Part 2: "Genocide," Black Lives Matter, & the Jewish Community

Jewish Responses to the Black-Lives Movement's

Accusation of Israeli Genocide

(Dear friends, This Part 2 is a continuation of my essay yesterday about the Biblical attitude toward genocide (in Numbers 31), about how we might respond to and learn from that story and precisely from our revulsion at it, and about the contemporary Jewish response to charges from the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) that the State of Israel is committing genocide upon the Palestinian people. A number of readers suggested making  Part 2 available through the Shalom Report, as well as on our website. For the first half of the essay, see the link at the end of this article.)

Let us look at the responses from a range of American Jewish organizations to the  Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) platform.

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. <

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.”

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.

Its stance makes clear that American racism is too pervasive and destructive for us to refuse to work with 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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