The unlawful killing of George Floyd was a tragedy for the black community. But as the trauma of recent days has shown, it psychologically scarred people of all colours. Something snapped in us all. As the Chief Rabbi wrote last week: “This is an essential wake up call for each and every one of us.”
That’s why I was determined to put George Floyd on the front page of last week’s Jewish News, the first non-Jewish news story to lead the newspaper since 9/11. The question was, how? How should a Jewish newspaper contribute to a painful debate on racism that isn’t about antisemitism?
Non-Jews have shown compassion in the wake of deadly anti-Jewish racism, notably the ‘Je Suis Juif’ (‘I am Jewish’) campaign following the murder of four Jews in a Paris supermarket in 2015. I wanted to reciprocate. To say we’re in this fight together and when you kneel on black people you hurt us all.
With this in mind I ran a front page editorial, stating: “British Jews feel impotent, unable to help the black community. One of the many immediate steps we can take is educate ourselves on the racism experienced by black people. The idea that the lives of any collective group of people matters less than others is so fundamental, so core to our DNA, that Derek Chauvin knelt on us all that day.”
I made the headline that final sentence: “Derek Chauvin knelt on us all”.
I wasn’t naïve. Colleagues cautioned it could suggest Jews were trying to claim the pain like the trite slogan, “All Lives Matter”. My intention wasn’t to equate suffering. I wanted readers to sit up and think about a burning issue that, like me, many didn’t know enough about. A prosaic ‘Shock and anger’ headline simply wouldn’t have registered on their radar.
A persecuted minority naturally retreats to its own. The ordeals of others can seem remote, even abstract, in comparison to personal suffering.
The front page was sharply criticised the moment I tweeted it. One reader wrote: “Solidarity means giving the focus and platform to those suffering, not making it about us.” Another squirmed: “This front page is an analysis of Jewish otherness through an analogy to anti-black racism.”
Over the next 24 hours, as I received emails and took calls from members of the black Jewish community – people I hadn’t spoken to in 11 years as editor of Jewish News – it became clear I’d failed to find common ground between the black and Jewish experience of prejudice. By shoving anti-black hatred and antisemitism under one headline I’d decolourised racism.
White Jews don’t wear their cultural or religious identity on their skin. They are not physically or figuratively kneeled on in the same way George Floyd was. They don’t endure, as one black Jewish woman told me, sour stares when entering a synagogue or get mistaken for the cleaner.
There are many bridge building exercises between Jews and other religious minorities, but few have been forged between the Jewish and black community. This week it was announced the New Statesman’s political editor Stephen Bush is to head a Board of Deputies commission on racial inclusivity in the Jewish community. Black British Jews will be invited to share their experiences of racism in the Jewish community. It will be a raw and revealing wake-up call.
A persecuted minority naturally retreats into itself. The ordeals of others, often all too familiar, can seem remote, even abstract, in comparison to personal suffering. The time has come for the scales to fall from our eyes. To discard our often harmful preconceptions and honestly identify with lives beyond our own.
The killing of George Floyd was a tragedy for the black community. But if we fail to take it as a warning sign for the way we as Jews empathise and identify with other minorities, his senseless death and the deep trauma that’s ensued will have been in vain.