Doubling down on Black Lives and America’s teetering soul

Last week, The New York Times reported that Black women, and especially Black trans people, are particularly vulnerable to police bias in cities around the country — their claims of rape and sexual assault are often dismissed, victims are mocked or threatened, and up to 85 percent of rape kits are left untested.
August 17, 2016

Last week, The New York Times reported that Black women, and especially Black trans people, are particularly vulnerable to police bias in cities around the country — their claims of rape and sexual assault are often dismissed, victims are mocked or threatened, and up to 85 percent of rape kits are left untested. While problems with gender-biased policing are not new, the fact that it is now front-page news is significant. Over the past few years, a sea change has occurred in the way we talk and think about race in this country, brought about through a broad-based awakening to the unresolved legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. Racial injustice manifests itself not only in persistent, thinly veiled prejudices, but in quantifiable patterns of abuse, discrimination and disenfranchisement of Black Americans. Anyone who cares about America’s future as a democracy is indebted to Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the movement for racial justice for attempting to hold our country accountable to its most foundational commitments to its citizens. 

On Aug. 5, the Movement for Black Lives put out its official platform — a 47,000-word document with 40 robust policy recommendations and demands addressing issues ranging from an overhaul of our broken prison system, an end to the criminalization of Black youth and an end to the death penalty to the transformation of our education system and a national living wage. It is a serious effort to bring not only attention, but actual change to the flashpoints of structural racism. However, in the Jewish community, that has all been overshadowed by the platform’s Invest/Divest section, which accuses Israel of engaging in a “genocide” against the Palestinian people.

I stand with one foot in each of two worlds — or, more accurately, two feet in two increasingly disparate worlds. I am a rabbi with strong ties to Israel and a longstanding commitment to help Israel achieve its great aspirations as a diverse, pluralistic and just society rooted in Jewish and democratic values. And I am an activist with a graduate degree in human rights, deep relationships in the movements for racial and economic justice, and a fierce determination to help our own country realize its vision of equality, dignity and justice for all. My rabbinate has been dedicated to standing thoughtfully and soulfully at the intersection of those commitments. In Jewish environments, I try both to inspire a deep connection to Israel and to awaken our community to the toll of the nearly half-century Occupation on the Palestinian people and on the Jewish soul. I have found in our community a growing defensiveness and denialism around the current reality, to the point that even speaking about the Occupation or the dangers of continued settlement building calls into question a person’s commitment to Israel and the Jewish people. In justice environments, I try to challenge normative assumptions about Israel, build empathy toward a Jewish narrative, and give context for the desperate Jewish need not only for refuge but also for agency. I have found, in the justice space, a diminishing patience for or interest in engaging Israel altogether, with an increasingly aggressive and ahistoric posture toward the Jewish state. 

The chasm between these two worlds perhaps can best be reflected through the language we use and don’t use: The established Jewish community cannot countenance the word “Occupation” and the justice community is increasingly comfortable with the word “genocide.” 

The decision to include such inflammatory language toward Israel in the platform was a particularly bitter pill not only for me, but for many American Jews dedicated both to dismantling structural racism in this country and to fighting for dignity and equality in Israel/Palestine. The accusation of “genocide” is not only inaccurate but feels deliberately incendiary — erasing the experience of many Jews and Zionists of color, shaming white Jewish allies and replacing the timeworn trope of Jew-as-pariah with the more contemporary Jewish-state-as-pariah (to paraphrase Ellen Willis), responsible for human suffering the whole world over.

At the same time, it is clear to me that it would be a serious moral failure if we were to allow our justifiable anger with the nature of the criticism of Israel to distance and distract us from the work of tearing down structural racism in America. Our awareness of a lurking anti-Semitic tendency in parts of the justice community does not justify a retreat from the long overdue efforts to address racialized inequality across the country. The Baltimore police department’s treatment of Black women is still our problem, as is the mysterious failure of the police body-cam footage in the shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old Black youth in Chicago last month. This ought not happen in the United States — and I can conceive of no moral calculation in which walking away is acceptable.

It is worth noting that all of this is unfolding in the context of a broader political culture shift in America. We are witnessing the rise of a political climate in which the reward of attention goes to the person who speaks with the greatest bombast and the least nuance. The new American political playbook is shock and awe, demonization and demagoguery, stirring up the crowds and leaving everyone angry, vulnerable and ungenerous. We are teetering at the edge of a political abyss that threatens to shatter alliances, to isolate and entrench us all in narrow, oppositional camps.

Where is there room for humility, where is grace in today’s political climate? It is clear to me that when the norms and language of our political culture fuel hatred and aggression, we have to work even more vigorously to respond to one another with love.

So, yes, I — like many others — was dismayed by the unfair excoriation of Israel in the platform.

But I’m not walking away — I’m doubling down. 

I’m doubling down on our community’s racial justice commitments, our work to end mass incarceration and to reform a deeply flawed prison system. I’m doubling down on my commitment to help bring an end to the Occupation, and I will continue to use whatever resources I have to amplify the voices of Israelis and Palestinians working for human rights, democracy and civil society. I’m doubling down on the fight to protect young Black men on the streets, and the effort to bring to light the struggles and courage and triumphs of Black women. To be clear, I’m not suggesting this work needs to be done specifically through BLM — there are many organizations fighting racial injustice. The point is that the work is essential, and we are not free to disengage. And I am doubling down on my commitment to talk about race — not only in the abstract, but inside our Jewish community and within my own family, even when it’s uncomfortable, painful and potentially alienating. 

I’m doubling down on my multi-faith relationships, and I’m asking all those who care about justice and dignity to double down, as well. I’m doubling down on calling out the insidious infiltration of anti-Semitism into our movements for justice, equality and liberation. Like any other form of racism, it has no place there — and diminishes us all. 

We are stuck in a cycle of action-reaction. Rage prompts fury. Accusation prompts condemnation. In the process, we are losing sight of our shared values and common goals. At some point, something must be done to break the cycle. What I know is that standing angrily on the sidelines, repeating condemnations, nursing our wounds and waiting for an apology will not change this script. I call upon my colleagues and friends to try to understand why the struggle for justice in Israel/Palestine feels so resonant for so many young activists fighting for their lives here in America. And I similarly ask that friends and fellow activists work to understand why it is that so many Jews — empathic and awake, people who strive to see God’s image in human beings and justice on our streets — continue to hold a deep and inviolable connection to Israel. It is only by stepping purposefully into the conversation, stretching beyond our simplest and most contemptuous assumptions, and being willing to hear even what hurts that we will learn anything. 

The bottom line: We are teetering at the edge of the abyss. We must not walk away — from the work or from one another. 

SHARON BROUS is founding rabbi at IKAR (ikar-la.org) and is a senior fellow at Auburn Theological Seminary, working on the front lines for justice with faith leaders from mainline Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical, Black Church, Muslim, Sikh and Jewish communities. She sits on the faculty of the Shalom Hartman Institute-North America and Reboot.

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