Israel, Religion

The American Jewish Community Must do More than Stand with Communities of Color Now. We Must Accept Responsibility for Our Role in the System — Here and in Israel.

On June 3, more than 100 organizations in the mainstream of the American Jewish community issued a statement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd declaring outrage, calling on the government and law enforcement agencies to make change, and pledging to stand with the black community to bring about that change.

It’s a start, but it’s not enough. In fact, it reads more like one of the myriad corporate statements suddenly being issued rather than a statement representing a faith rooted in principles of justice and teshuvah. 

And the fundamental reason why it falls short is because it does not take the crucial step needed for action, for real healing, for teshuvah — accepting responsibility. That failure to accept responsibility while pledging to stand with black people means these efforts likely won’t go far enough. That matters for all of us who desperately need this leadership, and I would argue it matters especially for our youth, who face real challenges in how they engage on these issues on campuses. It’s painful and difficult to do, but it’s critical.

And as the outrage grows in Israel over the police murder there of unarmed and autistic Palestinian Iyad al-Hallak, and as we move closer to impending Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, this statement reminds me that we will likely remain unwilling to accept any responsibility as a community for even the most basic role we have played in systemic discrimination and violence in Israel as well. The goal need not be full acceptance of the Palestinian narrative, but it must be an honest conversation that begins with acknowledgment.

Our Share of Responsibility for Systemic Racism in the US 

The Jewish community organizations’ statement rightly focuses on the need to push for change; it is long overdue and urgent to prevent more people of color from dying and to right the many systemic wrongs — in education, healthcare, business, and beyond. 

The change, though, is not needed just in terms of criminal justice policy, where the statement focuses. It is needed within every single American citizen, especially those of us who are white. We all must look inside ourselves and understand the way we have benefited from and been complicit in this system, even while we also fight against real and ever-intensifying anti-Semitism. That is how we move to being true anti-racists. 

But as the most basic level of Jewish teaching would tell you, in order for that change to occur, you must accept responsibility. When you seek teshuvah before Yom Kippur, you don’t simply approach a person you’ve wronged and say you commit to change; you must start with accepting what you have done wrong first. 

It is difficult; it brings up our own trauma and pain, both individual and communal. But that is the essence of the work, as Resmaa Menakem and others have shown. And we must do that work in order to truly be a part of the change.

The truth is that, while the American Jewish community has stood with the black community in different ways over time, we have also been in positions of power in every institution that has perpetuated and profited from systemic racism in this country — in government, in education, in business, in the criminal justice system. And, as our influence has increased as a community, we have not done enough to stand up and end this system and its impact on communities of color, notwithstanding important historic relationships like those of King and Heschel, or efforts of remarkable organizations like Bend the Arc and individual synagogues and community leaders. Indeed, we are still working to end bias against Jews of Color within our communities.

So we bear responsibility, and we must be forthcoming and forthright in order to acknowledge our privilege and truly move to make change. I am wrestling with this myself, as I know many are in my community. And we need our leadership to model that work for us.

Can we Acknowledge Our Share of Responsibility for Systemic Racism in Israel?

This failure to accept responsibility for the role we play in institutional racism here has implications for the other place in which our community plays a significant role: Israel. Race has had a long and difficult history in Israel: from the treatment of Mizrahim and the eventual rise of the Israeli Black Panthers in the 1970s to the Ethiopian experience that led to its own Black Lives Matter moment in Israel just less than a year ago to the abhorrent approach to African asylum seekers to the societal discrimination against Israeli Arabs and, of course, to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, up to and including the killing of Iyad al-Hallak last week.

The Israeli context and experience may be different on many levels and for many reasons, and some may recoil at the connection to what is happening now in the US. But it is difficult to deny that the Israeli government and mainstream Ashkenazi society has benefited from its own forms of institutional racism, and does until this day. And so, like in the US, it is painful, but that is the work.

It is the work because these issues almost never make it into the narratives within the American Jewish community about Israel and certainly have not been acceptable when discussing Israel outside our community — including on campuses. These issues also have never truly blunted the fierce and substantial political, financial, and social support the American Jewish community has given to Israel over the years. Instead, we explain them away: “Israel is still a young country,” or “Look at the problems we have here in America,” or “Israeli Jews are so traumatized themselves from the Holocaust and their own experience with war and terror,” and on. 

These, of course, may all be true to one degree or another, just as it’s true that Jews experience anti-Semitism and discrimination here. But they do not suffice to explain away Israeli racism and systemic violence entirely, yet we have failed to acknowledge that as a community, outside of organizations on the left that are nowhere near the core of the mainstream.

So, just as we need our communal leaders to push themselves more to acknowledge some responsibility for institutional racism here and open up more meaningful engagement with communities of color, we also need to recognize the power of what such an acknowledgment of responsibility could mean for the American Jewish community as we seek to respond to the killing of Iyad al-Hallak, the devastating impacts of annexation, or enable our students on campus to engage with Black Lives Matter without being shut down because they cannot enter the conversation on Palestine openly

We do not need to accept every argument made against Israeli policies, believe that Israel is evil in every way, or deny the right of the state to exist, just as we do not need to distort our own history in the United States. 

But we must open honest and painful conversations that begin with accepting responsibility because we need to ensure this moment brings about real change here and in Israel — starting with ourselves.

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