A photo of the protester shows her standing on Fifth Ave., her face defiant and fist pointed skyward, a righteous embodiment of Black American anger in the wake of George Floyd’s death after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, anger that has again erupted after Wisconsin police were recently recorded shooting Jacob Blake in the back, multiple times, in broad daylight.
But what many took as an understandable response to ongoing police brutality and other killings of black Americans, others saw an insult to previous generations of Black activists who fought against white supremacy.
The Twitter debate over her sign, and one generation’s charge that a previous generation was too passive or accommodating, should be familiar to white Jews. And while the assimilation into whiteness of much of the Jewish community has too often rendered us apathetic to others’ suffering, this debate is a reminder that Black liberation is not so different from Jewish liberation — and that their fight demands our support.
Near the end of the Holocaust, the culmination of Europe’s 1,000-year anti-Jewish pogrom, European Jews refused any longer to hinge their survival on white-Christian altruism. Instead, they took their liberation into their own hands.
During World War II, the Haganah (“Defense”), the Zionist Jewish community’s armed body, operated an underground railroad, bringing persecuted Jews to British Palestine despite London’s prohibition of such emigration. And while the Haganah maintained a policy of havgalah (“restraint”), other Jewish insurgent groups assumed “an offensive terrorist strategy,” as the historian J. Bowyer Bell described it.
Such violence, whether by Jewish extremists in British Palestine or Black radicals in the United States, is not excusable, but it is understandable. Oppression warps communities’ sense of right and wrong; when people are relentlessly targeted by violent systems, they become survivalists, and moral concerns are often tossed to the wayside.
Jews emerged from the Holocaust with aggressive self-defense (an attitude embodied by Israel’s combativeness). Black Americans emerged from the trans-Atlantic slave trade by similarly taking the reins of their own salvation, often by any means necessary.
During the 1960s, one of the core practices of the Black Panthers, the militant Black nationalist group, was to institute armed patrols of Black communities. “Whenever the police would arbitrarily harass ghetto residents, the Panthers would arrive at the scene bearing rifles and shotguns,” reported The Movement, a civil rights newspaper.
The Panthers were not shy. In May 1967, 30 of its members protested at the California state capital, toting pistols and shotguns in opposition to a Republican anti-gun bill. The display so frightened the National Rifle Association — which apparently believed the benefits of having a “good guy with a gun” did not apply to Black people — and politicians that both backed a law that stripped Californians of their right to openly carry firearms. Then-Governor Ronald Reagan, who later campaigned for president as a Second Amendment defender, signed it into law.
The young Black woman who today calls for Black self-protection in the wake of systemic racism and violence is clearly wrong to decry her ancestors’ supposed passivity. But this should also be familiar to white Jews: Israel’s founding generation disrespected their ancestors, disparaging those who perished or even survived in the Holocaust for having passively marched to the concentration camps “like sheep to the slaughter.”
Both communities’ condemnations were and are misguided. Black Americans, from Nat Turner to others left unnamed by history, rebelled violently against slavery, and were later bloodied for practicing nonviolent resistance. Jews took up arms against the repressive ancient Roman empire and nearly two millennia later, revolted against the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto and beyond. Merely surviving in the face of the Nazis’ brutality often took resilience and ingenuity that could hardly be called passive.
But drawing parallels between the American Black and Jewish communities is imperfect, most notably because so many of us have assimilated into American whiteness. Authorities still may scapegoat Jews or tell us that our safety cannot be guaranteed if we wear a kippah or tzitzit, but white Jews, unlike Black Americans, can — as much as it may pain us to do so — physically hide our Jewishness and thus shield ourselves from violent bigotry.
No matter how much we assimilate into whiteness and accrue its privileges, we must not, however, shy away from our communities’ similarities or allow our privileged perch to blind us to Black Americans’ peril.
“The American Jew, if I may so — and I say so with love, whether or not you believe me — makes the error of believing that his Holocaust ends in the New World, where mine begins,” James Baldwin wrote in his 1985 nonfiction compilation, “Price of the Ticket.” “My diaspora continues, the end is not in sight, and I certainly cannot depend on the morality of this panic-stricken consumer society to bring me out of — Egypt.”
Jews did not rely on Egyptian, European, or American benevolence to bring us out of bondage. We liberated ourselves. We would be hypocritical to not support Black Americans seeking similar freedom.
And while we must call out anti-Semitism from those we might consider fellow ideological travelers, it would be folly to fixate too intensely on the minority of Black Lives Matter protestors who criticize Israel. Their support for a boycott of the Jewish state, while abhorrent to many of us, should not be an excuse for white Jews to “sit this out.” Israel can withstand some limited rhetorical aggression; Black Americans, on the other hand, cannot be asked to any longer withstand systemic American violence.
In this moment, a moment of crisis and national reckoning, white Jews must recognize the parallels between our community’s past and the Black American community’s present, and support their fight for freedom — for their deliverance from Egypt.
Charles Dunst is an associate at LSE IDEAS, the London School of Economics’ foreign policy think tank.