Should Jewish groups make their peace with Black Lives Matter?

Jewish organizations want to oppose racism, but the push to endorse a group tainted by anti-Zionism and radical demands is a mistake.

A poster from a protest in London linking the Black Lives Matter movement to the Palestinians, June 2020. Source: Apartheid Off Campus via Facebook.
A poster from a protest in London linking the Black Lives Matter movement to the Palestinians, June 2020. Source: Apartheid Off Campus via Facebook.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Is the phrase “black lives matter” a universal sentiment that all decent people should support? Or is it a particular political program put forward by specific groups with radical positions that deserves to be challenged?

Much depends on the answer to that question, especially for Jewish groups who are anxious to be seen as advocates for social justice and foes of racism in all its forms though are wary of legitimating a movement that is hostile to Israel and connected to anti-Semitism.

As far as most Americans are concerned, there isn’t much difference between the two.

A Pew Research Center poll published this month in the wake of the George Floyd killing showed that 67 percent of adults supported “the Black Lives Matter movement,” with 38 percent saying they “strongly support” it and 29 percent giving it “somewhat support.” This is a sentiment that cuts across races with 60 percent of whites backing the movement.

Yet it’s still far from clear that most people who are endorsing BLM are thinking about the groups that operate under that banner or just an idea that seems unexceptionable.

For Jewish organizations, the problem is that in 2016, BLM issued a platform that specifically denounced Israel as “an apartheid state” that was committing “genocide” against Palestinians.

Given that many of those associated with the founding of the movement were linked with an intersectional movement that falsely asserts that the Palestinian war on Israel is linked to the struggle for civil rights in the United States, it was hardly a surprise.

That platform has now disappeared from the Internet. BLM wisely seeks to avoid talking about Israel, even if many of its leaders are still BDS advocates.

The website for the BLM Movement now makes no mention of Israel. That’s allowed many Jewish groups that condemned the movement’s 2016 platform to ease away from their stand. As a report in the far-left Jewish Currents publication noted, while some Jewish groups are still maintaining a distinction between BLM and the cause of racial justice, several organizations are also backing away from their past criticisms of the movement.

Given that BLM now stands higher in the public esteem than any political party, politician or national institution, this seems sensible. The American Jewish community has historic ties to the civil-rights movement and has always considered the battle against prejudice to be a core Jewish value.

But in this current moment of revolutionary fervor in which crowds are not only conducting protests, but also pulling down or desecrating statues and other symbols of American history, paying lip service to BLM won’t be enough.

That’s why a coalition of radical Jewish groups seeking to put mainstream organizations on the defensive has issued a manifesto. They’re demanding that Jews explicitly support BLM and invest in a variety of social-justice causes, as well as promote inclusivity in the Jewish world. That latter point is connected to a separate controversy in which left-wingers allege that American Jewry is as guilty of racism as the rest of the country and discriminating against “Jews of color.”

Among their demands is a call for all Jewish groups to set aside 20 percent of the seats on their boards for people of color. Since that figure is higher than even the likely highly inaccurate estimate of the number of Jews of color at 12 to 15 percent (credible demographers put the real number at approximately 6 percent), that’s a promise that not even the most liberal organizations can likely make.

But getting groups like the Anti-Defamation League or even the Union of Reform Judaism to sign on to their broadside isn’t the point. It’s an attempt to help direct the conversation about BLM away from its excesses and onto the alleged racism of Jews. In the current environment, any criticism of BLM is being treated as prima facie evidence of racism. That was the case when Reform leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs denounced Zionist Organization of America national president Morton Klein as a racist for his criticisms of BLM.

Such thinking is the raison d’être of Bend the Arc, one of the organizers of the manifesto. Bend the Arc which supports the anti-Semitic BDS movement and is funded by many of the same sources that back other radical left causes, wants nothing less than to “rewire” organized Jewish life away from traditional concerns about Israel. They believe the young Jews who have joined their counterparts in the streets under the BLM banner are not merely the future of the Jewish world, but that those who are not with them are losing their legitimacy.

Those Jews who are enthusiastically supporting BLM in the belief that it is merely a demand for justice and not a raft of radical talking points are making a mistake.

Those who marched in the past for civil rights did so not because they felt that America was an irredeemably racist nation that needed to be completely rethought, but because they thought racism was a betrayal of the nation’s founding principles. To join the assault on American history and to make common cause with radicals who make little effort to conceal their contempt for Jewish interests, as well as calling for the defunding of police, would also be a betrayal of their own community.

Attempts to navigate the narrow space between the unassailable idea that black lives matter, and a movement that sees Jews and Israel as intersectional villains, are likely to lead to disaster. At a time when social-media mobs are bullying dissenters against the BLM mantra, this is not the moment for Jews to fall in line behind a movement whose goals are inconsistent with the need of the Jewish community for security against anti-Semitic attacks and which doesn’t think Jewish lives matter in Israel. To the contrary, Jewish groups have an obligation to stand in defense of the Western liberal values that BLM and its radical allies seem determined to overturn.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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