufficient to make the Jewish and black communities recognize their connected fate. The ad promoting the neo-Nazi "Unite the Right" rally in that city was designed to evoke a fascist poster, with birds reminiscent of the Nazi eagle soaring through the sky over marchers carrying Confederate flags instead of swastikas.

Nazi eagles and Confederate flags. 

Carrying torches, white supremacists loudly and lustily chanted "Jews shall not replace us!" And, as one demonstrator informed a Vice News reporter, "This city is run by Jewish communists and criminal niggers." 

The Jewish and black communities face a common enemy in white supremacy. But being jointly targets of hate is not the only reason for Jews to show up: our fellow black citizens are suffering, and we owe them our solidarity and care.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is a blogger, commentator and author, and serves as Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs. Twitter: @RabbiAviShafran