Rabbi Andrew Marc Paley, a senior spiritual leader of a major Reform temple in Dallas who spoke at the city’s memorial program Tuesday for five slain police officers, told us this week that “people are being forced to take sides.
“It doesn’t have to be an either-or” between allying with the police or the black community, he said in the wake of the tragedy.
But it feels that way for many American Jews who find themselves in a difficult position during an increasingly bitter divide between the African-American community and law enforcement officials in the U.S.
Jews have had a long and proud history of involvement in the civil rights movement, particularly during the 1960s. They have also been champions of the rule of law, and supportive and appreciative of police efforts to protect citizens from anti-Semitic acts. In recent years, though, with the disturbing images of white police officers shooting unarmed black youths and adults, bitter lines have been drawn in overly simplistic terms. Some leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement describe white cops as sadistic racists, and worse. And black activists have been portrayed as troublemakers out to demonize, if not terrorize, cops.
Last week’s horrific murders at the hands of a single gunman expressing hate for whites shocked the country into a period of reflection and retreat from the angry rhetoric that has been evident on the opposing sides. But that pause is temporary in a country where so many angry divides — presidential politics, the most obvious — prevail. Unfortunately, rallies, memorial programs and condemnations of violence tend to give way to recurring rounds of shootings and blame.
What makes the problem even more inflammatory and complex for the Jewish community is the issue of intersectionality — the theory that social categorizations like race, class and gender are interconnected and can result in overlapping systems of discrimination. In recent years and particularly on college campuses, there has been an increase in black and/or progressive activists insisting that someone who supports Israel is disqualified from participating in their activities. Indeed, Israel is viewed as a racist country among a number of Black Lives Matter advocates, with some adopting the slogan “From Palestine to Ferguson” in their rallies, referring to the Missouri city where Michael Brown was killed by police in 2014.
Progressive Jewish students, and others sympathetic to the plight of the black community, feel alienated and isolated when they are rejected for affiliating with the Jewish state.
While the Zionist Organization of America points out that Black Lives Matter is “allied with Israel hate groups,” mainstream Jewish groups are trying to work with the movement. The Anti-Defamation League, for example, distinguishes between Black Lives Matter, which it says raises “important issues,” and the positions taken by individual activists, which it condemns. The ADL has called for “increased training for law enforcement, including implicit bias training.” And its many ties with minority community groups gives it the kind of relationships and credibility that can be useful in the hard work that needs to be done to tamp down tempers.
Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said he does not see “a contradiction between working for racial justice and criminal justice reform and having deep respect for the work that the law enforcement community does every day to keep us all safe.”
He said while the Reform movement has just launched a racial justice campaign, “we won’t shy away from reaffirming our opposition to BDS or condemning language that undermines Israel’s right to exist.”
That is the kind of balance called for in successful coalition building in these difficult times. The sobering reality is that 50 years after the civil rights movement’s major achievements and almost eight years into the term of our first African-American president, we are a country struggling to keep a cap on the kind of murderous confrontations that endanger the fabric of our society. The more threads of connection between Jewish groups and other minorities, the stronger that fabric can be.