Jews are not white people, or why Jews support the Left (a response to Dennis Prager)

September 7, 2016

In his most recent column in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, Dennis Prager wonders (as he does in many of his columns over the years) why Jews continue to support left-leaning causes such as Black Lives Matter — even when their avowed platform is anti-Israel.

The answer is quite simple. As Jews we are commanded each year at the Passover to feel as if we were in Egypt as slaves. As slaves who were part of a liberation movement, we identify and support the cause of the oppressed. We identify with the cause of African-Americans in this country because they were slaves in this country.

That the leadership of the Black Lives Matter movement promulgated a platform that mischaracterizes Israel and voices support for the Palestinians does not disqualify them from having Jews support the cause of less African-American lives being lost to Police violence or unequal treatment in the eyes of the law.

Let me go further: It is the Jews who are commanded to identify as slaves in Egypt. The leaders of Black Lives Matter (at least those who are not Jewish) are under no such injunction. To the extent that they identify as descendants of those who were made slaves in the United States, they identify with minority victims of State actors — and it is not difficult to see how that leads to support of the Palestinian cause. Attacking Israel is a different matter, and I would argue a mistake on their part, but it is their mistake to make.

Jews will always believe Black Lives matter because Jews do not think of themselves as “White People.” You have but to walk down a street in Tel Aviv to see the multiplicity of Jewish skin colors. You have but to live as a Jew in any time in history, in any country including the United States, to recognize we are not the White People — we were not the White People allowed into certain clubs, schools, neighborhoods for most of American history. We are not the people rallying for “white people’s rights.” As Ta-Nehisi Coates has written more eloquently that I ever will, “Our notion of what constitutes “white” and what constitutes “black” is a product of social context.”

Dennis Prager makes much of how the Left has often betrayed Jews. He is not wrong about that. But he is wrong in thinking that means Jews should stop supporting the causes of the Left. Consider the alternative: How have Jews fared under the right? Far worse. In Egypt, or under the Greeks and Romans, in Spain and Portugal under the Inquisition, in Europe during the Reformation, in France at the time of Dreyfus, or in Hitler’s Germany or his Reichlands. Consider the fate of Jewish lives under right wing governments in Hungary or Poland — are they better off than they were under Leftist regimes? One can even ask, as members of the Israeli Knesset have, whether more Israelis have died as a result of the policies of the current right-wing Likud government than in those years when Labor was in power (they have).

Leonard Bernstein was ridiculed for hosting a party for the Black Panthers. But Bernstein’s compassion and sense of Justice led him to lead the Palestine Symphony Orchestra in 1947 and as it became the Israel Philharmonic in Beersheba in November 1948 and almost every year of his life. His heart was large, his passion great and he was not wrong to support the cause of Black Pride and African American self-empowerment, even if its leaders had not so great a heart as his.

Jews will always agitate for and support causes of the Left, because we are commanded to be a beacon unto others and to see social activism and seeking Justice, Tikkun Olam and Tzedaka, as part of the Jewish DNA. We are chosen to do so. Our support is not a two-way street, or an all or nothing proffer. The Torah does not hold others, particularly those we support, to the same standard as it does Jews. If Prager can interpret the Torah to allow for an a la carte approach to keeping kosher then why can’t Jews support just causes, even if their leaders also espouse opinions or platforms we reject. We are not condoning Anti-Israel agitation or Anti-Semitism, we speak out against it.

For all these reasons, and more, there will always be more Jewish leftists than Right-wingers, more Jewish Democrats than Jewish Republicans. It’s a pity that Dennis Prager forgot that Black Lives Matter is a lesson we learned a long time ago, back when we were slaves in Egypt.

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