Tough love for Black Lives Matter

You have to hand it to Black Lives Matter. They have cojones.
August 24, 2016

You have to hand it to Black Lives Matter. They have cojones. At a time when so many people are worried about being politically correct, they sign off on a platform that accuses the Jewish state of committing genocide. Genocide! Jews! Weren’t the folks at BLM worried that such incendiary and libelous language would be hurtful to millions of Jews?

Apparently, not so much.

“The way we look at it, we take strong stances,” Ben Ndugga-Kabuye, co-author of the passage in the BLM platform that accuses Israel of genocide, told JTA in defending the accusation. Strong stance, indeed.

So far, the reaction in the mainstream Jewish community has been to compartmentalize — condemn the genocide accusation but reaffirm the Jewish commitment to Black rights and what BLM stands for.

I think it’s an honorable approach, but it’s also a missed opportunity.

Why limit ourselves to the few words in the BLM platform that have to do with Jews and Israel? In the same way that BLM decided to take on Israel with a “strong stance,” why can’t the Jewish community take on all of BLM with an equally strong stance?

In other words, why don’t we look at the whole BLM movement and offer constructive criticism?

In that spirit, my own criticism of BLM is that the movement lacks introspection. It’s virtually all about what others can do to make Black lives better. One can sympathize with many of its grievances and demands and yet still ask: What about the obligations of Black communities themselves? What about issues of personal responsibility?

In 2008, as a presidential candidate, Barack Obama touched on one example when he spoke candidly to a Black church congregation: “Too many fathers are M.I.A.; too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes,” he told them. “They have abandoned their responsibilities … and the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.”

When you insist on obligations in addition to rights, you empower people. You bring out the best in them. BLM needs to incorporate Black obligations into its platform. It would strengthen the movement and make Black lives matter even more.

I am also critical of BLM’s use of over-the-top polemic. Language like “In a world where Black lives are systemically and intentionally targeted for demise” and “End the war on Black people” may convey revolutionary fervor, but it is neither accurate nor conducive to finding solutions. It alienates potential partners and reinforces a stagnating mindset of chronic victimhood.

This kind of criticism, I know, is painful to make, especially for Jews. We have a proud and longtime association with Black causes. We never want to be accused of being insensitive to the plight of Blacks. We have suffered from our own ugly history of being persecuted as a minority, so we see a great Jewish value in being sensitive to other vulnerable minorities.

This may explain why we often walk on eggshells when it comes to the Black community. We care. We want to help. The very name Black Lives Matter is like a shot of moral adrenaline to a Jewish heart. 

But maybe it’s time for us to step up our game. Maybe we can broaden our definition of what “help” means. Maybe, in addition to continuing our fight for Black causes, we can add some tough love and constructive criticism.

If there’s one thing Jews have learned throughout our long history, it is that self-criticism and balancing rights with obligations are foundational pillars to improving lives and building a better future.

For me to hold back on my criticism of BLM would not be a sign of love, but a sign of patronizing behavior, what some have called “the bigotry of low expectations.” A healthy relationship between Jews and Blacks is one where both sides can feel free to take a “strong stance.” 

If BLM has the cojones to make incendiary accusations against the Jewish state, the least we can do is have the courage to offer honest criticism of the movement.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

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