Last week was a historical moment for racial equity in the United States, as The Movement for Black Lives brought together over 40 disparate grassroots organizations and coalesced, issuing a shared platform to move our country past the toxic racism systemically permeating all levels of organizational and individual life. In a stunning 24 hours of responses our American Jewish communal life proceeded to issue one statement after the next condemning the platform, and in many cases dissociating themselves from both the platform and organizations who embrace the platform. Each statement includes a nod to the ongoing commitment of said organization to battle racism, to advance civil rights, and to pursue justice – even while distancing themselves from the very organization and platform who just newly organized as the heart and soul of the battle against racism in America.  When our children look back at this moment in the pursuit of justice to dismantle racism in the United States and do not find any Jewish organization at the table, and cannot celebrate their religious ongoing support and practice of the pursuit of justice, it will be because our American Jewish community determined that some 11 mentions, many in footnotes and in sub-sections of sub-sections of this substantial document, incorporate a fringe #BlackLivesMatter organization’s conflation of #BlackLivesMatter with the plight of Palestinians in Israel.
In a horrifying, rapid fashion, one Jewish (white institutional) communal organization after another flexed their privilege muscles and practiced their own racism, issuing statements and distancing themselves from the work of building relationships and partnerships rather than talking about this difficult topic while remaining present at the table in full support of this emerging movement. When a community who has been oppressed, a community who is at the depths of their despair over the ever-escalating violence against each of them, when a community who has been systemically marginalized chooses to say something with which I disagree, there are many ways in which to engage in conversations and dialogue. Publishing one organizational condemnation after another is not the road towards partnership to pursue social justice down which one should travel.
In a Jewish communal world where as a rabbi, as an egalitarian Jew, as a daughter in an LGBT family, I am constantly asked, NO, TOLD, that my role in supporting pluralism is to step back from my identity, to have that identity silenced in the name of a communal platform, in the name of our organizational pluralism which is needed to advance “true” moral work – I have been horrified this weekend at the ways in which this notion of “neutralize yourself for the greater good” is NOT being employed in any organizational way towards #BlackLivesMatter. Instead, one statement after another of Jewish organizations call out #BlackLivesMatter for “demonizing Israel;” explicitly state that they will “distance themselves from #BlackLivesMatter;” seek to silence #BlackLivesMatter and call out #BlackLivesMatter for “conflating the issue of Palestinians with the #BlackLivesMatter platform.” One after another across our Jewish websites I have read Jewish blogger and opinionator after another, who has turned #BlackLivesMatter into the devil itself for what I might call a small footnote on Israel. Since when have we ignored 99% of a shared moral platform and voice or rejected it in such uniform fashion? I am so deeply worried that we are performing and perpetuating our own racism and injustice at such a critical moment in the life of our nation.
#BlackLivesMatter offers our Jewish community an opportunity to continue a powerful legacy of participation in civil rights movements. This week was a chance for our Jewish community to celebrate the Movement for Black Lives for their incredible capacity to take 40 grassroots, peaceful, national efforts and compose an all-encompassing platform of a movement. Who could possibly not stand in awe bearing witness to the powerful non-violent, passionate ways in which this organization has anchored the waves of anger washing across our nation and transformed that energy towards the blossoming of a voice and vehicle for the pursuit of justice for all? This is the chance of our Jewish organization to be at a table and in dialogue, to be part of an activist moment, even if uncomfortable about a sideline unrelated conversation, in order to be a friend, a partner, an ally and yes, an activist towards a greater good for all of us.
How sad that our organized Jewish communities are passing on this moment and chance to be at the table as a religious community to battle our generation’s call against racial injustice. This is our place to exercise religious pluralism and diversity by joining our voices to this powerful historical moment. And instead, what does it look like we are going to do? Ostracize an entire movement before it was even becoming. It looks like our Jewish institutions and organization plan to stand on the opposite side of the pursuit of peace and justice.
[pullquote align=right] It looks like our Jewish institutions and organization plan to stand on the opposite side of the pursuit of peace and justice.
[/pullquote]Friends, our rabbis did not teach us “pursue peace – but only when it fits your own global political narrative.” As a Jewish community we do not practice “pursue pluralism but only when it meets your personal needs for religious freedom.” We in fact are very good at asking so many in our Jewish community to swallow their pride to accept offensive teachings, preaching, and yes, official organizational platforms (which are often anti-gay, anti-egalitarian, and more) in order to coalesce as a Jewish community around issues we deem of moral imperative and importance.
If we want to practice what we preach, and if we want to preach for peace – our role is to be at the table, celebrating even if, and yes, even when there are parts of an agenda which leave us uncomfortable. It is astonishing that the entire #BlackLivesMatter movement is not afforded the same privilege of pluralism and diversity wherein we all know we might disagree with a few words in a long document, but we live with that discomfort when it advances the greater good for humanity and brings together over 40 disparate groups to fight racism. As a lover of Israel and a Zionist I am clear that resolving racial injustice in the US will not lead to a rise in anti-Semitism, even with these 11 mentions in the #BlackLivesMatter platform. Are we truly worried that a few words which express one minority opinion about Israel will hurt Israel and hurt us?
Do you know what does hurt us as a Jewish community and does lead to alienation of our Jewish community?
What will hurt us is when our Jewish community is so fully preoccupied with itself and its own needs that it rejects important national social movements and forces who are fighting for social and racial justice rather than embracing, joining, and dialoging.
What will hurt us is pretending that we are a monolithic racial community and ignoring our Black Jews who need us at the #BlackLivesMatter table, need us to acknowledge that they are a part of our collective “us,” and need to hear from each of us and our Jewish organizations that their lives matter equally if not more than a few mentions of Israel in a larger document and in a national organization whose full platform holds much greater import to their daily lives.
What will hurt us is when we are not present at the table and on the streets and remain there in discourse and dialogue to be part of a solution in active solidarity and partnership to dismantle racism at the local, communal, organizational and systemic national levels.
What will hurt us is if we elevate any other conversation to have greater importance above our collective fight against racial injustice in our country because both the United States and Israel need us at the table and on the streets, as educators, spiritual leaders, and activists at this pivotal moment in time. This is not the time to step away or distance ourselves.
[pullquote align=right] This is not the time to step away or distance ourselves.
[/pullquote]When we feel it is ok to walk away from racial injustice, we must look hard at ourselves and see our own enactment of privilege. When we feel this small statement on Israel justifies stepping away from the table we are sadly embodying privilege. We enact our love of Israel by staying at the table and continuing to be actively engaged in meaningful conversations. We must sit at the tables with #BlackLivesMatter in sacred conversation and disagreement, and in fact accepting that our obligation to Israel cannot override our obligation to racial justice is the difficult act of dismantling injustice and racism. The more we are present to dialogue and educate, the more likely we are to help introduce nuance in a community of multiple voices where one small minority was able to get one small item on to a platform to identify a shared narrative with other global voices of injustice. Pluralism and diversity and the pursuit of justice means stand with them, work with them. Dialogue (see Trua’h for guidelines of what that looks like) is sacred work. Rejectionism is just politics and institutional racism “as usual.” The choice is ours and I wish our Jewish communities would make more sacred, profoundly hard but important, collective choices on our behalf.
The speed with which our community last week issued condemnation statement after statement left me breathless. Perhaps now, having celebrated the beginning of the Jewish month of Av on Friday, having begun our narrative retelling of destruction and devastation when our people did not pursue justice but went after one another, perhaps now we will finally employ the “pause.”  You know the “pause,” that moment when you take a breath, when you ask yourself if there is not something different or better you could do or say, when you delete the email you wrote, when you step back and acknowledge that something which is making you personally uncomfortable is about you but not about the greater good and so you stay silent. Our Jewish community missed out on employing our collective “pause” last week. We needed to stop, to listen, to be present in a small difficult moment of strife. We needed, if we felt that way, to be uncomfortable. Why should we claim that a weak attempt to engage in this conversation about Israel in the #BlackLivesMa platform could possibly distract our American Jewish community from our greater collective need to come together and dismantle the chains of racism in our lives, in our communities, in our cities and in our institutions across the United States? Perhaps this week will be our week to repair?
If we are to walk the walk of “pursue justice” as prescribed by our ancestral teachers and leaders, that means we pursue justice by being at the table and by creating the pause, the moment in which we inhale/exhale/feel/think before responding. Our Jewish communities took a wrong turn last week, but hopefully this week will find the path back to the table and to the agenda which truly matters most to us, as Jews and as Americans: Black Lives Matter.