The Jewish Activist Behind the Black Lives Matter Platform Calling Israel’s Treatment of Palestinians 'Genocide’

Jewish allies of the movement whose focus is on guaranteeing justice for African-Americans feel hurt, angry and betrayed.

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Demonstrators wave the Palestinian flag and chant slogans during a march by various groups, including 'Black Lives Matter' in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., July 17, 2016.
Demonstrators wave the Palestinian flag and chant slogans during a march by various groups, including 'Black Lives Matter' in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., July 17, 2016.Credit: Adrees Latif, Reuters

Correction: Due to an editor's error, a previous version of this article included as its main image a photograph of Yavilah McCoy. McCoy is quoted in the article, but is not the person referred to in the headline. Haaretz regrets any false impression that may have been created. (10/8/2016)

NEW YORK — The new platform associated with the Black Lives Matter movement that calls Israel’s treatment of Palestinians “genocide” and “apartheid” has shocked and upset many of the movement’s Jewish allies. Most of the platform’s readers are likely unaware that its Israel/Palestine section was written by an activist who was born and raised as a Jew, although Rachel Gilmer says she no longer identifies as Jewish.

The Movement for Black Lives is a coalition of over 60 organizations affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement. The “Invest-Divest” chapter of the platform, which is also available as a separate electronic document, urges the United States to redirect military aid to Israel and Egypt into domestic needs such as education and health care. It includes a link to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and another to a website devoted to black-Palestinian solidarity, in a reflection of the growing alliance between the communities.

The strong language has left many of the Black Lives Matter movement’s Jewish allies — who are lighting up social media with posts — feeling, in their own words, hurt, alienated and betrayed. And it is dividing the Jewish community in ways that tensions over Israel/Palestine increasingly do, with mainstream Jewish groups calling out the platform for its harsh denunciation of Israel, and a couple of grassroots organizations including If Not Now, defending it.

Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, which has been at the forefront of working with Black Lives Matter groups in protesting racial injustices, declined to comment for this article.

Using the terms genocide and apartheid in regard to Israel is “offensive and odious,” wrote Rabbi Jonah Pesner, executive director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, in a statement.

'Libel against Israel'

“In asserting that U.S. support for Israel makes it ‘complicit in the genocide committed against the Palestinian people,’ and labeling Israel as ‘an apartheid state,’ the MBL libels Israel, while diluting the moral seriousness of those terms,” AJC, formerly known as the American Jewish Committee, said in its statement.

After saying they were “deeply dismayed” by “the co-opting and manipulation of a movement addressing concerns about racial disparities in criminal justice in the United States in order to advance a biased and false narrative about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict,” the heads of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston announced that the organization was breaking with the platform “and those Black Lives Matter organizations that embrace it.” At the same time, they said, “we recommit ourselves unequivocally to the pursuit of justice for all Americans, and to working together with our friends and neighbors in the African-American community.”

Gilmer told Haaretz, “I don’t think it’s a loss” to the Black Lives Matter movement. “It’s just made it clear that they weren’t real allies.”

So what impact is this policy platform making, aside from prompting upset?

Yavilah McCoy, a black Jewish activist who has been deeply involved in both the Black Lives Matter movement and Jewish groups, said the platform highlighted the disconnect between Black Lives Matter activists and Jewish activists, a relationship that was “plagued by an avoidance of contact,” she said.

“When people are making statements in the absence of deep relationship it doesn’t take it forward,” she told Haaretz in an interview. “It is relationships that caused people within the Black Lives Matter movement to stand in solidarity with Palestinians. When we as a Jewish community are in relationships that go back 20, 30 years we can rely on those relationships to be heard in a moment like this and have our issues addressed,” McCoy said.

T’ruah’s executive director, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, said, “The long term organizational alliances aren’t going to go away, but there is this growing sense that in order to be part of this movement as a whole you have to reject Israel.” T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights has worked with black and other faith groups on issues relating to mass incarceration of blacks, for instance, and other issues of concern to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Israel’s “military occupation does not rise to the level of genocide,” T’ruah wrote in its statement.

Gilmer is chief of strategy for Dream Defenders, a Florida youth-focused organization.

She told Haaretz in an interview that she recently visited Palestine, referring to both Israel proper and the West Bank.

'Patriarchy, imperialism and colonialism'

“Going this past May was so transformative. Seeing all the parallels between black and Palestinian struggles. ... Gentrification [in the United States] parallels home demolition [in Israel and the West Bank]. Going to the apartheid wall and seeing how it broke up communities ... it’s the same systems of patriarchy, imperialism and colonialism that we’re up against,” Gilmer said, referring to the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank. “I started thinking more about how important it is for us to stand in solidarity with Palestinian people. ... We are never going to get free in the U.S. if the rest of the world is in chains.”

Gilmer’s father is African-American, her mother is Jewish and she herself was raised as a Jew. But Gilmer told Haaretz that she no longer identifies as Jewish because “I was somewhat scarred by my experience” growing up as a biracial Jew. “I got called Aunt Jemima. I had a lot of internalized racism. When I became politicized around my race, I became very angry,” she said.

Her May visit to Israel was not her first, but she declined to say when or in what context she had come.

Jews were allied nearly from the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, which began as a hashtag after George Zimmerman was acquitted of shooting to death Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2013, but developed into a wider protest movement the following year after the deaths at the hands of police officer of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York.

Rabbis and other community leaders protested in Ferguson and were prominent in demonstrations that shut down parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn in December 2014. Over 25 rabbis and other Jews were arrested in those protests.

An extraordinary number of American Jews have taken to Facebook and other social media to criticize the Israel policy of the Movement for Black Lives platform.

“I cannot financially contribute or be actively involved with a movement that attacks the land that I love, and the only refuge for Jewish people in the world, based on lies and anti-Semitism,” wrote Jody Fox, a 68-year-old massage therapist in Wesley Hills, New York, on Facebook.

“It has alienated their Jewish allies,” he told Haaretz in an interview.

Still committed to social justice

T’ruah’s Jacobs and others were careful to reiterate their continuing commitment to working toward justice for black American with other organizations.

“Being in coalition usually means not being in total agreement with everyone else in the coalition,” said Jacobs. “Sometimes the Catholic Church weighs in on solitary confinement and the death penalty,” issues T’ruah addresses, “but we’ll never work together on issues of reproductive justice.”

Haaretz asked Gilmer if she or her co-author consulted with any Jewish allies before issuing that section of the platform, “Using the word genocide wasn’t a haphazard piece of work,” Gilmer said. “It was a yearlong process of bringing together 60 organizations about our vision for the world as black people. We’ve been in community with Jewish Voice for Peace, If Not Now and individual Jewish people who are against the occupation.”

The grassroots organization If Not Now, which was born out of protesting Israel’s military response to rockets being shot from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014, issued a statement demanding that the Boston JCRC retract its own.

Said Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Boston JCRC, “We continue to work on the issues on which we are aligned, but not in alliance with organizations that embrace the ‘genocide’ aspect of the platform. I decline to comment on demands from INN because of their demonstrated track record of refusing to engage in conversations with us in the past.”

Isaac Luria is the vice president of Auburn Seminary’s digital-action platform, Auburn Action. “We have a choice — to step away and turtle up in our own sector (which is what much of the right in our community wants to do) or to figure out how to engage productively, intentionally, and purposefully in offering the gift of Jewish participation to these social movements, which are, [by the way], shaping our society at its very foundations,” Luria wrote on Facebook.

Said T’ruah’s Jacobs, the situation arising from the Black Lives Matter platform “is very painful to me. It’s painful that Israel has become the most evil state in the world to some people, that’s how so many people see Israel. It’s painful that Israel is engaged in a military occupation that is destructive for Palestinians and Israelis. It’s painful when people I agree with on most issues aren’t able to understand the Jewish trauma through the Holocaust and terrorist attacks. It’s painful that people aren’t able to hold two truths.”

What’s more, Jacobs said, Jews have to continue working on issues of racial justice in part “because the more we are in partnership with people the more we can actually break through and have our voices heard.”

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