The Challenge For Both Black Lives Matter And American Jewry

This is a Black Lives Matter Banner in Charlotte, NC, November 2015. Camera - Canon 7D Mark II, Lens - Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS
This is a Black Lives Matter Banner in Charlotte, NC, November 2015. Camera - Canon 7D Mark II, Lens - Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM

Ever since the coalition that composes the Movement for Black Lives published its platform, "A Vision for Black Lives," on August 1st, and included a paragraph condemning the Israeli occupation of the West Bank as "genocide," a great deal has been written about this one issue in the blogosphere. What is, for the most part, a coherent document representing the African-American drive for "black humanity and dignity," grounded in "black will and power," as described in the first sentence of the preamble, has been sidetracked by this recrudescence of the anti-Semitism that has lurked in the black civil rights movement since at least the 70's. This document, in its own words, represents a radical social movement focused on:

• Ending the war on black people, including criminalization, incarceration, and killing
• Reparations for slavery, colonialism, red-lining, mass incarceration and surveillance
• Investment in education, health care and safety instead of criminalization and caging
• Economic justice for all, and reconstruction of black communities to include black ownership
• Community control of law and policy
• Political power and self-determination

This list of demands, explicated in great detail in the platform, is one that, I believe, many Americans would support in part. I can argue with specifics, such as there is a significant caucus of black political power that has not been directed to the community's needs, making it more of an internal problem, and the call for reparations, even when brilliantly expressed by Ta-Nehisi Coates, being a very difficult political problem for a country controlled through gerrymandering. Many of the specifics go beyond Sanders-style democratic socialism into the realm of full socialism/communism, demanding community control over hiring and firing of teachers and police officers, marginal tax rates of 80% and a wealth tax, all of which has already led to right-wing attacks on the platform. To the authors' credit, they support other marginalized communities, such as the queer one, and have crafted a platform that is, in many ways, more a radical progressive platform than a specifically black-focused one.

But while they make the effort to embrace other communities, the one community they don't embrace, and single out for opprobrium, is the Jewish community through its relationship with Israel. One single paragraph, harkening back to Stokely Carmichael's equation of Zionism with racism a half-century ago, during the apex of that era's black power movement. Was this necessary? The question has been asked and is yet unanswered, but it is critical. Is calling Israel guilty of genocide an integral part of the BLM movement, or is it a sop thrown to Palestinian activists who hold sway among the group's leaders?

My sense, based on the fiasco at the Creating Change conference in Chicago last January, is that it is unfortunately the former, and reflects a strain of anti-Semitism that has lain dormant in the progressive movement's farthest reaches now coming to the fore for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is a half-century of occupation, which while irrelevant to the vast majority of African-Americans, is not irrelevant to Jewish millennials nurtured on social justice. One recent column by Daniel May lays this out well. As Israel moves further to the right, young American Jews lurch towards the far left, striving to be part of a movement which treats them with increasing disrespect.

Another is that anti-Semitism has always played a role in leftist politics, back to the days of Marx and Engels, in spite of the communist movement's language about freedom and equality. In spite of Trotsky and Zinoviev, Sokolov and Kamenev, or maybe because of them, Soviet Jews were often the first to be exterminated by Stalin. Jeremy Corbyn of the British Labour Party comes by his anti-Semitism quite naturally.

Finally, as I've discussed before, the successful assimilation of American Jews into the American landscape (seen by the black community as the "white" American landscape) and their subsequent deracination into just a part of a larger mass, rather than one with a remarkable social justice tradition around the world, including aligning with African-Americans and black South Africans, eases the way for radical black activists to take the side of the Palestinian who is less of color than the Israeli.

Short of a revolution, and there won't be one in the U.S., as we are not a revolutionary state, persons of color must work with others to fundamentally change society. One can't simply demand and threaten; one must do the work. BLM must hold its own black elected officials accountable, and ensure that our politics on the Democratic side stops being simply a politics of identity but rather a politics of action. Too many black officials have been co-opted by the system, as is evident in the corrupt violence that pervades so many police forces, including the integrated ones.

The best elected officials, from Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy to Barack Obama and Cory Booker today, recognize that we're all in this together. LBJ's genius in selling civil rights to America was in convincing white America that black civil rights were as important for them as for the black community. That is still true, and President Obama has done his best to reflect that as well, but at the end of the day he is the President of all Americans, not just black Americans as the racists believe.

The Jewish community is the best ally the black community can have, both because of the historic connection going back to the founding of the NAACP and creation of the Julius Rosenwald - Booker T. Washington schools that educated generations of southern blacks, including Julian Bond, John Lewis and Maya Angelou, to today's efflorescence of Jewish social movement organizations such as Bend the Arc, Jews United for Justice, and the Religious Action Center. Throwing a wrench into that relationship, as happened fifty years ago, out of pique, spite, anti-Semitism or some legitimate grievances, will do no one any good. Tying the BLM movement to any foreign issue, let alone the sole Jewish state on the planet, is plain stupid. Doing so in support of a community which includes terrorist members who enslave Africans is suicidal.

Black liberation is the responsibility of black people, but they cannot do it alone. They need the help of others, including Jewish Americans. The liberation of the Israeli state from the shackles of its own making is for the Jewish communities of the world, and primarily Israel itself and America. Let's not conflate the two, and allow it to bring both our peoples down, especially in the Age of Trump. We've gone down that road before; we can't afford to do so again.