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The Problem Isn’t Black Lives Matter. It’s the Occupation.

How Jewish criticism of the rights group reflects our own moral confusion about the last 50 years of Israeli politics

Daniel May
August 16, 2016
Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images
Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images

The release early this month of “A Vision for Black Lives,” the extensive policy platform developed by more than 50 organizations affiliated with the Movement for Black Lives, provoked a flurry of response across the Jewish community. Multiple organizations from a diversity of political positions denounced the platform’s description of Israel as an “apartheid state” guilty of “genocide.” A great many were outraged at the language, some declaring that they could no longer support the movement. Others were outraged that some were so outraged.

Amid the cacophony, it is easy to see the issue as semantic—to imagine that, were the troubling terms excised, progressive Jews could get back to being the allies for racial justice we want to be. But the controversy is, alas, about much more than a word or two. It shakes at the foundations of American Jewish political self-understanding—and offers a glimpse at a crisis looming before our community.

Tensions between Jewish liberals and black radicals are, of course, not new. It was 49 years ago this summer, after all, that SNCC released its newsletter describing Zionism as colonialism and comparing the treatment of Palestinians in Gaza with the treatment of Jews by Nazis. What is new is the landscape in which the present controversy unfolds. Two dynamics have transformed the terrain, unsettling efforts to dismiss this flare-up as just the latest chapter in a long story.

First, as a result of enormous institutional investment, support for racial justice has become central to the identity of American Jews. The photograph of Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Martin Luther King adorns offices of rabbis throughout the country. Students in NFTY, the youth program of the Reform Movement, are proudly taught that the Civil Rights Act was signed in the Movement’s offices in Washington, D.C. Today, a plethora of institutions dedicated to “Jewish Social Justice” dot the American Jewish landscape, offering internships and programs for young people in most every major American city.

When I was coming up in the 1990s, most of these organizations did not exist. But this is the narrative that made me. As the child of a father raised in a mixed-race family, the legacy of Jewish support for racial justice helped sew together the disparate parts of my family history. It taught me, for better or worse, to see the struggles of the non-Jewish side of my family—struggles defined by racism and poverty—as intimately bound together with the American Jewish experience. I have spent my adult life trying to inhabit and contribute to that tradition and legacy.

While my own attachment to this tradition is perhaps particularly strong, the role it plays in American Judaism explains why the Black Lives Matter platform launch was so painful for so many. Rabbis I know shared on Facebook an essay titled “The Pain of a Wounded Friend.” Several I spoke to described feeling “betrayed.”

The history of the “Black-Jewish alliance” is, of course, much more complicated than the narrative evoked by the march in Selma, and its ambiguities provide some helpful context for the current controversy. It is true that more than half of the freedom riders that risked their lives to desegregate buses in the South were Jewish—but so was Solomon Blatt, speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives throughout the 1950s and ’60s, who fought integration with all his political power. It is true that rabbis marched with King in Selma—and that rabbis signed the letter opposing King’s organizing in Birmingham, inspiring his famous response. Jews were more likely to rent to blacks in Northern cities than non-Jewish whites. They were also more likely to be slumlords for black tenants.

Jews were, through those tumultuous years, perhaps the least racist whites (Quakers, maybe, could battle for the title?). But this is a low bar, and the story of black-Jewish solidarity has always meant far more to Jews than to the vast majority of black and brown folks, for whom Jews were and are generally experienced as indistinct from the rest of white America. As James Baldwin put it in in the title of his 1967 essay (just after the supposed black-Jewish alliance had peaked) “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White.” Or as Chris Rock joked more recently in a routine mocking Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism, “We don’t got time to dice white people up into little groups! I hate all white people!” However tenuous we may consider our status within America’s power structure, people of color justifiably see us as inseparable from it. To most black Americans, there is little to “betray.”

Which brings us to the second dynamic. When presidential candidates pander to Jews, they don’t talk about public housing or police brutality. For though the American Jewish community has built many institutions dedicated to social justice, its real political power has been directed, like most groups, in support of its own interests—which, over the last 50 years, has meant Israel. Any tension between the domestic and international program was reconciled by declaring that the values of democracy advanced at home are the same values protected in Israel—and where they were not (in the West Bank and Gaza) this was the fault of Palestinian leadership.

This position has become untenable. The expansion of settlements, the rightward drift of Israeli politics, the biannual assaults on Gaza, and the festering and aggressive racism that permeates any society that administers a 50-year occupation has led many to conclude that Israel is engulfed in a moral crisis of its own. And despite the immense difference in context, to Americans who stand in a tradition of our own struggle for justice, the similarities are striking.

“I spoke with Palestinians who described every member of their family serving time in Israel’s jails,” my friend Nyle Fort, a leader with the Movement for Black Lives in Newark, told me upon his return from a delegation to the region. “I thought, this is familiar. All my siblings have been incarcerated or caught up in the criminal justice system. When I learned that 99 percent of Palestinians charged with a crime are convicted in military courts, I recognized a prison industry that gobbles up Palestinians just like it gobbles up my neighbors back home.” To those who swallowed tear gas in Ferguson, the familiar make and model of canisters strewn across the hillside in Nabi Saleh only confirm that the struggles are bound together.

American Jews tend to reject these parallels outright. We point to terrorism, the rejection by Palestinian leadership of various peace offers, the legitimacy of Jewish national self-determination. The contexts are different, we insist; to compare is to dismiss history. But I know I was far from unique when, after first visiting Hebron the first time—where Israelis and Palestinian neighbors charged with the same crime are tried in different courts under different legal codes—I thought “this is Jim Crow on steroids.” Can it sound, to American Jewish ears reared on the story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, like anything other than a racial slur from the Deep South to hear an Israeli mock “Arab labor?” The American raised on Eyes on the Prize cannot help but hear in the justification of different roads for Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank echoes of Plessy v. Ferguson. And don’t we too see unsettling reflections of our own brutal history? After getting in a taxi leaving Yad Vashem last year, the driver told my parents that his car didn’t smell like those “Arab cabs.” My mom was aghast. “You know that’s what they used to say about us,” she snapped.

None of this excuses the charge of genocide. That is a particularly noxious accusation to Jews, given our history as victims of both mass murder and slanderous accusations of mass murder. We should challenge it—in relationship and conversation bound together by a commitment to end systemic racism and the legalized murder of black Americans. When we do, we will find that so long as the occupation persists, those seeking to dismantle what they see as a regime of settler-colonialism in the United States will find its mirror in Israel.

American Jewish institutions will not, of course, sign up for this program as a whole. One of the ironies of this controversy is that most American Jewish institutions did not have relationships with these organizations to break—it was not as if the pesky word “apartheid” is stopping the JCRC of Boston from throwing down for reparations. But American Jewish institutions cannot expect to maintain moral credibility on issues of racial justice in this country, no matter the specifics on policy, when they are silent when a Knesset member declares that his wife would not be willing to give birth in the same maternity ward as an Arab; when a book is banned in Israeli high schools for depicting a love affair between a Jew and a Muslim; when nearly half of all Israeli high school students declare their support for denying the vote to non-Jews; when Palestinian homes built without permits are demolished and Jewish homes built without permits only a hundred yards away are quickly connected to water lines and electricity. For a community that has reared its young to see their Judaism and their commitment to justice as inseparable, claiming that such realities must be understood in “context,” as “complicated,” or a tragic consequence of “ha’matzav” (“the situation,” as Israelis call it) reeks of moral hypocrisy.

While American Jewish leaders will use the platform to distance themselves from Black Lives Matter, the movement provides a lesson for how we will eventually reconcile our commitments and rescue our moral integrity. For just as racial justice in this country is unimaginable without a more profound reckoning of the legacy of slavery than we have been able as a nation to summon, the conflict in Israel and Palestine will never advance so long as Jews deny the cost of Zionism. The Jewish nation’s independence was won only through the dispossession of another nation. Recognizing this does not require disavowing Israel any more than recognizing that America was founded upon white supremacy requires disavowing the United States. But it does require facing painful truths. The only choice more painful will be to continue to look away.


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Daniel May is a doctoral candidate in Religion, Ethics and Politics at Princeton University. He was Director of J Street U from 2010-2013 and is a founding member of #IfNotNow.

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