B. Shira Levine
Navigating new wilderness

Another Black-Jewish relations incident

The Angela Davis controversy appears to exemplify another incident in which “BDS-ing BDS” has caused more harm than good to the Jewish community.

I say this with the caveat that I’m relying on a media I don’t trust to figure out what happened here.  Here’s my take on the background: Birmingham Civil Rights Institute announces award to Angela Davis –> ***Jewish community lobbying of some nature*** –> award revoked with vague announcement about “on further reflection she doesn’t meet the criteria” –> outrage from Black community about lobbying from Jewish community –> outrage from Jewish community about outrage from Black community.  Though the asterisked portion isn’t terribly clear, a recent article suggests that the Jewish organizations objecting focused on her support of BDS in asking the Institute to reconsider the award.

This is the latest in a line of incidents pitting Black-led and Jewish-led organizations against one another.  I break down the pattern like this:

  1. Anti-Semitism is real and scary. Jewish people are justifiably triggered by anti-Semitic subtext.
  2. Racism is real and scary. Black people are justifiably triggered by racist subtext.
  3. Both racism within the Jewish community and anti-Semitism within the Black community are playing a role in the outrage feedback cycle.
  4. The fact that I said #3 will piss everybody off.  (Keep reading, even so.)
  5. When so triggered (for both groups), this resonates as a tribal survival threat.  Justifiably.
  6. The Jewish and Black communities each lack adequate knowledge of the other’s history to contextualize the other’s outrage.
  7. Israel continues to pop up, manifesting as an impressing range of logical fallacies.  And #6 plays out in a particularly awful way whenever the word “Israel” is uttered.

Setting aside internet trolls, most remarks with racist or anti-Semitic subtext come from a place of feeling oppressed, then subconsciously generalizing that feeling to an entire community.  The sentiment (not the words) can be boiled down to: “The Black community is anti-Semitic,” and “The Jewish community is racist.”  These cause more feelings of victimization and helplessness.

Don’t mistake my plea for acknowledgement of two sides as moral relativism.  But just because we believe there’s a “right” and a “wrong” doesn’t mean we can abdicate our responsibility to empathize.  We must love the stranger–a “stranger” being someone whose plight we do not and cannot understand.  This does not mean we need to accept the stranger’s beliefs or actions, but we must yet love.

When survival is threatened, it’s “fight-or-flight,” and people who are normally quite good at empathy lose capacity for it.  Further exacerbating this chasm in understanding, beyond falling under the same umbrella of hate/intolerance, the nature of each specific form of discrimination is extremely complex, and one type of hate can’t be measured in terms of the other.

  • Anti-Semitism is tied, quite literally, to genocide.  The Holocaust is a fading memory in public consciousness except as used to mock and terrorize Jews.  This is absolutely terrifying.
  • America is founded on racial injustice–Black people as subhuman is literally built into our founding document.  Even now, white privilege suffocates everything in American society.  (White Jews have white privilege, at least in sense I’m talking about – this gets muddled because white supremacists tend to view “Blacks and Jews” in the same category of inferior races–addressed a bit more below.)

What we’re seeing happen over and over again is predictable.  That doesn’t make things any less scary, and it’s infuriating to see this cycle recur without satisfying resolution.  But I take some comfort in the observation that the Black-Jewish piece plays out so consistently as to become somewhat banal.  (If you find the previous sentence upsetting, reread #1, #2, and #5.)  And though I reject “is American anti-Semitism worse on the left or right?” as a legitimate subject of debate, please remember that it’s not the Black community shooting up our synagogues or wearing swastikas.  Trump’s rise has come with a surge in both anti-Semitism and racism–he’s brought nazis out of their caves (and into New York Times articles), empowered “white pride,” and normalized the notion that white people are the “real” victims.  Black and Jewish people are on the same side of this horror.

What is escalating is anti-Israel sentiment.  That scares me; I’ve written about it a fair amount, including here and here. I reiterate here my belief that “BDS-ing BDS” often perpetuates the above cycle in a way that is counterproductive to Israel.  The rebuttal I typically receive is that it shouldn’t be on the Jews to break that cycle–but in a world where perception is realty, where does that leave us?  Anyone who has been through a public-school education knows, Americans are woefully undereducated on international relations.  The connection between Israel and anti-Semitism is not obvious to your average non-Jewish American.

I’m no expert on race relations, but I deal with some related subjects as a cross-border employment lawyer.  My experience leads me to believe that in conducting a harassment investigation, training employees on nondiscrimination, or terminating employment, one cannot achieve sustainable success without genuine effort to (a) empathize (b) avoid invalidating others’ feelings even while firmly denouncing their actions (c) exercise appropriate–but not absolute–deference to stuff you cannot fully understand (d) pick their battles wisely (e) execute decisions with confidence and compassion, and without arrogance. I’d suggest that similar principles might serve as tools at moments like this, to keep our emotions in perspective when we advocate for ourselves.  (And of course, we must continue to advocate for ourselves.)

As the Holocaust fades from memory, it’s not just the far left that will succumb to an increasingly skewed anti-Israel narrative.  The BDS-ing BDS approach might be necessary in some cases, but it does nothing to educate younger people on Israel.  Our advocacy needs to adapt to this.  Applying the principles above, we can’t advocate for Israel without acknowledging that the non-Jewish community cannot possibly understand how perceived threats to Israel are tantamount to threats against the Jewish people–and that treating anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism as identical is unhelpful won’t help them understand the connection.

Personally, that leads me to the conclusion that writing private letters asking other organizations reconsider honoring someone another oppressed group admires is a misguided use of political capital.  If we get what we seek, it comes with a side of knives to the hearts of droves of people who don’t necessarily agree with the honoree’s views on Israel.  The public messaging will inevitably obfuscate articulately-voiced concerns, turning them into sound bytes that travel far and wide–far beyond any publicity the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s honor would have garnered.  Instead of speaking about her civil rights accomplishments at a small local dinner that I’d never hear about, Angela Davis is leveraging a national platform to advance the narrative, “Israel is a malicious oppressor of innocent Palestinians, and the Jewish community will make an enemy of anyone who calls that out.”  And her mass of supporters, many of which were likely neutral on Israel, are paying attention.  We can’t sit idly when civil rights organizations make ill-considered judgments, but in these situations, wouldn’t publishing a post-honor letter to the editor accomplish the goals more effectively?  If all we can do is dig our heels in, Israel loses, and who wins?  The cross-burners and swastika-wearers.

Untempered fear is the greatest enemy to peace.  When we must fight, let us fight not with fear, but with compassion.

About the Author
B. Shira Levine writes about Jewish spirituality and observance, parenting, intersectionality, and the U.S. and Atlanta Jewish communities. Views are her own and not those of her employer, synagogues, or any other organization.