Do Black LIves Matter?

“Do you love me?” said the one.

“Of course I love you,” said the other.

“Do you know what hurts me?” said the one.

“No, I don’t know what hurts you,” said the other.

“If you don’t know what hurts me,” said the one, “how can you say you love me?”

We are taught to envision a world where you love your neighbor as yourself. But if we don’t know what hurts, how can we love?

That is the thought that has gone through my mind during the past weeks, as the black community has been suffering through a period of pain and rage. These are our neighbors, and as Jews, we need to understand what hurts them in order to express our love for them.

But there are barriers to that understanding, barriers created by our own history, our own experience, our own limitations, and, I daresay, our own biases.

First: The Talmud, in its wisdom, teaches us that we should never judge another person until we stand in their place. Put another way, a deep and respectful empathy is necessary in order to truly understand who people are, what they stand for, and what they suffer.

For us, for us Jews, at least for us white Jews, our challenge is to understand that the experience of black people in America is not the same, cannot be the same, and cannot be expected to be the same, as our Jewish experience. From our immigrant roots, we have been able to integrate into American life in a manner inconceivable to the black community. The pathways to that integration are manifold, and well nigh invisible, but nevertheless real.

Take one example. Think about Saving Private Ryan, the highly regarded, and quintessentially American, war movie. At the dramatic conclusion, a family is standing in one of the massive cemeteries in Normandy, where 10,000 American soldiers are buried. The characters are framed by two gravestones, one a cross, the other a Jewish star.

Now I’ve been to those cemeteries, and there are in fact many Jewish stars there. But the odds of having one right next to a particular grave are about thirty to one. Unless you are in a movie directed by Steven Spielberg, in which case it’s a sure thing. He was continuing a tradition of Hollywood Jews who have taken it upon themselves to teach the world that we Jews are “just like everybody else.” In every war movie from the fifties, Kowalski was invariably teamed up with Goldberg. When a public service announcement came onto television, it asked “Have you visited your church or synagogue lately?”—as if it was a fifty/fifty proposition. For every cross, there is a Jewish star.

And it worked. From “No Negroes or Jews allowed,” Jews are today the single most admired ethnic group in America, according to Pew surveys.

It could not be that way for the black community, because blacks are constantly portrayed not as “one of us,” but rather as the Other, with a capital O. Not necessarily a bad Other, or a feared Other, often the victimized Other, sometimes a noble Other, but most definitely Other. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X, Morgan Freeman in Shawshank Redemption, Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night. Powerful characters, but decidedly Others. Decidedly not like everybody else. And this isn’t only in the movies. It is a reality in life, reinforced by thousands of rules, spoken and unspoken.

So why can’t they be like us–with, let us be honest, the unspoken racist corollary that they could be like us, but they really aren’t trying the way we did? Why? Because for the most part, they don’t have a chance to be like us. The structure of power in America has made it nearly impossible.

Second: it is infuriating to hear Jews respond to the cry of Black Lives Matter with the expression “All Lives Matter.” Let me ask this: When we were mourning our dead brothers and sisters in Pittsburgh, did anyone say to us, “Why are you focusing on Jews? All lives matter.” No, and we wouldn’t have stood for it. We wouldn’t have stood for it because we know the deaths of the Jews in the Tree of Life sanctuary were not caused by some meteor randomly crashing into a synagogue. The murder was a reflection of a particular social dynamic that has both root causes and devastating effects. We insisted, we demanded, that these be recognized. To do otherwise would be to dishonor the dead.


Should we not say the same of the death of black people at the hands of the police? Are they not also “a reflection of a particular social dynamic that has both root causes and devastating effects?” Would not a denial of that social dynamic serve to dishonor the dead?


Why did no one challenge our very particularistic claim that Jewish lives matter? Because society as a whole knows that there is this thing called anti-Semitism which, from time to time, rears its ugly head in noticeable, not to mention horrific, ways. Society knows it, and admits it. There is no debate on that point. But one can easily find those who are willing to deny that there is systemic racism in America. Only a gutter anti-Semite would make the statement “Jews cause anti-Semitism.” But the proposition that black people are the source of their own misery is still considered an acceptable topic for dinner conversation. After all, we all know how “they” are.

Well, actually, we don’t know how “they” are. Broadly speaking we have no idea how “they” are. If a black person came to us and said, “I know how Jews are. I watched Seinfeld and once saw an interview with Alan Dershowitz,” we would consider them an idiot at best. Well, we watched The Cosby Show and saw an interview with Al Sharpton. Big deal. Not only don’t we know how “they” are, we don’t even know how “we” are, at least when it comes to race.

Our self-examination has been obfuscated by our self-congratulation.

When people insist that Black Lives Matter, they are not insisting that other lives don’t matter. But when people insist that All Lives Matter, one cannot escape the impression that what they are really saying is that black lives, in and of themselves, in their own uniqueness and with all the specificity of lived historical experience, don’t matter enough to be given the focused attention they deserve.

And that is a shameful position no one should take—least of all, Jews.

Third, it has been pointed out that during the recent protests, demonstrations, and riots, synagogues have been defaced, and anti-Semitic slogans have been scrawled. Horrific, to be sure. Utterly unacceptable, period. But protestors in Washington DC set fire to a church building. Does that mean the demonstrators were anti-Christian? No, it means that some of the demonstrators were part of a mob, and mobs unleash a destructive and chaotic group dynamic. It’s just what they do. These weren’t pogroms, as some overheated commentators have claimed. Pogroms were all about killing and torturing Jews. For the vast, vast majority of protestors these past weeks, Jews were utterly irrelevant. Condemn the few cases of anti-Semitic activity, or even the rioting in general, all you want, but remember that in this corner, we have a week’s worth of looting, with, admittedly, some anti-Semitic elements. And in this corner, we have 400 years of systemic racism including enslavement, rape, kidnapping, and murder, Jim Crow, peonage, and ongoing economic, social, and legal discrimination including, most recently, murder at the hands of the people who are supposed to “protect and serve” all of us, blacks included. Comparing that nightmare to a week of looting is almost the textbook example of false equivalence.

Where, exactly, do you think our focus should be?

If you want to fight the anti-Semitism, and of course we should, we have to fight the despair and desperation that create the environment in which it can grow.

We do, to be sure, have to confront the issue of Black Lives Matter and Israel. The BLM platform from 2016 referred to Israel as genocidal. And that description is disgusting and utterly unacceptable. No ifs ands or buts. It’s intersectional b.s., and nothing else.

That being said, if you go to the Black Lives Matters website today, you won’t find any mention of it there. And if you go to the Movement for Black Lives website, the parent organization of BLM, the ones who actually developed the much maligned platform, you won’t find it there either, unless you actually hunt for it. You need to click three times, and then scroll down to the ninth paragraph.  (I know, I tried.)

In other words, it’s hardly a hot topic. Except for us. If we were to go to a demonstration and ask about Black Lives Matter and Palestine, 99% of the people there would have no idea what we’re talking about. With rare exception, they aren’t thinking about Palestine, any more than they are thinking about Tibet. They’re thinking about black people suffocated by a knee on their neck, shot in the back, or killed in their beds.

Yes, we must still counter the horrible and, yes, anti-Semitic, claim that we are accessories to genocide. And yes, we must decry any desecration of a synagogue, or any anti-Semitic slogan spray-painted on a wall. But the way to counter them is not by ignoring what for the black community is a clear and present danger of their young people getting killed. We will have zero chance of influencing anybody if we simply pick up our marbles and go home, tut-tutting about anti-Semitism.

We want, indeed, we demand, that we be seen for who we are, and our struggles respected for what they are. How dare we ask of ourselves any less vis-à-vis those who are living black lives? How dare we expect the black community to understand our pain, if we are unwilling to understand their pain?

“If you don’t know what hurts me, how can you say you love me?”

About the Author
Rabbi Wolkoff serves Congregation Bnai Tikvah in North Brunswick. He has published hundred of articles and lectured internationally on Jewish topics, and has been active both in interfaith work and in the struggle against anti-Semitism, both in the United States and in Sweden, where he served for a decade. He is a JNF Rabbi for Israel.
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