Before Black Lives Matter was the name of an organization, it was a slogan meant to identify a very specific problem: the disproportionate extrajudicial killing of and violence directed at people of color, mostly but not always by law enforcement. The term came to wide public attention in 2013, after the acquittal of vigilante George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin. Like “Never Again” or “MeToo,” “#BlackLivesMatter” is a pithy phrase meant to capture and expose the flagrant disregard of the rights and lives of a particular class of people.
On one level, the phrase addresses the painful statistic that black people are twice as likely to be killed by a police officer while unarmed, compared to a white individual. On another, it is about ending the radical disparities of health and wealth that lead to what Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the founder and executive director of the African American Policy Forum, calls the “stealth victimization” of black bodies.
The protests happening around the country and the world in response to the killing of George Floyd by a police officer who knelt on his neck for over eight minutes are a broad, multiracial, multi-agenda declaration that black lives do matter.
But because Black Lives Matter is also the name of an organization — one that has taken some distressing stands against Israel — some have tried to discredit the protests as another manifestation of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic radicalism. The leader of one vocal pro-Israel group has made this a mission. Not satisfied with recalling the official BLM platform that slandered Israel by saying it perpetrated “genocide” against Palestinians, the same leader has sought to deny the kinds of systemic discrimination faced by blacks in nearly all walks of life. Others have written letters to the editor or tweets suggesting that if African Americans are to receive Jewish support in their calls to justice, they must first repudiate the BLM platform.
The energy of the current marches is drawn from the left, which has seen within its own ranks a troubling, faddish rise of anti-Israel sentiment. In progressive circles, there have been ugly and off-base comparisons between the plight of Palestinians and the struggles of black Americans. Unfounded charges of complicity have been leveled against Israel because of exchange programs in which police here learn counterterrorism techniques from their Israeli counterparts.
The Jewish community needs to stand up to the people who spread these kinds of slanders, but also stand with the people who are demanding safety, dignity and equality for people of color. Their demands are a call for justice, one that is familiar to Jews who just a few months earlier took to the streets demanding awareness of and protection for people and institutions singled out, attacked and in some cases killed for no reason other than the fact of their Jewishness.
The biblical precept “Justice, justice, thou shalt pursue” is not conditional.