The Movement for Black Lives platform calling Israel an apartheid state guilty of “genocide” sent shock waves through the Jewish community. It should not have come as a surprise.
I remember seeing scattered signs proclaiming “From Palestine to Ferguson” at protests in Ferguson, Mo. last year. I naively thought that protesters would view such signs as brazen manipulation. I was wrong. A year after Ferguson, a YouTube video on Black-Palestinian solidarity called “When I See Them I See Us” garnered tens of thousands of views. And just a few weeks ago, Black Lives Matter was among several groups protesting for Palestinian rights outside a Hillary Clinton fundraiser hosted by Israeli-American Haim Saban. The link between these two seemingly disparate causes is now undeniable.
There are a number of reasons for this perceived intersection between the plights of African-Americans and Palestinians, but none more salient than the organized Jewish community’s detachment from today’s civil rights movement. Notwithstanding our self-image as modern-day activists walking in the footsteps of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the community has been largely absent from today’s civil rights tables. It should come as no surprise that we have little influence on a movement we are not involved with. It is past time we re-engage.
Re-engaging will not be simple. It was undoubtedly easier to mobilize Jews in the 1960s against segregationist laws and blatant injustice than it will be confronting today’s structural challenges. While the “new Jim Crow” may not be as explicitly segregationist as the old Jim Crow, the current inequities in our society — particularly our criminal justice system — disproportionately affect African-Americans and other minorities and wreak havoc in the inner city.
Today, the United States incarcerates more than 2 million people, more than any other nation. Among this population, people of color are vastly overrepresented. One out of every 15 black men is currently in jail and one in three will be incarcerated during his lifetime. African-American men and women are far more likely than whites to be harassed by police, and subjected to excessive use of force. They are less likely to receive adequate legal representation from a desperately underfunded, over-extended public defender system. Draconian drug laws put many productive people in jail for long prison sentences. Upon reentry, former inmates are disqualified from many jobs and services and often end up back in jail.
The Jewish community, which prides itself on its historic commitment to social justice, has every reason to join the cause of helping America live up to its own ideals of equality. And if the community wants to have any influence on how today’s civil rights activists view Jews and Jewish issues, it must show up to the planning meetings, press conferences and protests. Moreover, unlike many other social policy issues, criminal justice reform enjoys bipartisan support and should be less divisive within the Jewish community.
How can we mobilize the Jewish community to engage on civil rights?
First, we must do our homework on today’s civil rights landscape. We have to educate ourselves on the issues and identify the people already doing the work. Our traditional partners from civil rights 1.0 are no longer the only voices driving civil rights 2.0.
Second, we must relax litmus tests that make it harder for us to re-engage. Alan Dershowitz argues that “until and unless Black Lives Matter removes this blood libel from its platform and renounces it, no decent person … should have anything to do with it.” He does not say, however, what we should do after they inevitably refuse to repudiate the platform. Is he suggesting that the Jewish community stay away from civil rights meetings where a Black Lives Matter representative is present? Such litmus tests are a prescription for Jewish isolation, not greater influence over the direction of the movement.
Third, we must help empower Jews of color and young people. Many Jews of color have connections to today’s civil rights movement. Not only can they help their fellow Jews navigate the external challenges, they can aid the community in developing the inner capacity to engage. They can help us talk to ourselves about race before we talk to the outside world.
Fourth, we must find our own voice on civil rights. It will not be easy integrating the Jewish community into civil rights coalitions, some of which hold very different political sensibilities. Young activists routinely invoke phrases like “white supremacy” to describe America’s prevailing power structure, and this may sound extreme to many mainstream Jews. Rather than feeling obliged to use these terms, however, the Jewish community can develop its own social justice vocabulary and come to the table in its own voice.
History will not wait for Jews to come around on our own schedule. We need to jump headfirst into the issues that matter now. It’s time to find our voice and make sure Americans — particularly African-Americans — hear it.
David Bernstein is president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.