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Why Jews should wave the Black Lives Matter banner

Supporting BLM does not mean signing on to every aspect of the movement, it means standing with the Torah's teaching that all humans matter
A man wearing a kippah holds a sign reading 'Jews for Black Lives' at the weekly Black Lives Matter 'Jackie Lacey Must Go!' protest in front of the Hall of Justice in Los Angeles, California, September 9, 2020 (VALERIE MACON / AFP)
A man wearing a kippah holds a sign reading 'Jews for Black Lives' at the weekly Black Lives Matter 'Jackie Lacey Must Go!' protest in front of the Hall of Justice in Los Angeles, California, September 9, 2020 (VALERIE MACON / AFP)

Torah teaches that Black lives matter. Torah Teaches that all lives matter. This truth has resonated around the world with non-Jews and Jews who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color and Jews who aren’t. Movements and political positions come and go, but the truth of Torah is eternal. While the truth of Torah is beyond time and space, we are called to live out our faith in a particular, often messy context, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, the civil rights movement of our day. Future generations will look at how we met this challenge, the challenge of being true witnesses of a holy God. Our positive witness will be seen and replicated across the globe.

Fortunately, the American Black-Jewish partnership provides an example of living the Torah’s truth. The civil rights movement consisted of a diverse coalition of participants — Communists, Black Nationalists, Black Power advocates, revolutionaries, and Christians, among many others. There were plenty of reasons for Jews not to become part of the movement. But they did. Not just as allies, but as accomplices. They sat in jail alongside their Black friends. There were prophetic Jewish voices, such as that of Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, and even those who sacrificed their lives for the cause of justice, as did Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, murdered together with James Chaney for registering southern Blacks to vote.

On Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, it is fitting to remember the Black-Jewish partnership and commit to finding an authentic way to express our shared faith values. We are called to live out the truth of Torah — that Black Lives Matter — in a world that reminds so many Blacks daily that their lives don’t matter.

Unfortunately, there is a generation of Blacks and Jews unfamiliar with our shared history. Not knowing of this history makes us vulnerable to repeating anti-Semitic or racist views and failing to see the relationship between racism and anti-Semitism. Too many Black activists, athletes, and celebrities have had to apologize for comments they made or tropes they repeated, not knowing they were anti-Semitic. This unfamiliarity results in such developments as the Movement for Black Lives’ (M4BL) 2016 statement on Palestine and Israel, which has hurt Black Jewish relations.

As COVID-19 accelerates economic and social inequity between Blacks and whites, and even between men and women, Blacks and Jews still have much in common. We are afflicted by the same enemies, prejudice and ignorance; we have similar goals, societal acceptance and social justice; our histories are intertwined; and we are much, much stronger together.

Blacks and Jews have worked side by side on civil rights for more than a century. The Black-Jewish civil rights partnership predates the Niagara Movement of 1905. Jews were part of and held leadership positions in civil rights groups such as The Urban League, the national NAACP and its local branches, CORE, SCLC, and SNCC. Jews had close personal relationships with several civil rights icons such as W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph, Paul Robeson, and, of course, numerous Black preachers and civil rights leaders such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Rev. C.T. Vivian, Rev. John Lewis, Rev. Andrew Young, and Rev. Jesse Jackson. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) played a critical role in rescuing German Jews from Nazi Germany.

Jews, who represented two percent of the US population, were approximately half of the attorneys involved in the civil rights movement in the south. Blacks and Jews together successfully changed many laws, such as Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated public schools. Some of this history is well documented in the movie “Shared Legacies: The African-American Jewish Civil Rights Alliance” by Dr. Shari Rogers. It should be required viewing for all Black activists.

The Black-Jewish relationship in America hasn’t been perfect; nothing is. While there were Northern rabbis who spoke out against slavery, there were Southern Jews who owned slaves and were involved in the slave trade, as were Christians, as leaders such as Louis Farrakhan are quick to point out. But so were Muslims, a point Minister Farrakhan omits.

In urban areas where Blacks and Jews lived in proximity, James Baldwin and Marcus Garvey recorded the conflicts between Jewish landlords and retailers and Blacks who were tenants, employees and customers. Hollywood was largely Jewish and often portrayed Blacks in film in an unfavorable light, and the infamous 1968 New York City teachers’ strike that pitted Black neighborhood schools against the largely Jewish teachers’ union also stoked animosity. To this day, Black Jews often split with their “white” Jewish counterparts over the role that merit and white privilege play in American success, maintaining that racism outweighs anti-Semitism as an oppressive force.

A flat, decentralized organization such as Black Lives Matter has value — it provides maximum empowerment at the local, grassroots level. But it also confuses because it does not speak with one voice, making it hard to understand the movement’s core beliefs. For example, there are two Black Lives Matter Foundations and only one is connected with the Black Lives Matter cause. Some desiring to support the Black Lives Matter cause have donated to the wrong foundation. Further, many aren’t aware of the difference between Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives. The positions taken by the M4BL, which has a political agenda, does not represent the Black Lives Matter groups or local chapters. This lack of clarity is worse than confusing; it’s a stumbling block to Black-Jewish collaboration.

BDS was removed from the platform

The Palestine Solidarity Movement was able to make a case for Black and Palestine intersectionality, building on the thinking of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Angela Davis — and Israel’s strong alliance with South Africa during apartheid. This reverberates across US college campuses today, often morphing from anti-Israel into anti-Jewish.

In the “Invest/Divest” section of its 2016 platform, M4BL criticized the US government for providing military aid to Israel. There were other troubling statements, such as its support for The Global Campaign to Delegitimize Israel and support for BDS, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanction movement.

“The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people,” the platform says.

“Israel is an apartheid state with over 50 laws on the books that sanction discrimination against the Palestinian people.”

Many Jewish groups found these positions offensive and unacceptable. There was immediate condemnation. Other Jewish groups disagreed with the M4BL position but chose to work with them anyway, believing it better for the common good.

In 2020, the M4BL issued a new platform that removed any mention of Israel. That should clear the way for Jewish groups to support the Black Lives Matter civil rights cause, but it might not be enough, as the damage was done. Some Jews felt a profound sense of hurt and betrayal.

When trying to support Black Lives Matter, we need to understand it means different things to different people. A white police officer from Alabama told me that to him “Black Lives Matter” means to hell with the police. He’s not alone — which is why Blue Lives Matter was created. All Lives Matter tries to balance support for all groups. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, White Lives Matter is a racist response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

And as much as there is a message, there is also a context that individuals bring with them. Seeing Senator Mitt Romney at a BLM march means something different from seeing a Black person in the same march. A BLM yard sign in front of public housing in a Black neighborhood might mean something different from one in a white suburb. That BLM yard sign shows me friends, allies, and possible partners for racial and economic justice.

A BLM sign reminds me of the historic communication symbols used along the underground railroad, signaling to escaping slaves whom to trust. If I see a church or synagogue with a BLM sign, it lets me know where they stand. The absence of a BLM sign is not an indication that they don’t care — but the presence of one says they do.

For many, Black Lives Matter is an urgent plea for help, a shofar-like call for action — a call to make our lives matter, as we are literally dying in the street. Drawn out discussions and a lack of action can be seen as resistance to change. For many of us, those who don’t respond to our humanitarian SOS are not our friends — their silence and inaction are a form of complicity that makes them our enemies.

The path forward

Given that Black Lives Matter is different from the Movement for Black Lives; given that the Movement for Black Lives has removed Israel from its 2020 platform; given that 600 Jewish groups have signed a statement supporting Black Lives Matter; and given that hundreds of American synagogues and countless Jewish homes display Black Lives Matter yard signs, what is the path forward?

For some Jews, these changes will not be enough because of the group’s positions on other liberation movements worldwide. They may feel forced to make a choice between the urgent, immediate call for help from Blacks, and a long-term existential threat to the existence of Israel. 

But you don’t. You can affirmatively support Black Lives Matter without having to explain or defend the position of every group or platform associated with Blacks Live Matter. Jews who support Black Lives Matter are not pledging allegiance to an organization, they are affirming the Torah’s truth because the Hebrew and Christian scriptures teach that truth. God has said, “Black Lives Matter” since Cain killed Abel.

Given Jews’ more than hundred-year partnership with the Black community through such organizations as the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, and the Anti-Defamation League, Jews have earned the right to express the Black Lives Matter truth any way that is an authentic expression of their faith. Jeremey Burton, Executive Director of Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council proposes the following framework.

  1. Understand – A synagogue should do the work of understanding the racial justice, inequity, and systematic racism issues in the country. Through reading books, connecting with speakers, and building relationships, they can better understand where the racial gap lies.
  2. Accountability – A synagogue should determine, “Who are we accountable to in that work — and what do they need from us?” What language do they need us to use? Accountability could be to Black churches, Black Jews in the community, clergy groups, or civic leaders.
  3. Determine – What are we called to do? It’s not about statements; it’s about the work. Use the term “Black Lives Matter” in the context of the work you are trying to advance — your agenda.

We must know and learn from our shared history, both good and bad. We must be in relationship with each other. We must use every opportunity — Martin Luther King’s birthday, Black History Month, Black-Jewish Seders, Black-Jewish Unity Week, joint Black church and synagogue worship, joint community service projects, and Black-Jewish tours of the Holy Land — to restore the dynamic Black-Jewish partnership and work for justice. Together, we Blacks and Jews have made historic change, and we must do so again. The world and the cause of justice demand it.

About the Author
Ed Gaskin attends Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts and Roxbury Presbyterian Church in Roxbury, Mass. He has co-taught a course with professor Dean Borman called, “Christianity and the Problem of Racism” to Evangelicals (think Trump followers) for over 25 years. Ed has an M. Div. degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and graduated as a Martin Trust Fellow from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. He has published several books on a range of topics and was a co-organizer of the first faith-based initiative on reducing gang violence at the National Press Club in Washington DC. In addition to leading a non-profit in one of the poorest communities in Boston, and serving on several non-profit advisory boards, Ed’s current focus is reducing the incidence of diet-related disease by developing food with little salt, fat or sugar and none of the top eight allergens. He does this as the founder of Sunday Celebrations, a consumer-packaged goods business that makes “Good for You” gourmet food.
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