America is currently facing a level of social unrest that hasn’t been seen in decades. On top of a highly polarized electorate in an election year, the U.S. continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, and protests have broken out nationwide since the unjust killing of George Floyd, another black man murdered at the hands of white police officers. Tensions are running at an all-time high and there is a feeling of awakening taking over America.
The ongoing protests for racial justice have galvanized the nation. Millions of Americans during a global health pandemic took to the streets protesting systemic racism in this country. A majority of protests were peaceful, but you also had rioting and violence break out. Police and protestors continue to face off in many cities as we speak and the battle lines seem to be drawn. However, the American Jewish community isn’t quite sure which side we want to stand on.
American Jews have been at the forefront of many different social justice movements in this country. Fierce Jewish feminists like Emma Goldman led the early charge for gender equality in this country, and some of the first Jewish women elected to Congress like Bella Abzug took that fight to Capitol Hill. During the Civil Rights Era, Jews joined in large numbers in solidarity with the Black community, fighting for racial justice. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Polish-born Jew whose family was murdered in the Holocaust, marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jewish activists like Henry Moskowitz helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Color People (NAACP). American Jews have also held prominence in the LGBTQ rights movement with trailblazing figures such as Leslie Feinberg and Harvey Milk. The successful movement for marriage equality in this country came from the immense contributions of dedicated Jewish activists such as Roberta Kaplan, Edie Windsor, and Evan Wolfson. For decades, American Jews have risen up and answered the calls for justice.
However, this is not the same reaction we have seen during the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement. Many Jews feel alienated by the BLM movement due to a controversial platform plank from the Movement for Black Lives (a subgroup affiliated with the larger BLM movement) on Israel in 2016. There is a fear among Jewish Americans that the BLM movement has become wrought with antisemitism from followers of Louis Farrakhan to Palestinian activists trying to tie the racial justice movement in America to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By and large, a sizeable chunk of the American Jewish community has sat out these protests, ignoring the calls for justice.
This is a mistake. First and foremost, American Jews have shown up and been integral parts of social justice movements in this country because we know what happens if the world stays silent in the face of injustice. Our muddled history with antisemitism, forced displacement, genocide, and oppression has forced us to take a new approach to combat hatred and intolerance wherever it rears its ugly head. Our Jewish values inspire us to continue to try to make the world a better place for future generations. That something as horrific as the Holocaust could happen never again. Secondly, many of the same forces out targeting people of color are also direct threats to our own community. With the Pittsburg and Poway shootings, our sense of safety in America has been shattered, and we are confronted with the cold hard truth that despite our best attempt to assimilate into America, we are still viewed as foreign by many. As we find ourselves facing a skyrocket in hate crimes targeted towards us, we are looking outward for allies and other communities to stand with us in our time of need. However, all alliances and relationships must be two-way streets.
If we want other marginalized communities to stand with us as our communities and synagogues come under attack, we need to stand with them as their families are being ripped apart by unjust immigration policies and lives shattered by systemic racism. We, like our ancestors, must answer the calls for justice. We must work across our differences to build meaningful partnerships with other marginalized communities, that can foster more understanding and engagement between our respective communities. We must continue to work to repair a world that is wrought with injustice. The organized Jewish community cannot sit out this moment, but we must be jolted into action.
Our own history has shown us what the consequences of apathy and silence are when persecuted groups are being singled out and dehumanized. The severity of such actions can best be summed up by the words of a German Lutheran Pastor during the Holocaust; “First they came for the socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.”
We must meet this moment, not with apathy or indifference, but with the same fire burning for justice that American Jews have brought to every social justice movement in this country for the past century. The future of our country and our own community’s survival depends on it. By showing up for others, we can bridge divides, heal a broken society, and foster understanding and relationships with other communities. By doing the necessary work of fighting against injustice, we can do our part to repair the world and create new allies who will answer our calls for help in our hour of need. Let us go forward with the words of Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”