Why Black Lives Matter for Jews

A man leaves a photograph at a memorial for George Floyd on Wednesday afternoon, after the death of Floyd on Monday night in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Wikimedia Commons, Lorie Shaull)

As tempers flare and tensions go up across the US, one of the most useful things we can do as Jews is reflect on how we can connect to the protests raging across the country in response to the murder in custody of George Floyd.

We are now entering a time when “Black lives matter” has become such an important set of words. For some, it’s a rallying cry, and for others, it spurs a negative response. How should we react as Jews?

Let’s take a look at an analogy. The Holocaust does not define what it means to be Jewish. But there are those who deny or seek to minimize what happened. Partly to combat them, we have museums, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and so on. The central message is: “The Holocaust happened.” Imagine if someone heard this phrase and responded “Everything happened!” You can see how that response would be a strange attempt to erase a horrible historic fact. There’s a very similar thing that goes on when someone says “Black lives matter” and the response is “All lives matter.” Holocaust museums never tried to erase the rest of history, and Black Lives Matter never tried to say that other lives don’t matter. The best way to understand both the museums and the movement is to see that they both actively confront particular areas of historical blindness, two kinds of blindness that are both very dangerous to this day. The reason why people say that “Black lives matter” is that for much of American history, including today, many people act as if they don’t matter. So that needs to be confronted. And confronting it means looking at the horror of particular times of violence, as well as the long history that lead up to it and continues after it.

The best way to respond to the hate of the present is to understand how takes its roots from the hate of the past, so that we together can build a future with less hate in it, and more safety for our children.

About the Author
Michael Saenger is an Associate Professor of English at Southwestern University and the author of two books and the editor of another. He has been a Finalist for the Southwestern Teaching Award, and he has given talks on cultural history in Europe, Israel and North America.
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