“Genocide,” Torah, & “Black Lives Matter”:

Anguish & Debate in the Jewish Community

Last week a nation-wide network of “Black Lives Matter” activists, newly organized as "Movenent for Black Lives" (M4BL), published a remarkable platform for social change toward racial justice in America. Every American should read it --  see https://policy.m4bl.org/platform/

The platform has thousands of words that address both comprehensively and in great detail what it would take to fully end the legacy of slavery and the constant resurgence of racism in the US. It also addresses forms of oppression that echo racism in non-“racial” arenas, such as the oppression of sexual and gender minorities and the use of overwhelming US military power against various peoples around the world. Among these thousands of words is this one paragraph.

  • The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people. The US requires Israel to use 75 percent of all the military aid it receives to buy US-made arms. Consequently, every year billions of dollars are funneled from US taxpayers to hundreds of arms corporations, who then wage lobbying campaigns pushing for even more foreign military aid. The results of this policy are twofold: it not only diverts much needed funding from domestic education and social programs, but it makes US citizens complicit in the abuses committed by the Israeli government. Israel is an apartheid state with over 50 laws on the books that sanction discrimination against the Palestinian people. Palestinian homes and land are routinely bulldozed to make way for illegal Israeli settlements. Israeli soldiers also regularly arrest and detain Palestinians as young as 4 years old without due process. Everyday, Palestinians are forced to walk through military checkpoints along the US-funded apartheid wall.

In the American Jewish community,  this paragraph and especially one word in it –-  “genocide” – has resulted in an explosion of a wide range of reactions.

I will come back to these reactions in a moment, but first I want to invoke a passage of the Torah reading for this very week just past that no one in the “genocide” debate seems to have noticed.

Part of the weekly portion was Chapter 31 of Numbers. It describes with great precision how near the end of the 40-year trek in the Wilderness,  God – the Breath of Life, the Wind of Change, now become a Hurricane of Fury -- commands Moses to take “vengeance” upon the Midianite people for “seducing” the Israelites into idolatry.

Moses decides this means committing genocide upon the Midianites. He orders a swiftly called-up army to carry it out – even though the Midianites were the community from among whom came his own wife, and his wise and fatherly father-in-law.

Here “genocide” is unmistakable  -- all males and all females except those who had never lain with a man were killed, and  those young girls and women were taken into Israelite captivity.

Almost everyone I know who reads this passage feels horror and revulsion – not only because it describes a genocide but even more because it names “us” – the ancestors whom we honor, the Moses whom we admire  -- as the perpetrators.

Did this really happen? Most modern scholars don't believe that the whole Wilderness tale is factual history.  They don't believe that 600,000 men of military age, plus their wives and children, could have marched through the Wilderness of Sinai for 40 years and have left no trace for archeologists to find.

Whether it happened or not, why is this story in our sacred Teaching? Why do we still honor its presence, read it every year?

For me, the most important reason, the one I learn from instead of just feeling disgusted, is this:

The story reminds us that any nation -- even if it were, God forbid, “we” -- might fall into the same murderous impulses that other nations have. That no people, not America, not the Jewish people, is free to say to itself, about itself  -- to ourselves, about  ourselves -- “It can’t happen here.”

The story is there to warn us that we, every "we," can be tempted to do this evil and that we must make sure not to allow ourselves to do so.  

The chapter also suggests there are at least two major reasons for this cruel outburst. One is that "we" ourselves feel and fear the tug within us toward violating our best version of our selves, and try to project the impulse outward, on those who would "seduce" us. In thus acting, we make our fears real: We do indeed betray our selves.

The second reason is sheer greed. The chapter records with numbing specificity the numbers of sheep, cows, earrings, bracelets that were plundered. (We know this from our own recent history as those the Nazis both murdered and plundered. And whose plundered property they numbered, numbingly.)

So now let us come back to “M4BL.” The specific allegations in the paragraph about the Israeli government's behavior and its effects in the US are largely accurate. The Jewish people, and the American people, need to face these truths.

BUT --factually, it is not true that the State of Israel has committed, is committing, genocide upon the Palestinian people. For “genocide” to be occurring requires that there be “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”

Oppression, yes. Genocide, no.

To say, as I think the Torah teaches, that any "we" might become genocidal is not the same as saying that any "we" is already committing genocide. 

The naming of oppressive acts and a warning that these acts are markers on a path that might become a genocide would beckon Jews, Blacks, and everyone else  into a committed engagement aimed toward change. The flat assertion beckons eveyone toward hatred.

We need to be clear that to make this false assertion -- "Genocide!" --  is not a critique, not a warning, but an all-out attack upon a part of the Jewish people. 

Many of us see that part of us -- the Government of the State of Israel, and some parts of its society and culture --  acting in ways that betray what it really means to be Jewish. We do not claim that part of us to have been "seduced." We own it and we struggle against it.

But for even that part to be falsely named in a way that will turn hatred on it -- not a commitment to transform it or defeat it, but a hatred strong enough to kill it -- that is a strand of anti-Semitism in a platform that in most other ways is radically humane. Menshlich.

It is anguishing to say this, even to name as anti-Semitic one dangerous strand in a larger fabric. Anguishing because M4BL  grows out of the movement of precisely those Black Americans who have in our generation been so brave, so committed, so adroit, so creative as to make our country face itself.

How shall we respond to that one dangerous strand? Let us look at the responses from a range of American Jewish organizations to the M4BL platform. (I hope you will indeed keep reading to see my assessment of those responses.)

If we were to see these reactions as a spectrum, we might see Jewish Voice for Peace on one edge of it: JVP “endorses the Movement for Black Lives platform in its entirety, without reservation.”

At the other end is the Zionist Organization of America, a consistently right-wing group that opposed Black Lives Matter from the beginning, long before the platform was created.

Close to the same edge of the spectrum is the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston. It not only denounced the paragraph but said,   

“We reject participation in any coalition that seeks to isolate and demonize Israel singularly amongst the nations of the world.  As we dissociate ourselves from the Black Lives Matter platform and those BLM organizations that embrace it, we recommit ourselves unequivocally to the pursuit of justice for all Americans, and to working together with our friends and neighbors in the African-American community, whose experience of the criminal justice system is, far too often, determined by race. <https://www.jcrcboston.org/jcrc-statement-regarding-black-lives-matter-platform/>

T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, took a much more nuanced view. It said,

“We applaud the leaders of Black Lives Matter for insisting that the United States meet its human rights obligations, and for concretizing these into specific policy recommendations. ...

“While we agree with many of the policy recommendations, we are extremely dismayed at the decision to refer to the Israeli occupation as genocide. We are committed to ending the occupation, which leads to daily human rights violations against Palestinians, and also compromises the safety of Israelis. Our work aims to build a just and secure future for both Israelis and Palestinians, both of whom deserve the same human rights protections as all people.

“However, the military occupation does not rise to the level of genocide. … While we agree that the occupation violates the human rights of Palestinians, and has caused too many deaths, the Israeli government is not carrying out a plan intended to wipe out the Palestinians.” http://www.truah.org/5-media/general/779-t-ruah-statement-on-black-lives-matter-platform.html

I applaud  T’ruah.  Even while it expresses “extreme dismay,”  it keeps the door open for reexamining the strand of falsehood, reweaving the fabric to make possible continued cooperation in combatting American racism along with at least some groups and energies in the Movement for Black Lives.

It makes clear that American racism is too pervasive and destructive for us to refuse to work with -- as I have already paised them -- precisely those Black Americans who have in our generation been so brave, so committed, so adroit, so creative as to make our country face itself.

Besides the importance of continuing that struggle, I think there are at least two reasons to respond this way. One is that continued dialogue is far more likely to bring about change, truth, and fuller understanding than slamming the door –- far more likely, though not for certain. Secondly, there is a broader question about how any organization or movement or community deals with others with whom it shares some values but also with whom it has some deep disagreements.

For example: The Catholic Church in the USA – at least on paper, and often in action as well -- shares many concerns about poverty and perhaps some about the climate crisis with a number of Jewish organizations. At the same time, its policies toward women in regard to abortion and birth control and its policies toward gay men, lesbians, and other sexual or gender minorities are deeply at odds with most Jewish social activism. Indeed, they have done far more to change US policy toward limiting the exercise of women’s moral agency and conscience on these questions (including Jewish women), and to try to prevent gay men and women (including gay Jews) from exercising the right to marry, than M4BL has done to stop US military aid to Israel.

Why is the one stance grounds for immediate political excommunication by “establishment” Jewish organizations, while the other is not?

And now let me bring back to our awareness the Torah of Numbers 31 -– the Torah of an Israelite genocide against another people.  Suppose I am right that one profound value of that chapter is to remind us that we too might commit genocide – even if we are not doing so today and perhaps did not even 3000 years ago.

Then we might respond to M4BL by saying, “Not so! – and still, let’s look at the specific events that seem to make you use that word. Let’s look at how to make sure we don’t go there.”

Then we have to look at ourselves with eyes wide open.

Both eyes. Not just a one-eyed gaze that sees with blinkered accuracy the violence aimed against us by some Palestinians.

 Both eyes. Seeing what it means to occupy another people for 49 years and counting, subjecting them every day to humiliating check points and job-shattering delays and arrests without charges of any crime, resulting in detentions that may last months or years.  

Seeing what it means to plunder land so as to offer Occupiers housing at low rents, and then to plunder scarce water for swimming pools when those who live under occupation run low on water for cooking.

Seeing what it means for the Jewish National Fund to cooperate in destroying the villages of Bedouin over and over and over and over again in order to force the Bedouin to abandon their tents and their life-ways, the shape of their culture, and creep around in ramshackle cities.

Seeing what it means for the Israeli government to allow Israeli settlers to burn the olive trees that are the cultural heart and the economic guts of the Palestinian people. 

And then to say, “No, this is not genocide. Our hands are not murdering a people. But on our fingers are the fingerprints of danger.  Thank God for a Torah that reminds us, ‘It can happen here, among us, in us, by us. Stop now, and let us turn ourselves around!!’ ”


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