The Black Lives Matter Manifesto, and Why Jews Need to Be in the Room

First things first. The manifesto of the Movement for Black Lives does not focus on international issues or the Middle East, but where it does, it is outrageous.
August 9, 2016
Protestors marching at Pan Pacific Park in Los Angeles on Saturday May 30. Photo courtesy of Kim Silverstein

First things first. The manifesto of the Movement for Black Lives does not focus on international issues or the Middle East, but where it does, it is outrageous. To accuse Israel of genocide is simply obscene (as well as insulting — if the IDF were really trying to commit genocide, it is the most incompetent army in the world). To allege that Israel is an apartheid state is at best a grotesque distortion. Among all the nations of the world, readers are only directed to pursue Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel. Muammar Gadhafi’s brutality in Libya is elided and somehow the manifesto manages to assail the United States’ campaign against Boko Haram without mentioning the viciousness of Boko Haram itself. (Some of the Movement’s responses have made things worse: “It’s not about you,” one activist huffily retorted. Uh – it is when you accuse me of genocide.).

But to stop there would be to miss the debacle’s real lesson – a lesson that should generate a useful round of Jewish community self-criticism. The small minority within the Movement for Black Lives that wishes for Israel’s destruction have a powerful if unwitting ally: American Jewish leadership.

[RELATED: Black Lives Matter and the Jews]

The “Movement for Black Lives” does not compromise the entirety of Black Lives Matter, but rather an umbrella group comprising nearly 50 constituent organizations. Those familiar with Jewish communal life will recognize the pattern — and the difficulties of managing such a widely disparate group of constituencies. Not surprisingly, then, in writing the manifesto, the work was split up, with people working on those sections that appealed to them or on which they had particular knowledge. And that is where it gets interesting.

The section that discusses Israel is entitled “Invest/Divest,” and was written by three people. One of them was Nadia Ben-Youssef, the American director of Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. (Not surprisingly, her name was scrubbed after the controversy began).

Adalah? What is that? And what were they doing there?

Adalah is a civil rights organization in Israel. Much of what it does is traditional, high quality civil rights work. But especially since the so-called “Second Intifada,” it has also focused on challenging the basis for the Israeli state, especially in alleging that it has a fundamentally racist character. In Ari Shavit’s book My Promised Land, in the chapter “Up the Galilee,” Shavit spends time with Hassan Jabareen, Adalah’s founder, who essentially predicts – and not sadly – that Israel’s Jews will be wiped out unless they give up Zionism.

For her part, Ben-Youssef’s focus is, according to the website, “developing the organization’s US advocacy strategy to influence American policy and practice in Israel/Palestine.” She obviously did her job well, becoming situated well enough inside the Movement for Black Lives that she could serve on the key committee drafting the portions of the manifesto that Adalah was interested in.

Yet another drafter of the section is Rachel Gilmer of Dream Defenders, who rejected the Judaism of her youth and has become a dedicated anti-Israeli activist, equating Black Lives Matter and Palestinian resistance. Dream Defenders is a left-wing radical group (its website says, “We believe that our liberation necessitates the destruction of the political and economic systems of Capitalism and Imperialism as well as Patriarchy. Whatever one might think of that, it is clearly radical), and a constituent member of the Movement for Black Lives.

How would people acquire such key positions? By being there, in relationship with the Movement: participating in activities, probably endless meetings, doing the grunt work, putting one’s time and one’s cause at the heart of the broader umbrella group’s work.

Now take a look at the Movement for Black Lives website, their constituent and supporting organizations. See any Jewish organizations there? See any Jewish activists there? Of course you don’t. And that speaks volumes.

The fact of the matter is that the Jewish community simply got out-organized on the issue. While anti-Semitic movements like BDS and other anti-Zionist organizations spent time and resources building connections with the Movement for Black Lives, the Jewish community found itself flat-footed.

This hardly means that Jews did not care about Black Lives Matter. Far from it. Around the country, thousands if not tens of thousands of Jews contributed, marched, advocated for, and otherwise supported BLM’s legitimate and compelling call for racial justice: the Union of Reform Judaism and T’ruah in particular have done important work. But they received virtually no support from mainstream Jewish institutions and philanthropies; in general, Jewish organizations have not devoted resources to engaging with the Movement. If the Boston JCRC, whose letter attacking the manifesto made the first headlines, had had any connections with it, they managed to hide it very well. Thus, when policies were being adopted, issues were being discussed, and organizations were asked to endorse a broad platform, no Jewish representative was working the various rooms where the responses are formulated or had their ears to the ground, and this is the result.

It will simply not wash to plead a lack of communal resources. Somehow, $40 million was raised within a matter of weeks to oppose the Iran Deal — an agreement that as Bogie Ya’alon acknowledged, has removed external existential threats to Israel. But there are no resources for more progressive Jewish organizations, the ones who actually do the work of engagement with groups like the Movement for Black Lives. Bend the Arc, which, as the Progressive Jewish Alliance, was founded in Los Angeles, is precisely the sort of organization that would engage with BLM, lacks a full-time regional director here..

Indeed, if anything, those sorts of organizations are being ostracized in the growing plutocracy of Jewish defense philanthropy. As is well known, the Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations rejected J Street’s application to join. When Sheldon Adelson (initially aided by Haim Saban) convened a meeting to fight BDS and provide the money for it, progressive organizations were not invited, despite the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s belief that such organizations are some of the most effective anti-BDS advocates. And of course, both of these actions reflect the blindness of much of American Jewish leadership in recognizing and speaking out against the current Israeli government’s repeated violations of the nation’s own Declaration of Independence, which promises that the nation “will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” The refusal to speak out makes the job of defending that much more difficult.

it is not good enough to dismiss the entire BLM movement as an anti-Semitic cabal that there is no point engaging with.

And no, it is not good enough to dismiss the entire BLM movement as an anti-Semitic cabal that there is no point engaging with. Yes, as we saw in the manifesto, there are people and organizations in the Movement for Black Lives who have anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist agendas. But the vast majority do not, and quite wisely recognize that the movement for racial equality in the United States has nothing to do with the Middle East conflict. They are fighting to protect their children, their families, and their bodies. Doing so resonates with deep Jewish values. For us to dismiss them either means either we are neglecting them, or neglecting our heritage – or both.

Self-criticism is not the Stockholm Syndrome. We must never yield to the monstrous temptation to blame ourselves for anti-Semitism. But that hardly means that we are blameless, or that we should in any way reject the Black Lives Matter. It is to make a simpler point: If you cede the field to your adversary, don’t complain if your adversary takes it.

Jonathan Zasloff is Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law and a student in the ALEPH ordination programs.

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