In the awful days and weeks following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, when protests against violent police erupted in cities across America, many American Jews, myself included, joined in public demonstrations of protest. Given my personal history as a liberal “child of the sixties,” my work as a prominent pulpit rabbi, and what was clearly an inexcusable act of violence by a policeman against Mr. Floyd, it seemed to me very much the right thing to do.
One of the repeated exhortations of the rallies that I attended, and others like them, was the cry to “say his name!” The intention was to transform George Floyd’s murder from an abstract story of violence (Black Lives Matter) into a narrative that focused on a real person suffering a cruel and untimely death. It was a kind of chant and response: “Say his name-George Floyd! Say his name- George Floyd!” As a rhetorical tool, it was effective. By the time you left the demonstration, you were protesting Floyd’s death as much as you were the prevalence of police brutality and relentless injustices too often perpetrated against the Black community by law enforcement in this country.
I retired from the pulpit rabbinate in June of 2023, and I no longer have to answer to the divergent pulls and tugs of a community that looks to me to represent it. But though it pains me greatly to have to say this, I fear that the last vestiges of the liberal identity I came of age with are being replaced by the harsh realities of post-October 7 politics.
I sadly admit how very hard-pressed I am to understand the absence from our demonstrations of so much of the Black Lives Matters community. There are certainly prominent Blacks who have sided with us in our efforts to free the hostages; a heart-felt thank you to them. But I have not heard any clarion call for support from those who had no qualms about reaching out to us in 2020 to join in protests surrounding George Floyd’s murder, and chided us if we were reluctant. And now, they won’t say the names of Israel’s kidnapping victims who are languishing in Hamas captivity, or condemn the savage murder of fourteen hundred civilians.
They can’t bring themselves to “say their names” because they group Israelis with the “colonialists” whom, they maintain, continue to oppress them. Zionism is, to them, just another manifestation of white privilege and colonialism, and all “oppressors” are to be condemned. The doctrine of intersectionality has overwhelmed all critical thinking. The not so subtle implication of their refusal is that they- Israelis, and Jews writ large- have it coming.
Two hundred and twenty names consciously “not said,” not repeated, their abruptly interrupted lives not valued, is a breath-taking exercise of moral relativism, grounded in ignorance. The mind reels. While it is certainly true that Black Lives Matter, it is hard not to draw the conclusion that Israeli lives don’t. Not babies, not toddlers, not grandparents, not Holocaust survivors… “saying their names” involves humanizing them in a way that doesn’t fit their neat historical construct.
But though the absence of large swaths of the Black Lives Matter community is particularly painful, given our intertwined history, they are hardly the only ones whose absence is glaring, and whose silence is deafening.
The “Me Too” movement in this country forced us all to confront the prevalence of sexual violence and coercion against women in all walks of life, particularly the workplace. But the rape and horrific degradation of women in Israel being paraded before cheering men doesn’t seem to have merited their anger. Say their names! The LGBTQ community should be horrified by the regressive policies of Hamas, not to mention most of the Arab world, but evidently not enough to join forces with Jews in demanding release of the hostages in Israel- by far the most progressive country in the Middle East on LGBTQ issues. Say their names!
College campuses have become ground zero in the world of “micro-aggressions.” Even the slightest offense against the most current left-wing ideological orthodoxy can be seen as triggering unsustainable hurt. Shielding students and even faculty from such offenses has become a hallmark of higher education. But a “macro-aggression” like the brutal murder of fourteen hundred innocent Israelis and the kidnapping of two hundred and forty innocent souls does indeed merit protests… but only against the victims! How obscene is that; how very hypocritical. Say their names!
I have spent the better part of my adult life, and certainly my years in the pulpit, trying not to fall into the rabbit hole of believing that kol ha’olam negdeinu; the entire world, of all colors and races, is against us. I desperately don’t want to believe that, and I don’t want other Jews to either. I am fearful of living in a world in which that might be true. It makes me fear for my children and grandchildren.
But I don’t really know how else to read the rabid anti-Semitism that has been unleashed by the war in Gaza, so much of which is rooted in a perceived Israeli genocide of Palestinians in Gaza. Instead of clamoring for a ceasefire, they should be clamoring for the hostages to be released, and for Gazans to be freed from the iron fist of Hamas rule. The simultaneous refusal to recognize the unique trauma that Israel and her citizens are experiencing even as I write only exacerbates the pain. Fourteen hundred innocent men, women and children were slaughtered, and two hundred forty were kidnapped.
To all of those whose silence is deafening, we must demand-“Say their names!”