United We Stand. Divided We Fall.



If you are an english-speaker reading this, these are the only two messages you really need to hear from me at the moment.

But of course life isn’t that simple. So I am going to address an issue which has come up a lot on my social media feed recently: the intersection of BLACK LIVES MATTER and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Some non-Jews and even many Jews reading this will now be wondering what is going on. How are those two things connected? But – because of who I am, and where I live and what I do for a profession, (I am a Reform Rabbi in Israel) these two things are connected an awful lot on the social media I consume. And I am not going to pretend that they aren’t connected for me either. Of course they are.

I will try and explain. But in order to so, I can’t stay wholly in English – because context is everything. If I were to translate “Black lives matter” into Hebrew, there are two possible translations. The first would be to translate according to the context in which that phrase first appears and in which it is being used most prominently. Here the translation would be “חיים שחורים קדושים” (Black lives are holy – there is no way of translating the English idiom “to matter” into Hebrew easily and without adding verbiage. A more literal translation would be “יש ערך לחיים שחורים, “there is value to black lives” but it doesn’t sound right). But the second way to translate it would be to translate it into the context in which Hebrew is the lingua franca – i.e. to translate it into the context of Israel. Here the correct translation would be: “פליסטינאים נבראים בצלם אלהים” (Palestinians are born in the image of G?d).

So yes – when I internalise the message of BLACK LIVES MATTER and apply it to the context in which I live, then I would translate the message into one about how I use my power as a Jewish Israeli to stand up for the lives of Palestinians/ Arab Israelis who suffer at the hands of the Israeli state apparatus.

BUT  let’s return to English. In English – the lingua franca of America, that is not so relevant. I have seen many folks (people I love and respect) argue that the Jewish community should get 100% behind the BLM movement, irrelevant of the fact that in the past, an iteration of the centralised leadership of that movement put out a platform that denied Jewish national rights and repeated blood libels. First of all let me add my voice to my friends who are arguing for this – OF COURSE Jews should be supporting the BLM movement, because (contrary to some opinions) we are human beings, and supporting the right of human beings to breathe and live is pretty fundamental to what it means to be a person.

But at the same time, lets take a second to explore the connection between “Black Lives Matter” and the Jewish-Palestinian conflict. There is no actual connection. The history of racism in America directed at African Americans shares very little with the history of Jewish racism towards Palestinians. African Americans are present in America (on the whole) as a result of Genocide, Imperialism and Colonialism. Their ancestors were kidnapped, tortured, brutalised, enslaved, and then discriminated against, and they themselves are living with the results of that historic process as well as the current discrimination which the suffer.

Jewish racism against Palestinians (and of course I am not denying that this racism is prevalent in Israeli society) is the result of two ethnic groups’ competing claims to the same piece of land. There is absolutely no way to compare these two historical experiences. To do so is to abuse the narratives of both situations. When anti-zionists claim that Jewish racism to Palestinians is the same as American racism to African Americans, they go on to claim (or they implicitly claim) that Jewish presence in the middle east is a form of colonialism, ignoring the fact that Jews are an indigenous population to the middle east, ignoring the fact that Jews have been consistently present in the middle east (and in particular in Israel/ Palestine) since the birth of Jewish identity, and they ignore that half of Israel’s population are themselves or are descended from Jewish refugees from Muslim countries of the middle east, forced to flee because they were Jewish.

Some people believe that “intersectionality” means that the oppressed should stand together. Being human means that the oppressed should stand together. But neither intersectionality nor humanity is an excuse to co-opt one political struggle for the sake of another. The real issue here is the co-opting of the oppression of African Americans for the anti-Zionist, Palestinian Nationalist cause. And it is done by both sides of the political spectrum.

Palestinian Nationalists, Jewish Supremacists and White Nationalists all have reason to wish for the Jewish community to be divided into left and right, and for the Black and Jewish communities of America to be divided against each other. White Nationalists wish to co-opt conservative Jews to their xenophobic cause. Palestinian Nationalists wish to co-opt liberal Jews to their anti-Zionist cause. And of course the people who are most behind this move are anti-Zionist Jews, whose desire to destroy Zionism, which they view as casting aspersions on their own Jewish loyalty, is so strong, that they become unaware of the dangerous effects of this simple tactic.

Of course Jews (American and otherwise, Black and otherwise) should stand together with Black Lives Matter. (Not because we are Jewish but because we are human). But of course some Jews will be made uncomfortable by the prominence of messages which deny Jewish national rights within this movement. We can get over that discomfort. Lives are on the line. But as well as getting over our discomfort, if we have any time left over after we have finished making sure our African American brothers and sisters can breathe, we are also permitted to call out the cynicism of those who seek to use Black suffering to further their own psycho-ideological agenda of anti-Zionism.

When my fellow Jewish leftists are calling out Jewish conservatives for their inappropriate response to Black Lives Matter, at the same time, we must call out the incredibly manipulative actions of the anti-Zionist Jewish supposed left for trying to blend these two issues in the first place. Let us not allow Jewish Americans and African Americans (and Jewish-African-Americans) to be divided.

United we stand. Divided we fall.


oh, and wear a mask!

A poster that went viral on social media mixing the Palestinian cause with the message of BLACK LIVES MATTER.
About the Author
Haim Shalom moved to Israel from Manchester, England, and lives and works in Jerusalem. Having chosen the names "Life" and "Peace", he does his best to promote both. He is a Reform Rabbi working in Jewish Education.
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