Understanding the Protests in America

It is a point of pride for me to read a broad array of writers and thinkers from across the political spectrum. I did this regularly while living in America and since moving to Israel, I try to do the same. There is a lot from both ends of the political spectrum that sets me on edge, but the email I received today from HaShiloah, a conservative journal, resonated differently.

It has long been common for Israelis to decry the American Jewish practice of pontificating on Israeli politics. American Jews don’t live here, they say. They don’t understand the real risks of living in the Middle East. Their sons and daughters don’t to go into the army. To be honest, I have always had a deep sympathy for this argument and it’s a big part of the reason I made aliyah.

What has surprised me though is the frequency with which Israeli commentators will pontificate about all aspects of American life often with a sense of arrogance I find thoroughly distasteful. Israelis who don’t speak English and have never lived in America will readily identify what they see as America’s great failings and the ways in which Israel is superior. Just as American Jews will often view Israel through their narrow ideological lens in a way that benefits their own psychological needs, Israelis do not hesitate to do the same.

It has been somewhat surreal to see the differences in how the American and Israeli media have covered the protests in America over the past few weeks. I certainly don’t expect them to be the same, but the email I received from HaShliach truly shook me. It opens as follows (translation is mine):

Interracial tension in the United States has returned to the headlines in recent weeks, undermining daily security in many areas. There is something very frustrating about the fact that this tension does not subside. Seemingly, institutionalized discrimination against blacks is a matter of the distant past;, Extensive welfare systems have been operating in the United States, and many methods of ‘affirmative action’ have been applied. When complaining about hidden discrimination or over-policing, despite alarming data on crime rates among blacks, it is hard to understand what protesters want: should the government do more than it did until today to bring relief?

It then goes on to cite Charles Murray’s critique that the American welfare system has infantilized African Americans and that this is the true problem facing American society right now. There is so much wrong with this framing that I don’t even know where to start.

I do want Israelis to understand one thing. The protests in America are not because African Americans are economically disadvantaged though that is undoubtedly true. They began when an American policeman effectively murdered an African American man in broad daylight while being taped on video with bystanders watching. This was not an illusion, a bad apple, or a symptom of the welfare state. It reflected something far more insidious and it would be a true shame for Israelis who claim to have an interest in America not to recognize this.

To help clarify what these protests are truly about, I want to cite from a recent article that appeared in the National Review, an American conservative publication, titled “America Begins to See More Clearly Now What Its Black Citizens Always Knew.” The author, Theodore Johnson, is a black military veteran who served in the Pentagon and retired as captain in the US Navy. He described how he once had to explain to a colleague,

that since my 16th birthday I’d been pulled over about 40 times by police- almost always escaping citations by intentionally handling over my military ID along with my driver’s license… He asked if I thought most of the confrontations between unarmed black people and the police were just a matter of bad apples. I told him, ‘No.’ He asked if I thought all police are racist. No. But to his question of whether police treat black people differently- of whether I believe that racial injustice exists- the answer could only be yes.

As I write these very words, the main headline of the Times of Israel webpage is “Head of national anti-racism unit says police still profile Ethiopian-Israelis.” Institutional racism is certainly not something that Israelis are strangers. In his article, Theodore Johnson goes on to make a fundamental point about what the protests in America have truly been about, one that Israelis would benefit from paying attention to.

The present moment is neither about animus between white and black Americans nor about whether there is an institutional bias in law enforcement against black people. It is decidedly a question about the duties of the state to its citizens, especially those who have been historically excluded, and about the state’s acceptance of accountability when it falls short.

Racism remains a national Achilles heel because it forces a confrontation with our identity and demands that the proper balance of liberty and security be available to all citizens regardless of their race or ethnicity. The protests spawned by the killing of George Floyd are an interrogation of this quandary that black Americans have insisted on since the beginning. Will the people reject the illiberal application of state-sanctioned power, especially against those who have long been its primary object? That the protests today are showing small signs of multiracial solidarity among the general population — something that the nation has rarely seen — is a definitive answer to the question and a reason to believe that the moment we’re in may be different.

About the Author
Rabbi Zachary Truboff recently made aliyah and moved with his family to Jerusalem. He is the director of the English speaking program at Bina L'Itim, a project of Yeshivat Siach Yitzchak and an educator for the Hartman Institute. For nearly a decade, he served as the rabbi of Cedar Sinai Syagogue in Cleveland, OH. He is an officer of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. He has a passion for using Jewish texts and ideas along with contemporary thought to address important issues of the day.
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