By Shalle’ McDonald and Sean Savage/JNS.org
As a minority group that has faced down centuries of anti-Semitism, the Jewish people have long stood shoulder-to-shoulder with other long-suffering and persecuted minority groups such as African-Americans.
This was evident during the Civil Rights Movement when Jewish leaders stood against segregation in the south. That allegiance continues today with Jewish figures speaking out against inequality that many African-Americans face.
Despite this solidarity, Jewish and African-American relations today face one of their biggest challenges yet. Some affiliated with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement are seeking to blend their struggles in America with the pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel movement, which threatens to drive a wedge between the two groups.
An off shoot of BLM, the Movement for Black Lives, described Israel as “an apartheid state with over 50 laws on the books that sanction discrimination against the Palestinian people,” in an Aug. 1 platform called “A Vision for Black Lives.”
The platform stated there was a “genocide taking place against the Palestinian people” instigated by Israel and called on the U.S. to stop all aid to the Jewish state.
The ideological connection between perceived racial injustices in Israel and America is not as strange as some may think, according to Dr. Asaf Romirowsky, executive director for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), a non-profit that addresses anti-Semitism and anti-Israel rhetoric through academia.
“None of this new in the sense that they’ve been able to make that connection, loosely as it may be, from a kind of sympathy,” Romirowsky told JNS.org.
“Anybody looking for an underdog cause in some way has found a solution and an outlet through the Palestinian cause. BLM is no different in that regard,” he added.
That connection is evident given the background of the co-author of the Israel section of “A Vision for Black Lives,” Rachel Gilmer.
Gilmer, a 28-year-old African-American raised Jewish, is associated with the BLM-affiliated group Dream Defenders, which brought African-American activists to Israel and the West Bank.
“While our struggles are not identical, it became so clear that we are up against the same system of state violence and repression,” Gilmer said in an interview with Haaretz during a visit to the region last spring. “We must call for the divestment of the military industrial complex, just like we are calling for a divestment from the policing of our neighborhoods.”
The mainstream Jewish community had been largely supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement, despite reservations concerning its fringe elements.
The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Boston’s Executive Director, Jeremy Burton, released a July 15 statement stating that although there were clearly some in BLM that held “a biased and unjust agenda demonizing Israel,” the Jewish community should ignore that “discomfort” keeping them from being an ally with “this grassroots effort to address the systemic, institutionalized racism that fuels a horrifying nightmare of extrajudicial killings.”
Moving away from BLM
Once BLM released its anti-Israel platform, the JCRC and mainstream Jewish groups distanced themselves from the movement.
“JCRC cannot and will not align ourselves with organizations that falsely and maliciously assert that Israel is committing ‘genocide’,” the group said in an Aug. 3 statement. It also condemned the BLM’s support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, saying, “We reject participation in any coalition that seeks to isolate and demonize Israel singularly amongst the nations of the world.”
Similarly, the American Jewish Committee (AJC), which has a long history of championing civil rights, “strongly condemned the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel views expressed in the platform,” in an Aug. 6 statement.
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), in a blog post agreed with the BLM in needing to address “the wide range of racial inequities and socio-economic issues facing African Americans today,” but took strong objection to the platform’s use of the term genocide.
Even more progressive Jewish groups, including ones supportive of the BLM platform, admitted that they would have not used the term “genocide.”
“We know why our community was upset by the use of the word ‘genocide,’” IfNotNow activist Yonah Liberman recently told The Forward. “I don’t think we would have used that language. Using that word is loaded for the Jewish people. That is not the way we understand the situation. We use the word ‘occupation.’”
Susannah Heschel, PhD, a Jewish scholar and daughter of Rabbi Abraham Heschel, a celebrated Jewish theologian, scholar and civil rights activist who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement, told JNS.org she’s disappointed over the BLM’s position on Israel.
“They're slamming the door in our face and they’re cutting off their own legs,” said Heschel, who currently serves as the Eli Black professor of Jewish Studies and chair of the Jewish Studies program at Dartmouth College.
Heschel said she was shocked and horrified by BLM’s anti-Israel activities because their accusations are simply not true and outrageous. She considers the BLM platform to be self-destructive.
“We Jews are the best allies the African-American community has had . . . What does this accomplish for black lives? You're losing people who can help in every way. BLM is now basically telling the Jewish world, ‘Go away.’ I find that tragic. I care about black lives, tremendously.”
Similarly, many African-American leaders, who’ve worked closely on building relations between the black and Jewish community, consider the platform’s position not representative of the larger African-American community.
Rev. Carrol Baltimore, PhD, of Alexandria, Va., the immediate president emeritus of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, told JNS.org he’s been working for several years through the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (The Fellowship) to build bridges between the African-American and Jewish communities and Israel in order to “preserve, protect and strengthen the longstanding, historic black-Jewish alliance embodied in the close relationship between Rev. King and Rabbi A.J. Heschel."
Baltimore, along with several other African-American Christian leaders, including Rev. Dr. Kenneth C. Ulmer, Rev. Dr. Edward L. Branch, Rev. Dr. Deedee Coleman and Rev. Dr. Glenn Plummer, working with Kristina King, The Fellowship's director of African-American outreach, issued a joint statement on Aug. 22 rejecting the anti-Israel stance of the Movement for Black Lives.
“It was a vitriolic attack against Israel laced with misinformation and anti-Semitism and an agenda that is not embraced by the broader African American community,” the joint statement from The Fellowship read. “The anti-Semitism and misinformation found in this small segment is so misleading that it makes an experienced leader question the entire document and thus the intentions of the organization.”
Baltimore told JNS.org that, "While we support many aspects of the Movement for Black Lives platform, we felt it was critical to correct falsehoods about Israel and not risk endangering the black-Jewish relationship.”
Nevertheless, BLM-affiliated groups, such as Dream Defenders, dismissed any concern about losing support from mainstream Jewish organizations.
The real issue is that the BLM leaders are “simply trying to present a highly, distorted defamatory depiction of Israeli politics, and most of the time, these people don't know what they are talking about,” Heschel said.