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The Black Lives Matter platform: How the Jewish community got distracted by one word

While numerous major Jewish organizations and leaders have remained silent, many in the U.S. Jewish community have been thrown for a loop by black American solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, and the terminology that sometimes includes.

Activists take part in a Black Lives Matter march, Boston, January 19, 2015. (Tess Scheflan/Activestills.org)

Activists take part in a Black Lives Matter march, Boston, January 19, 2015. (Tess Scheflan/Activestills.org)

The Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of more than 50 organizations representing black Americans, published a comprehensive platform this week that addresses the systemic racism, violence, oppression and discrimination faced by their communities.

The document, which is not shy in declaring that not all of its needs can be addressed with policy, also includes six policy briefs — End the War on Black People, Reparations, Invest-Divest, Economic Justice, Community Control, and Political Power — that include diagnoses and prescriptions aimed at making tangible and attainable change in the short term.

The 37,000-word Movement for Black Lives (MBL) document outlines one of the most important issues facing the United States today and how to address it. However, a number of Jewish and pro-Israel individuals and organizations took issue with one sentence, or to be more specific, one word: genocide.

In the policy brief on the need to cut military expenditures — both to end American-funded injustices overseas, but also to redirect billions of dollars to “domestic infrastructure and social programs to meet the needs of Black people and working class communities within the U.S.” — the MBL document states that the United States government, through its funding of the Israeli military and arms industry, “is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.”

A number of Jewish and Israel-related individuals and organizations in the U.S. responded with everything from outrage to disappointment to silence. T’ruah, a coalition of rabbis committed to acting on human rights, published a statement saying it agrees with most of the MBL platform but at the same time calls out its use of the term “genocide” in relation to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and rejects its endorsement of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.

“While we agree with many of the policy recommendations, we are extremely dismayed at the decision to refer to the Israeli occupation as genocide,” the T’ruah statement read, adding that while it is committed to ending the occupation, “there is no basis for comparing this situation to the genocides of the 20th century, such as those in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, or Armenia, or the Nazi Holocaust in Europe, each of which constituted a calculated plan to destroy specific groups, and each of which killed hundreds of thousands to millions of people.”

The Rome Statute, the founding document of the International Criminal Court which serves as a contemporary codification of war crimes and crimes against humanity, defines genocide as any number of war crimes “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

Jewish activists take part in a Black Lives Matter protest in Brookline, MA, December 16, 2014. (Tess Scheflan/Activestills.org)

Jewish activists take part in a Black Lives Matter protest in Brookline, MA, December 16, 2014. (Tess Scheflan/Activestills.org)

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston (JCRC), on the other hand, released a statement disassociating itself with the entire Black Lives Matter movement and platform. “JCRC cannot and will not align ourselves with organizations that falsely and maliciously assert that Israel is committing ‘genocide’,” it wrote, also calling attention to the MBL’s endorsement of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. “We reject participation in any coalition that seeks to isolate and demonize Israel singularly amongst the nations of the world.” (Other local JCRCs issued more nuanced responses.)

It is worth noting that the Invest-Divest section of the MBL platform does not, in fact, single out Israel. It also denounces and calls for divestment initiatives to address the millions of civilian deaths in Washington’s “global war on terror,” military and other interventions in Central and South America and the Caribbean, deadly drone operations throughout Africa and the Middle East, indirect complicity in the genocides perpetrated in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the arming of human rights violating groups throughout Africa.

In the coverage the MBL platform got in the Jewish and Israeli press, strangely, there was a noticeable absence of reactions from major Jewish American organizations and public figures that normally waste no time putting out statements rejecting anything that even resembles criticism of Israel.

Other Jewish American organizations, like Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), fully endorsed the platform without reservation. In its statement on the matter, JVP said it is “deeply disappointed by the response from a number of Jewish organizations to the platform, particularly the “Invest-Divest” section that endorses the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and makes a clear call for Black/Palestinian solidarity.”

Those organizations, JVP continued, “are rejecting a thorough and inspiring transformational set of policy ideas developed by a broad coalition of Black leaders simply because these Black leaders have explicitly linked the experiences and struggles of Palestinians with their own.”

Writing on his personal blog, Rabbi Brant Rosen praised the platform while acknowledging the difficulty that some American Jews might have with the use of the term genocide. The bottom line, wrote Rabbi Rosen of Tzedek Chicago, is that the MBL platform “[is] a challenge for the entire progressive Jewish community at large”:

If we claim to ascribe to a power analysis that views systems of oppression as intersectional and interrelated, we simply constantly cannot make an exception when it comes to Israel. The black community is increasingly finding common cause with Palestinians – and for good reason. Both are oppressed by the same systems, the same weapons, and the same security companies. It is not by coincidence that American police departments around the country are increasingly trained by the Israeli military.

If we truly seek to be to relevant this undeniably growing movement, we need to make these connections as well. No matter how uncomfortable it might make us.

Postscript:

Personally, I disagree with using the term genocide in this context — I don’t believe the legal or even colloquial definition is met, and using it to describe non-genocidal situations harms efforts to educate about and stop the most atrocious crimes committed by mankind, past, present and future. Furthermore, the unequivocal connotation of genocide in the Israeli-Palestinian context is the Holocaust. (For more on why Nazi and Holocaust juxtapositions are so counterproductive, I suggest reading this post by Noam Sheizaf from a few years ago, particularly point three.)

Nonetheless, criticizing such a monumental and important platform because of one word unfairly diverts attention from the vital work ahead on racial and social justice for black communities and individuals, and draws divisions between struggles where they need not exist. The MBL document is not about Israel, it is not about Jews, and one of the most crucial aspects of being an ally to an oppressed people’s struggle is not making it about yourself.

Correction:
This article has been amended to reflect that the JCRC statement was made by the local Boston branch and not a national organization.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Kodachrome

      It’s not just the Palestinians struggle that BLM is in solidarity with, but that of African Jews, and African refugees.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Reuven Kaminer

      Excellent article. The US and Israel are condemned together for the war on Palestinian statehood.The genocide term in this context is not helpful, but Israel has and is doing everything to earn the condemnation by all opponents of its policies. The important thing is to find paths to cooperation for all enemies of racism!

      Reply to Comment
    3. Yonatan Falic

      If Jews wish the international anti-genocide legal regime to have meaning, they must accept that Israel was founded in planned genocide and continues to commit genocide. As ex-IDF soldier and ex-Israeli, I have no doubt whatsoever that Israeli is a criminal genocidal state that must be dismantled.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Carmen

      How committed is the Jewish community if the word ‘genocide’ derails them? That word isn’t the property of the Jewish people FFS.

      gen·o·cide
      /ˈjenəˌsīd/

      the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation.

      Could you honestly explain how this word with this definition doesn’t apply to Palestinians?

      Reply to Comment
      • i_like_ike52

        The word certainly applies to the Palestinians…their leaders, most explicitly HAMAS but also FATAH say they intend ultimately to eradicate the Jewish state. Just read the HAMAS charter, and also the FATAH/PLO charter which state it although Arafat pretended to abrogate it in the 1990’s.
        Israel, on the other hand, has repeatedly offered an independent state to the Palestinians, and they have repeatedly rejected it, because it would mean living in peace with the Jewish state, something they ideologically reject.

        Reply to Comment
        • When a man moves into your home by force, controls your resources to a large extent and then offers you the smallest room in your own house, only a fool would say yes. A man would tell you to leave and that is exactly what the Palestinians have being saying for longer than l have lived! (50 yrs)

          Reply to Comment
    5. annie

      thanks for the excellent article, especially the last sentence.

      factually, i think the T’ruah statement ” “there is no basis for comparing this situation to the genocides of the 20th century, such as those in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, or Armenia, or the Nazi Holocaust in Europe” is incorrect, because the Movement for Black Lives platform did not compare genocides — at all. genocide is not defined by other genocides. its defined, like apartheid, by the legal description of the crime.

      i understand it’s a natural response/reaction of the jewish community, indeed many communities, to compare genocides with the nazi holocaust. however, if the nazi holocaust were to be used as a benchmark with which to judge other genocidal atrocities it may stem the recognition of crimes as they unfold. note stages 1 – 8 in stages of genocide. particularly stage 8 (denial). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genocide#Stages_of_genocide.2C_influences_leading_to_genocide.2C_and_efforts_to_prevent_it

      again, it’s natural and wholly understandable for the jewish community to reject the notion a genocide is taking place, long and drawn out as it may be. but cumulatively, systematically and psychologically that’s what it’s looking like to the outside world — and for a palestinians, especially in gaza? of course.

      try listening instead of judging. no one uses this term lightly. review the legal definition and stages i linked to. if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, (mow the grass, pregnant woman 1 shot 2 kills, watching bombing on hillside like a sports game — etc) — it’s really not making it all about yourself. the jewish community can’t decide what it looks like from out here — no matter how much they stretch out this crime. one decade, 2, 3 and another jubilee year rolls around. put your mind inside of the oppressed. that’s where the Movement for Black Lives is coming from and it’s their platform.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Carmen

      * Netanyahu: No Palestinian state on my watch

      PM pledges thousands of apartments in East Jerusalem, says construction will curb Bethlehem’s encroachment on capital

      By Times of Israel staff and AFP March 16, 2015, 5:51 pm

      * Netanyahu: If I’m Elected, There Will Be No Palestinian State

      In a definitive disavowal of his Bar-Ilan two-state speech, prime minister makes last-minute attempt to draw voters from Bennett’s Habayit Hayeudi.
      Barak Ravid | Mar 16, 2015 5:27 PM

      The zionist state has never, ever honestly been comitted to peace. Every time there appears to be a rapprochement, the israelis throw a wrench and stuff up the works. There’s always one more condition, always. When the israelis want peace more than they want dead Palestinian men, women and children, there will be peace. All they’ve shown is they are liars and thieves, and only interested in all of Palestine.

      Reply to Comment
    7. To my mind, it is unreasonable to expect Jewish organizations to remain silent when a manifesto with wide public exposure includes a statement condemning Israel as genocidal and fulling endorsing BDS, with not a single word on Israel’s legitimate needs for security and peace. T’ruah should be commended for pointing this out politely and respectfully, while in general stating its support for the concerns of BLM and its desire to also see an end to occupation and a two-state peace for Israel and Palestine.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Jerry Tanenbaum

      I see, so the bigotry underlying the false hyperbole used against the Jewish struggle for collective self-protection and self-determination should be ignored because it was stated in only a few words. The term itself is used against Israel in a context that would never be used against any non-Jewish actors because it references the Nazis, which the user knows will make its use even more offensive.

      But, it is hardly simply the false “genocide” term that is the problem – but the embrace of the BDS movement to end the existence of the Jewish State. It is immoral to overlook the bigotry inherent in that position against Jews simply because one is in favor of other aspects of the BLM movement. For Jews to overlook it or worse to candy coat the bigotry on which it is based is simply a “punch myself in the face” exercise.

      People within the Left, and especially Jews within the Left, have to be the loudest in standing against the bigoted double standards applied to Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    9. R6

      To BLM MEMBERS: Palestinians are using your civil rights struggle to advance a regressive nationalism, not human rights.

      To Palestinians: BLM LEADERS are using you to help their careers. They’re totally cynical.

      BLM leaders are gunning for fellowships and other $$$ from progressive groups. It’s a tight group of extremely well educated people who are perfectly capable of getting real jobs, but they see more opportunity for themselves in activism. I know some of them PERSONALLY, and they’re frauds. They will actually take racial abuse from people who work for corporations just in case those corporations might pay them in the future. the SJW/diversity industry is a racket. Sorry to disappoint you.

      Reply to Comment
    10. sharonsj

      Nobody ever asks what the borders of a Palestinian state would be. If you read the Hamas and PLO charters, a Palestinian state would run from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea–and replace Israel. Most Jews would be expelled or killed and anyone remaining would be subject to Sharia Law. Wouldn’t that be both genocide and apartheid? That’s why BDS is nothing but racist bullcrap.

      Reply to Comment