As our nation erupts in daily protests, I am reminded of a conversation I had decades ago with a fifth-grade classmate. My friend, “Marlene,” was explaining that because “Negroes” had been subjected to so much bigotry, they deserved to be treated differently from whites. At the time, I accepted it but I knew that something about that position didn’t sit right with me.
I’m happy to see that protesting racist brutality, that racism itself, has, at long last, become a high priority in our country. But I am distressed that demonstrations for progressive causes, for minority rights, are inevitably hijacked by anti-Semites who exploit them as opportunities to blame their woes on Jews or Israel.
A brief review of anti-Semitism emerging in the protests against George Floyd’s murder provides a recent example. Social media propagandists are spreading images of Floyd, a Black American murdered by Minneapolis police, as a Palestinian brutalized by Israeli police. This hardly does justice to the causes for which Blacks and their supporters are fighting. Mendacious claims that Israelis have trained American police to use vicious and illegal techniques merely shift the spotlight away from America’s very own homegrown systemic racism. Jews who want to participate in supporting the Black community have been pained by the platform espoused by the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) which refers to Israel as “an apartheid, genocidal regime that routinely arrests 4 year-old Palestinians.” Although M4BL has formally removed these words from their web site, they are still being expressed.
Such classic scapegoating of Jews is not without consequence. In what has been described as “a mini-pogrom,” some anti-Semites took advantage of the demonstrations’ turmoil to vandalize five synagogues and three Jewish schools in Los Angeles.
What are Jewish positions in response to such anti-Semitism? I haven’t seen one Jewish communal leader protesting. Instead, a typical response, voiced by one rabbi, maintains, “Now it is on us to make certain that George Floyd’s death will not be in vain. We can argue and joust and cry about Israel another day.” Jewish clergy have largely aligned with the “It’s on us” position. They argue that because Blacks have been subjected to racist brutality for 400 years, our task is to listen and understand. Racism directed against Jews is not a priority right now, not a consideration, not mentioned at all.
This is same the argument my fifth-grade friend, Marlene, used: It’s on us. I see this position as a self-deceptive elitist version of the “white man’s burden.”
To say, “It’s on us,” is inherently racist – against Blacks and other minorities. To say, “It’s on us,” implies that the demands we make of ourselves cannot or should not be made of others. It implies that those minorities who happen to be anti-Semitic should be given a pass, one that we Jews deny ourselves. If it’s not acceptable for Jews to be racist, it’s not acceptable for other groups to be anti-Semites. No excuses. Unless, of course, you see those other groups as less capable, less virtuous, or too damaged to do what we ask of ourselves: dump our biases and respect other human beings because they are human beings.
I ask the rabbis counseling, “It’s on us,” what is to be gained by accepting anti-Semitism or any form of racial/minority hatred? I ask those demonstrators for racial justice who do happen to be anti-Semitic to also consider these questions. How can your lack of tolerance, disrespect or even hatred of Jews, Israelis or any group possibly benefit a movement for equality? Does one group’s suffering ever justify another group’s bigotry? Does any form of bigotry further the cause of justice?
I disagree with the argument that because virulent racism is the priority, now is “not the time” to protest anti-Semitism. I don’t believe that racism against one group can be rooted out while racism against another group is accepted. If one of us is enslaved, none of us is free. Therefore, it is always the right time. We can and must eradicate all bigotry. Now. No excuses.
Because we are equals, I deeply believe we have to demand equality for all, from all. I’d like to see Jewish leaders endorse that.