Did the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman on May 25, 2020, awaken America to its sordid racial past and the need to correct present injustices? Or did the events of the summer of 2020 do more harm than good, both to racial minorities and society in general? In the days, weeks and months after Floyd’s fatal encounter with the police in Minneapolis, few were willing to raise questions about the surge of interest in addressing what some insisted was evidence of the systemic racism that was allegedly the primary characteristic of American society.
American Jews and their leading organizations were very much part of this. They were, for the most part, eager to lend their voices to the chorus of those calling for addressing the problem of racism and to engage in soul-searching about the community’s alleged failure to confront prejudice in its own institutions. Major groups like the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Anti-Defamation League, as well as some of the major religious denominations, were also willing to lend support to a Black Lives Matter movement that had gone mainstream after spending its first years as a marginalized radical force.
Two years after Floyd’s death, no decent person would dispute that racism is real and does genuine harm. But to acknowledge the truth about America’s past and the persistence of prejudice should not be confused with the question of whether the charge of systemic racism is fair or whether the BLM movement is a positive force. The moral panic that the murder of Floyd set off has empowered radicals who have made American cities less safe and introduced toxic illiberal ideas into public schools about critical race theory and intersectionality that have made society more, rather than less, racist.
Pushback against ideas about pervasive “white privilege” has emerged, and many now understand that sympathy for opposition to racism has served to enable extremists and make discussions about race far more divisive than ever. Left-wing ideologues seek to gaslight the country about the existence of critical race theory indoctrination in the schools rather than defend such practices. Even liberal politicians now try to distance themselves from insane notions like defunding the police that are embraced by BLM and the far-left.
But what hasn’t happened is an acknowledgment by mainstream Jewish organizations that their fear of being perceived as being out of touch with liberal fashion on racial issues in the summer of 2020 wasn’t just wrongheaded. It also served to provide cover for and to undermine opposition to ideas that enabled anti-Semitism, and helped demonize Israel and its supporters.
This wasn’t just a serious lapse in judgment on the part of those who claim to speak for American Jews. They have largely failed to directly address the way that the BLM movement has legitimized the ideas most closely associated with it, such as critical race theory, intersectionality and white privilege. Since these concepts label Jews and Israel as privileged and treat those who call for the destruction of the one Jewish state on the planet—a racist project if ever there was one—as oppressed victims deserving of support, they essentially grant a permission slip for anti-Semitism.
That helps explain the way the most vicious anti-Israel invective has gone mainstream in ways that might have been considered unimaginable prior to 2020.
The viral video of Floyd’s ordeal led to a wave of demonstrations and violent riots (mischaracterized as “mostly peaceful” by their apologists in the media) across the United States. Many saw his death as proof that law enforcement in this country was a function of systemic racism that had gone unaddressed. The notion that the United States was an irredeemably racist nation was not new. The previous summer, this idea had gotten a major boost when The New York Times published an error-ridden collection of articles called “The 1619 Project.” It presented a false narrative about American history in which the enormous progress made since slavery had been abolished after the Civil War. The victory of the civil-rights movement a century later was also downplayed, distorted and disappeared from public discourse.
The venting of anger about Floyd’s death solidified belief in the claim that police were targeting African-Americans for murder, even though evidence for this assertion was lacking at the time and subsequently further discredited. It also led to a moral panic about racism that seemed to impact every aspect of American society. That lent a new legitimacy to the BLM movement that had come into existence after the 2014 riots in Ferguson, Mo., after a police shooting of an African-American that was subsequently deemed justified under the law. BLM was a loose confederation of radical groups and ideologies that weren’t all in agreement. But in the summer of 2020, any concerns about the collection of ideas that were associated with it were ignored.
While the idea that black lives matter was never up for debate, it was in that atmosphere that so much of the organized Jewish world felt impelled to sign on to support for the movement itself. That seemed like a cost-free gesture that allowed Jewish groups to virtue signal their opposition to racism. What they didn’t count on was the way this effort helped intersectional ideology, which falsely analogizes the Palestinian war on Israel to the struggle for civil rights in the United States, to become the guiding force behind an increasingly powerful left wing of the Democratic Party.
In this way, the catechism of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) became not just pervasive on college campuses but the official policy endorsed by President Joe Biden on his first day in the White House in January 2021. Biden’s equity agenda, which is now being implemented in every government department, isn’t about promoting equality. In this context, equity means the opposite. It mandates racial discrimination while promoting the “white privilege” narrative in which Jews are transformed from a minority that is under attack from anti-Semites on both the left and right into part of an oppressor class. It allows an anti-Semitic BDS movement to similarly play the victim while the objects of its discriminatory campaign are treated as villainous opponents of “people of color,” despite the fact that the majority of Jewish Israelis trace their origins to the Middle East and North Africa.
Those voices raised against Jews—whether in academic settings where DEI has become inextricably linked to increased anti-Semitism, on the floor of Congress where the left-wing “Squad’s” embrace of lies about Israel has led to violence on American streets or in the mainstream media where anti-Zionism acts as a cover for anti-Semitism—have grown louder and more accepted in the last two years.
Legitimizing such a movement may not have been the intention of the Jewish leaders who signed declarations supporting BLM. Racism is terrible and opposing it is laudable. But by going along with the mob mentality that embraced the “1619” lies and legitimized a heretofore radical BLM movement, that’s exactly what they helped foster. Some, like the ADL, are not only unrepentant, but doubling down on their rhetoric about “white supremacy” instead of focusing their considerable influence on combating the BLM movement. That many of them also attacked and sought to treat those Jews who spoke up against it, such as the Zionist Organization of America, as beyond the pale is even more disgraceful.
The organized Jewish world needs to take a hard look at its mistakes and admit that its desire to play the fashionable “anti-racist” card strengthened forces that are inimical to Jewish interests, as well as to the cause of equality and racial harmony for American society. If the Jewish community is to successfully confront the rising tide of anti-Semitism on the left that the BLM moment empowered, there must first be a reckoning about why these groups failed to stand their ground against this dangerous trend in 2020.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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