Four years ago, the Movement for Black Lives put out a platform that, among a long list of detailed policy recommendations, accused Israel of genocide.
Several major Jewish organizations expressed their outrage and put out statements condemning the platform.
On Friday, the Movement for Black Lives is convening a Black National Convention, where it’s going to unveil another policy platform. A 10-page summary of the 2020 platform obtained by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency contains no mention of Israel, Zionism, Palestinian rights or the movement to boycott Israel.
A representative of the Movement for Black Lives who spoke with JTA could not say for certain whether the full platform would include any mention of Israel.
But to hundreds of Jewish organizations across the country, that question doesn’t seem to matter as much as it used to. On Friday morning, a Jewish statement in support of Black Lives Matter appeared in a full-page New York Times ad, signed by more than 600 national and local Jewish groups and synagogues, including a major umbrella body and three of the four major Jewish religious movements.
“We speak with one voice when we say, unequivocally: Black Lives Matter,” said the statement, which was first published in June. “The Black Lives Matter movement is the current day Civil Rights movement in this country, and it is our best chance at equity and justice.”
The Movement for Black Lives is a coalition of organizations that aims to formulate policy and develop strategies to advance the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is not representative of all of Black Lives Matter, which is a loose grassroots coalition, and does not speak for Black Lives Matter as a whole.
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The list of signatories to the statement in The New York Times included several of the organizations that publicly criticized the 2016 platform, including the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements, the Anti-Defamation League and others.
“Right now the focus is really on the desire to eliminate systemic racism and find justice for all the members of our society, and it’s less on our own specific Jewish concerns,” said Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly.
In 2016, the Rabbinical Assembly stated that it “appreciate[d] the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement” but said “we were stunned and outraged by the erroneous and egregious claims of genocide and apartheid that it levels against Israel.”
But on Friday, Blumenthal said that if this year’s platform includes the criticisms of Israel, “we’ll be able to express our disapproval of that particular piece of their platform but that does not affect our desire to see change when it comes to systemic racism and justice for every person in our society.”
The 2016 Movement for Black Lives platform was primarily focused on domestic concerns but included several lines about Israel. “The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people,” the platform said. It also referred to Israel as an apartheid state and called for the end of U.S. aid to Israel.
If the new platform does include harsh criticisms of Israel, it could lose the support of some American Jews, notwithstanding the New York Times ad. Expanding the platform to take aim at other countries accused of oppressing minority groups would address the criticism that Israel was being singled out, but it would further dilute the movement’s focus on domestic concerns of racial justice. And losing the language entirely could make Black Lives Matter vulnerable to criticism from pro-Palestinian activists who are often in coalition with anti-racist groups.
So far this year, the Movement for Black Lives has steered clear of discussion of Israel in 2020. A bill called the BREATHE Act put out by the movement focuses primarily on incarceration and policing. Policy papers already published as part of the movement’s 2020 platform do not mention Israel or related issues.
In the 10-page summary platform, Israel is likewise absent. A short section on demilitarization calls for reparations to nations harmed by U.S. military intervention but does not specify any foreign conflicts. It calls for divesting from the fossil fuel industry, school policing, immigration enforcement and surveillance, but not from Israel.
The document calls for reparations for Black Americans, a federal minimum wage of at least $15 per hour, a repeal of the 1994 crime bill, a 50% reduction in defense spending, investment in environmentally friendly programs, an end to deportations of immigrants and more.
The Black National Convention, the event where the full platform will be unveiled, is billed as a “series of conversations, performances, and other activations geared toward engaging, informing, and mobilizing Black communities.”
It is one of two national Black convenings taking place Friday night. The other is the final event of the Virtual March on Washington, an event that commemorates the 1963 March on Washington and that is calling attention to the current protests against police violence. Jewish groups will be participating in that event.
“Jews are realizing, and Americans are realizing, that our society is not equitable,” said Rabbi Sandra Lawson, a Black Jewish leader who serves as assistant chaplain for Jewish life at Elon University in North Carolina. Elon’s Hillel signed the statement supporting Black Lives Matter.
“You can choose to ignore that police treat people differently but when it keeps showing up on your television screen… we’re now at a point where many in America cannot ignore this anymore or turn a blind eye to it,” Lawson said.
Some Jewish leaders who spoke to JTA said they signed the statement because they see anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism as related evils. Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, which advocates for progressive policies, said COVID-19 and the upcoming election make it even more urgent to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We as Jews know what it is to be at the receiving end of violent systems of oppression and bigotry,” he said. “And for those of us who are white Jews in America, we benefited from our privilege and our whiteness and therefore cannot abdicate our place, those of us who are white Jews, to build the power to truly transform the United States into the country that will confront the centuries that created these systems.”
Some Jewish organizations have continued to oppose Black Lives Matter because of the 2016 platform. Most vocal has been the Zionist Organization of America, a right-wing group, which has sent out a series of press releases against the movement. One such statement, in June, said the movement supported “virulent, institutional antisemitism, other discriminatory hatreds, and anti-Israel blood libels.”
But Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the executive director of the liberal rabbinic human rights organization T’ruah, said Jewish groups placed disproportionate focus on the Israel statements in the 2016 platform at the expense of a larger cause.
“In there, there were about two sentences about Israel, and one can disagree with the particular phrasing of that critique, or anything else in those 200 pages, without rejecting the entire movement,” she said. “And so, for example, we still don’t think that the word genocide, according to international law, is appropriately applied to Israel. What is most important right now, in the United States is that Black people not be killed by police or vigilantes.”
Lawson called the controversy over the 2016 platform “a hard time for me.” She said she’s grateful to Jews who remained in conversation with the Movement for Black Lives, and other Black Lives Matter activists, to educate them about anti-Semitism while continuing to combat racism. She hopes this year’s platform does not include the statements condemning Israel, though she said criticism of the Israeli government is fair game for the movement’s platform.
“What myself and other Jews of color have been trying to get Jewish communities to understand is, if you are not part of the conversation, then you can’t really complain about the outcome,” she said. “Many in the Jewish community have built really strong relationships with many of the organizers of Black Lives Matter. For me as a Jew of color, whatever’s in that statement doesn’t matter, because I’m still going to chant ‘Black Lives Matter.'”