By Robert Wiener
Jewish advocates for racial justice are struggling to maintain their efforts at battling racism, even as many deplore the anti-Israel rhetoric included in a 37,000-word platform of the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of 50 groups that includes Black Lives Matter.
The platform, issued on Aug. 2, declares that “Israel is an apartheid state with over 50 laws on the books that sanction discrimination against the Palestinian people,” and says the United States “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 platform called for boycott, sanctions, and divestment efforts aimed at Israel and urged for an end to American military aid to Israel.
According to an Aug. 9 JTA report, the controversial lines were written by two African-Americans, Ben Ndugga-Kabuye and Rachel Gilmer, who was raised as a Jew.
Ndugga-Kabuye told JTA he understood why Jewish groups disagree with the statements, but was perplexed that it has received so much attention. He compared it to the accusations of genocide that black activists have leveled at the United States, and he called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one of many international conflicts U.S. black activists feel connected to.
Eight days after the statement was released, the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ reacted with a press release.
“This incendiary and divisive language is deeply troubling, representing a callous and shockingly shallow understanding of the Jewish people’s experience and the history of the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” said the CRC statement.
“To our knowledge, no local clergy, organizations, or civic leaders in the African-American community here either support or have publicly signed on to this statement. Nevertheless, the CRC of Greater MetroWest will use this unfortunate event to communicate the deep affront this statement has brought to our community by reaching out…to begin a new conversation [and] to forge new relationships with our African-American neighbors and work to strengthen old ones,” it said in part.
“My gut reaction is that 90 percent of the people involved in Black Lives Matter have no idea that the issue regarding Israel is in the platform and have no idea why it’s there,” said Mark Dunec, a Livingston resident who chairs the CRC’s Committee on Community Partnership. “But I am not going to give BLM a pass,” Dunec added, noting that he was “speaking only as an individual, not as a representative of the CRC.”
He said the platform should not discourage Jews from working toward racial justice. “We will continue to do what we need to do because it is the right thing to do. But in terms of BLM, no, we won’t do anything with them, and if they want to know why, we will tell them why. I personally will continue working for racial justice — but I will not work with that movement.”
Asked whether the statement on Israel could dampen Jewish participation in the movement for racial justice, Dunec said, “I would hope most people would be reasonable and rational and the answer would be ‘no.’”
In an Aug. 4 press release, a coalition of Reform Jewish organizations said it is still ready to cooperate with the Movement for Black Lives, which is “working to address deeply rooted societal challenges. As they do so, we urge them to reject the platform’s characterizations of and positions related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We stand ready to work in relationship to achieve shared goals of a racially just society, nation, and world.”
In an Aug. 11 e-mail to his constituents, Keith Krivitzky, CEO of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, said he sees “more and more opportunities where local extremism, anti-Semitism, and hatred can be expressed with impunity — from comments in chat rooms, to anti-Semitic incidents.”
Krivitzky wrote, “We all need to be aware that the ground may be shifting somewhat — and to focus our collective and communal efforts on building more bridges and promoting more understanding within our broader communities and with our neighbors…. While I personally believe there is much that needs to be taken seriously about the Black Lives Matters movement, I draw the line when it comes for delegitimization of Israel; calling out such attacks when we see them is a given.”
Gideon Aronoff of South Orange is CEO of Ameinu, which describes itself as “a broad community of progressive American Jews seeking social and economic justice in Israel and the United States.” He said, “I think it is a challenge for the Jewish community to remain authentically angered at the mischaracterization of Israel but also to keep the anger about the platform in perspective.”
The characterization of Israel “is just a tiny piece” of the document, said Aronoff, and “Jewish anger and distress do not warrant writing off the Black Lives Matter movement,” although, he predicted, “some in the Jewish community will do that.”
He suggested instead of such a rejection that pro-Israel advocates “sit with partners in the Black Lives Matter movement and try to figure out ways to work more constructively together without papering over differences.”
Jacob Toporek, executive director of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations, discussed the issue during an Aug. 10 conference call with representatives of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Jewish Federations of North America, and the Israel Action Network.
“We are trying to learn more about the statement and the platform,” he told NJ Jewish News.
Toporek said the issue will be “high on our agenda” at a meeting later in August with the three full-time and the several part-time CRC administrators at the state’s nine Jewish federations. “We are also trying to learn more about the criminal justice reform efforts in the state.”
John Rosen, NJ director of the American Jewish Committee, said his organization is “dismayed that a collective of more than 50 organizations affiliated with the Movement for Black Lives has included in its platform hateful and false accusations.” In an Aug. 11 e-mail to NJJN, he wrote, “Singling out the actions of Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East and the only democratic ally of the United States in the region, will do nothing to resolve the problems that the Black community faces in the United States.”
Joshua Cohen, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey region, said his organization “has no official relationship” with Black Lives Matter or the Movement for Black Lives.
“The platform lays out what is blatantly a false and one-sided statement of Israeli-Palestinian issues,” he said. “But what is interesting is that ADL is deeply committed to a lot of the other issues laid out in the platform — mass incarceration, racial inequities, and a lot of socioeconomic issues facing the African-American community today. There are vital issues of racial justice that we face in our communities in New Jersey. We need broad coalitions and clear-headed, fact-based approaches. We are ready to work with all who are prepared to undertake this type of effort.”
Black, Jewish, and caught in the middle
NOLAN EDMONSON is caught in a conundrum. A 20-year-old African-American who lives in Montclair, he is an observant Jew and a supporter of Israel. He is also highly supportive of the Movement for Black Lives — except for the sections of its platform that accuse Israel of being an “apartheid state” and of committing “genocide” against the Palestinians. Edmonson finds these accusations offensive.
And while he himself has never felt threatened by the police, he is highly sensitive to the real threat that young African-Americans may face when they encounter law enforcement officers.
As he sat outside a Montclair coffee shop, he told NJ Jewish News, “It is incredibly important that Black Lives Matter has begun a conversation in this country about systemic killings of young black men and women.”
And yet, Edmonson said, he finds something deeply disconcerting about that one small portion of the Movement for Black Lives platform. The accusations against Israel touch “a place I feel very near and dear to my heart. No one is perfect and there has to be criticism of every government, but to associate the Free Palestine movement with the Black Lives Matter movement and insinuate that Israel is somehow illegitimate like the white governments of America and Europe is a grave, grave error.”
He views Black Lives Matter as having “a very legitimate claim. It seems as though the lives of black people in this country — they don’t matter. It speaks to a systemic problem in our law enforcement, and I agree with that 100 percent. What I think takes away from their argument is their criticism of a country that has given people more rights than any other country in the Middle East. There are real issues regarding Israeli treatment of Palestinians, but there is no mention of the murderous regime of the Palestinian Authority, which claims to be the governing body of the Palestinian people.”
Nevertheless, Edmonson said, he hopes the platform’s language that is hostile to Israel, rather than alienating Jews, will encourage their participation in the movement for racial justice — to keep the dialogue going. “It is as important now as it has ever been, because it is up to us to show that preconceived notions about Israel and Zionism and the Jewish people are completely wrong. It is more important than ever for Jews to be completely involved and not give up,” he told NJJN.
“The history of Jews and African-Americans in this country is one of commonality and shared griefs and achievements,” he said. “I don’t see a conflict between being black and being Jewish.”
Born into a family of religious Protestants, Edmonson attended the Roman Catholic St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark before enrolling in Yeshiva University, where he is now a sophomore majoring in accounting.
When he was 18, he converted to Judaism through the beit din of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County. “Something about the culture and traditions really drew me,” he said, adding that he found the Pesach and Hanukka stories “especially compelling.” Edmonson attends Synagogue of the Suburban Torah in Livingston, and because he will not drive on Shabbat, he stays there with “a second family which has become very close to me.”
Edmonson lived in Jerusalem for two years and studied at the Aish HaTorah yeshiva in Jerusalem, where he lost friends to Palestinian violence.
“At the time I was in Israel I lived in constant fear of walking out into the street because I could possibly be killed,” he said, noting that many young black American men face a similar “very real fear…. It is things like that that make me support the Black Lives Matter movement 100 percent regarding racial profiling and excessive force.”
This article originally appeared in the New Jersey Jewish News on August 22, 2016.