Jewish Groups Walk Tightrope On Racial Tensions
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Jewish Groups Walk Tightrope On Racial Tensions

Trying to balance historic ties to black community and law enforcement.

As President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush sought to calm a jittery nation from Dallas this week in the wake of the killing of five police officers there, Jewish groups are walking a wind-blown tightrope as they respond to a national crisis that is putting the black community and law enforcement on a collision course.

With tension mounting in black communities, where many people claim disproportionate violence at the hands of white police officers, the Jewish community, which historically has maintained a close relationship with both the African-American community and the law enforcement community, finds itself increasingly caught in the middle of the unfolding drama.

Support the African-American community, represented visibly during the last few years by the Black Lives Matter movement, or support the police?

“It would be irresponsible to jump to conclusions or to cast blame” about the rising tensions, Roberta Clark, the Anti-Defamation League’s regional director in Dallas, told The Jewish Week, suggesting the kind of balance Jewish groups are trying to finesse.

“People are being forced to take sides,” Dallas Rabbi Andrew Marc Paley, who serves on the steering committee of Faith Forward Dallas, an ecumenical organization formed earlier this year to sponsor joint activities among members of many faith groups, told The Jewish Week. “It doesn’t have to be an either-or.”

He said he would not assign blame for the growing antagonism that had preceded last week’s Black Lives Matter rally, or for the motives of Micah Johnson, the Army reservist killed by explosives carried by a police-controlled robot after ambushing police at the rally.

The rabbi, senior spiritual leader of Temple Shalom in Dallas, participated on Tuesday in the interfaith memorial service for the five police officers who were gunned down at a rally that was mounted to protest the fatal shootings the previous week of two black men, in St. Paul, Minn., and Baton Rouge, La., by white police officers.

“There is no need to blame,” or to take sides between making alliances with the police or with the black community, Rabbi Paley said in a telephone interview with The Jewish Week. His remarks were echoed by representatives of other Dallas Jewish organizations, who spoke of a spirit of mutual respect between the city’s police and African-American leadership that has characterized relations before and after last week’s shootings.

But on a national level, fault lines are becoming apparent between some mainstream groups and those on the political left, which largely align with Black Lives Matter, despite claims that many members of the movement have engaged in anti-Israel rhetoric, adopting the “From Palestine to Ferguson” motto. (In a similar scenario here, NYU Students for Justice in Palestine last week posted a Facebook note that linked the Israeli Army with the deaths of African-Americans. “The same forces behind the genocide of black people in america are behind the genocide of palestinians,” the note stated. “We must remember that many US police departments train with the #IsraeliDefenceForces. What this means is that Palestinians must stand with our black comrades.”)

This raises the specter of “intersectionality,” overlapping social agendas and activist priorities, which demands quid pro quo of support of each other’s interests.

Jewish organizations, in prepared statements and interviews with The Jewish Week, reflected a range of responses to the shootings.

The organized Jewish community, “as a major stakeholder in a fair and equal society,” has an obligation to be “fully engaged” with African-Americans and with police without choosing one over the other, said David Bernstein, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). He also issued a call to transform the “adversarial” relationship between minority communities and police.

T’ruah – the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights cited in a statement “the need for sane gun laws that will prevent violent people from unraveling the shared fabric of our society. Our grieving must compel us to fix the entrenched systems of racism and violence that have led to the deaths of too many … we must reject any justification for violence against police officers as a response.”

The ADL, which condemned the Dallas shootings “in strongest terms,” said in an earlier statement that it “welcomed the opening of an investigation by the Department of Justice into the shooting death of Alton Sterling by a police officer in Baton Rouge … The League urged the DOJ to open a similar civil rights investigation into the death of Philando Castile, who was shot by a police officer earlier this week outside St. Paul, Minnesota.”

One example of friction in Jewish circles: the ADL, which following the recent violence called for “increased training for law enforcement, including implicit bias training,” came under fire for its past relationship with Black Lives Matter members.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, urged the ADL to “discontinue ADL’s statement and educational materials promoting the Black Lives Matter movement.” He said the movement “is permeated with Jew hatred, and has allied itself with anti-Israel hate groups that seek to destroy and boycott Israel.”

Black Lives Matter, formed in the wake of the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman, who had been tried on a charge of murdering Trayvon Martin, 17, in Sanford, Fla., the year before, coalesced after the killings of two other African-Americans, Eric Garner on Staten Island, and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.

Several of the movement’s rallies, and some of the literature created by participants, have taken on a tone heavily critical of Israel, accusing Israel of adopting “apartheid” policies.

“These are the very same protests and vigils that demand an end to Israel’s existence, using anti-Israel ‘From Ferguson to Palestine, Occupation is a Crime’ chants and banners,” Klein wrote in an essay this week on the algemeiner.com website. “As an organization committed to fighting anti-Semitism,” Black Lives Matter “should be one of the groups they [the ADL] are fighting,” Klein told The Jewish Week.

A “topic summary” of Black Lives Matter on the ADL website calls Black Lives Matter “an activist movement which began as a hashtag,” with no mention of anti-Israel activities. And Seth Marnin, the ADL’s vice president for civil rights, said his organization has coordinated many anti-bias workshops for police, and that its cooperation with Black Lives Matter at local events in the U.S. “is not an endorsement” of the entire movement.

“The ADL unapologetically believes that many of the social justice issues [raised by Black Lives Matters] are legitimate,” Marnin said. “The movement has raised some important issues … we do disagree with positions that [individual members] have taken.”

Similarly, Stosh Cotler, CEO of Bend the Arc, a 4-year-old “progressive” Jewish organization, said her group works with Black Lives Matter and other civil rights groups, although Bend the Arc parts company on some issues, including Israel. Coalition partners do not necessarily have to agree on everything, she said.

“If we are interested in getting a more sympathetic hearing from Black Lives Matter” on issues of importance to the Jewish community, “the last thing we should do is stay away from them,” David Bernstein of JCPA said.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the progressive Tikkun magazine, criticized “the violence caused by an economic system that denies people adequate food, shelter, health care and other survival needs,” in an email to supporters.

He told The Jewish Week in an email interview that he is calling for mandatory courses “about the history of racial oppression and bigotry, and other forms of ‘othering’” in all schools that receive “any form of public assistance,” and “an independent board of review for alleged crimes by police against people of color and poor people.”

Rabbi Paley, a native of Cleveland who has served at Dallas’ Temple Shalom for a dozen years, said he would, during Tuesday’s memorial service, read the Hebrew prayer from the Torah that Moses said for his sister Miriam, “Please God, please heal her” (El na rafa na la) and issue a call for “hope and healing.”

The rabbi, who has worked with his colleagues in the city’s African-American clergy on a variety of social justice issues over the years and last year applied to become a volunteer chaplain in the Dallas Police Department, said he would encourage his congregation to “explore ways we can come together.” It’s too early, he said, to cite specific educational or social justice programs he might propose.

The day after a shooting spree by a self-identified supporter of the Islamic State at a gay nightclub in Orlando took 49 lives five weeks ago, Rabbi Paley took part in an outdoor vigil at a Dallas LGBT Resource Center. Four days later he spoke at another Dallas vigil for another mass killing — the first anniversary of the shooting by a white racist at a mostly African-American church in Charleston, S.C., which killed nine blacks.

It was hard to believe, the rabbi told his congregants that week, that he was “saying the same thing over and over again” about citizens of the United States killing fellow citizens.

Rabbi Paley said he hopes, following his brief remarks at Tuesday’s memorial service, that he will not to have to take part again in an event dedicated to Americans who have become the victims of other Americans. “I hope,” he said, “this will be the last time.”

steve@jewishweek.org

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