The Movement for Black Lives platform is an extraordinary document. Developed over the course of more than a year by a coalition of over 50 organizations, it represents a comprehensive policy vision from those leading the resistance to ongoing structural and state violence against black people in this country with enormous bravery and energy.
The platform is both ambitious and thorough, composed of detailed policy briefs and proposals in six broad categories, backed up by data, sources of organizational expertise, and legislative models. Its approach is as intersectional as the movement itself, recognizing how national and international policies interact with one another to reinforce structural oppressions. While the focus is, as it should be, on self-determination and the kinds of policies necessary to undo centuries of enslavement and disenfranchisement of black people in the United States, the scope of the platform reflects a fierce insistence on the possibility of transforming our world into one where the full humanity and dignity of all oppressed people can be realized.
Within the long and violent history of racism and white supremacy in the United States, and unceasing resistance to it, this platform stands out as a remarkable initiative. Riding a high tide of protest and awareness, it articulates a bold and detailed vision of what real justice could look like, and it offers us all an opportunity to study and learn, to be challenged and grow, and to commit ourselves to whatever it takes to transform the United States into a society that truly values every human being who lives here. It should spark a national conversation about the structural depth and devastating consequences of white supremacy and racism, and what it will take to uproot it from our lives and our communities.
However, within days of its release in early August, a broad range of Jewish organizations—from the Jewish Community Relations Council in Boston to JStreet to Tru’ah to the Reform movement to the ADL—released statements that varied in tone from wounded to outraged, full of angry assertions of betrayal and paternalistic expressions of disappointment. Their dismay was focused narrowly on one paragraph within the comprehensive policy agenda that addressed the oppression of Palestinians as a racial justice issue, endorsed the nonviolent Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement called for by a broad range of Palestinian civil society groups, and described what is happening to the Palestinian people as genocide.
The platform is consistently rigorous in its analysis, radical in its proposals and compassionate in its quest for justice, and the short section on Palestine is no exception. Every word about Israeli policies and their effect on Palestinians is documented and factual. Situated within a section that advocates divesting from bloated military expenditures in order to invest in black futures, the paragraph on Palestinian rights points out that, for decades, the United States has singled out Israel (along with Egypt) as its highest recipient of foreign military aid. Criticism of US complicity in human-rights abuses was not limited to Israel, since the document also addressed abuses in Congo, Honduras, Libya, Somalia, and Haiti, among others.
Jewish institutional responses latched on to the use of the word “genocide.” Even the vast majority of those who took these Jewish institutions to task for their public remonstrations went out of their way to call use of the word noxious and inaccurate. The effect of this outcry has been to divert what should be a conversation about how we all, including Jewish communities, can support the realization of a visionary agenda to end structural racism. Instead, the focus became how hurt some Jews felt by the language used by black leaders to express solidarity with Palestinians, who are facing forms of structural oppression that they recognize as familiar.
By not grappling with the oppressive nature of Israeli policies, Jewish institutions failed to examine the similarities and actual ties between Palestinian and US black experiences of repression, one example of which is both groups’ subjection to militarized policing. These militarized tactics are reinforced by police-exchange programs in which members of US law enforcement are trained by Israeli security officials and Israeli “counter-terrorism” and US “urban policing” tactics are shared.
One of the most essential acts of solidarity white people can offer as allies to people of color is to listen, truly and deeply, without attempting to control or limit what is said, or make their own feelings the center of attention—especially when it makes them uncomfortable, or forces them to question their assumptions or their access to privilege and power. The rush by organizations largely led by white Jews to publicly criticize and reject the platform fails this test by insisting that Jewish fears, based on particular, primarily Ashkenazi experiences of the past, are more important than the sovereign rights of black people to their full liberation, and by making Jewish support conditional on silence about Palestine.
The myopic reaction of Jewish community leaders made inaccurate assumptions both about the meaning of the word “genocide” and the intention behinds its use. The term, coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin in response to the Holocaust, was intended to refer broadly to a “coordinated plan aimed at destruction of the essential foundations of the life of national groups.” Lemkin emphasized that “the term does not necessarily signify mass killings.” As the Center for Constitutional Rights explains, the term has political, social, and legal meanings, and prominent scholars and lawyers have made thoughtful and well-researched cases for why the word genocide can be applicable to the experience of Palestinians.
But regardless of the debate about definitions, the black organizers who developed the platform, and who share a collective history of state-sponsored violence that has been described as genocidal, have the right to develop and express their analyses in whatever language they choose. Many different social-justice movements worldwide facing systemic violence and dispossession have chosen to use the word “genocide” to underline the significance, extreme impact, and systematic nature of their oppression. By using it to describe how US militarism impacts both Palestinian and Congolese people, the authors of the platform are deliberately calling on us to see these situations as urgent human–rights crises of global importance.
The Jews of Color Caucus, which works in partnership with Jewish Voice for Peace, has written, “We embrace rather than shut down the multiple uses of the term ‘genocide’ for what it can reveal about our current crises.” Instead of rushing to demand that the word be excised, we could ask ourselves, “How would our perspectives change if we accepted the term as accurate?” “What might we learn?” But whether or not we choose to do so, the Movement for Black Lives has the right to call it as they see it, and attempting to deny this right is racist.
The platform has brought out into the open some of the weaknesses in the Jewish community’s approach to racial justice. As Jews of Color, including two of the authors of this piece, become more organized and vocal, we are increasingly insisting that white Jewish institutional leadership and organizations meaningfully investigate and confront their own white privilege and their investment in structural racism within and beyond our communities. The Movement for Black Lives platform offers a historic opportunity to engage these issues deeply, collectively, on a national and international scale.
Even as Jewish civil rights organizations have done important work on some racial-justice issues, they have acted as gatekeepers preventing communities and leaders of color from articulating critiques of Israeli state policies toward Palestinians as a social-justice concern. Some examples include the distancing of Jewish leaders from organizations like SNCC and leaders like Nelson Mandela when they expressed the necessity of global solidarity with Palestinians based on the parallels they recognized with their own experiences, and the celebration by Jewish institutions of the US withdrawal from the 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance in Durban.
Now, as then, Jewish organizations have responded to a political statement from black leaders by centering their own specific Jewish histories and feelings rather than listening with empathy and respect to black leaders, speaking from their expertise, both lived and researched, on the realities of black life in this country. The painful emotions many Jewish people felt upon seeing the word “genocide” applied to the actions of Jews are understandable. Those feelings should be wrestled with and discussed, but should not be a reason to reject the analysis and to dismiss the experiences and truths of black people expressed in this comprehensive vision for justice.
Those of us who are Jews of color are as politically diverse as white Jews. For many of us the platform is deeply affirming of what we have always known: that our commitment to Palestinian rights is rooted in our commonalities, including experiences with confronting systemic racism perpetrated by Jews. As US Jews of color, we believe that centering black lives here is essential in order to dismantle white supremacy. We are also committed to centering Palestinians, African asylum seekers, and Mizrahi/Sephardi/Ethiopian Jews, those most impacted by Israeli state violence and structural oppression. And we align ourselves with all people of color who are oppressed by any state.
This is an important departure from the usual narrative of black/Jewish relations that imagines all Jews as white and all people of color as non-Jewish. This erasure of black Jews and other Jews of color is a deeply painful and oppressive aspect of most Jewish communities and institutions. As the Jews of Color Caucus writes:
Recent statements…condemning the BLM Platform also send the message that the lives of Black Jews (along with Black gentiles) directly affected by US police brutality are less important than protecting Israel from scrutiny. We reject this message and call on these groups to commit themselves to honor the leadership of Jews of Color, including those critical of Israel.
One of the strengths of the platform is the way it applies a broad and unifying lens to local and global struggles, highlighting the common values that link fights for just migration policies, universal healthcare, fair wages, freedom from state violence, and full and equal rights for Palestinians. While it focuses on justice for black people, the Movement for Black Lives platform invites all of us to join in this work against interconnected systems of oppression, uniting movements of resistance to all forms of injustice.
Like people in every other community, white Jews and Jews of color, both individually and communally, will need to decide what principles we want to live by, and what actions, risks, and consequences we are willing to take on as a result. Jewish Voice for Peace is proud to support the platform in its entirety and without reservation, and is pleased that other groups are doing so as well. Now it’s time to do the work to build the broad coalition it will take to make this profound vision and this platform a reality.