Why Do Black Activists Care About Palestine?

A controversy over anti-Israel statements in the Movement for Black Lives political platform shows the long history of tension between Jews and blacks in the U.S.  

Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Joshua Heschel, and others march in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.
Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Joshua Heschel, and others march in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. (AP)

Last Thursday, the Movement for Black Lives got together for an emergency conference call. One week after the drafting committee released its political platform—a long document that covers everything from U.S. policing to education reform to mass incarceration—the activists felt they needed another “deep internal discussion,” as they called it, on one small section toward the end: their statement on Israel and Palestine.

Of all the positions included in the platform, this is the one that has generated the most backlash. The conflict is largely one of language: Jewish groups have been most upset about its use of the words genocide and apartheid to describe Israel’s actions against the Palestinians, describing the terms as “offensive and odious.” Some progressive, social-justice-oriented organizations have condemned the statements in part; others have condemned the movement in full. Church groups have repudiated it. Jews of color have struggled with it. In the wake of what should have been a powerful moment, black activists have found themselves at odds with the one group that may have been most ready to support them as allies.

But this is also a conflict of history. Jews and blacks in America have long danced around one another, at times feeling solidarity and at others, opposition. Both groups have developed a self-understanding rooted in a history of oppression and struggle, often in solidarity with others in need. Their clash on Israel may be a testament to how much U.S. views have changed on this issue, or how much Israel’s self-vision has changed since 1948. But it’s also a sign of how thoroughly elements of these groups have become alienated from one another—hoping for justice, but hearing different things when they try to speak its language.

It’s not clear what the Movement for Black Lives will do about the backlash against this part of its platform, if anything. An informal spokesperson for the drafting committee, Zakiya Scott, declined interviews, saying, “Folks have been getting a lot of criticism for the divest/invest piece of the platform. Before we say anything as a group, it has to be agreed upon by the members of the leadership team and the endorsing organizations.”

On every side, the clash over language and history in the Movement for Black Lives platform is a story of loss. Relationships have been damaged, and political momentum lost. And the hope of liberation, cherished by black and Jewish Americans alike, has been cut with resentment.

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The word genocide was coined to describe the Holocaust. Six million Jews were systematically eliminated from the earth on the basis of blood and faith. Subsequently, a nation was formed where those who survived could go—including those fleeing the homes they tried to return to, only to be met with rejection and renewed violence. The dream of the state of Israel—of freedom, radical equality, and survival—antedated the Holocaust, but in its wake, it assumed new urgency.

Yet, that was not the genocide the Movement for Black Lives elected to highlight. “The U.S. 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 activists wrote in the platform. They go on to call Israel an “apartheid state,” condemning Israeli settlements and the “apartheid wall”—presumably the security barrier that roughly follows the country’s border with the West Bank.

These two words—genocide and apartheid—have been the focus of the outcry in Jewish communities. “We were stunned and outraged by the erroneous and egregious claims of genocide and apartheid,” the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement said. T’ruah, a progressive organization that describes itself as “the rabbinic call for justice,” said it was “extremely dismayed” by the use of genocide. The Union for Reform Judaism went a step further: “We reject wholeheartedly the notion that effective anti-racism work can only be done by denouncing and excoriating Israel,” it said.

There are as many positions on Israel within the Jewish community as there are Jews, and including many who adamantly oppose the country’s treatment of Palestinians or its erection of the security barrier. But the broadness of the outcry—reaching across progressive and left-leaning groups, with few exceptions—suggests it’s about more than policy.

The most basic explanation is that it’s a disagreement over language. From the perspective of the platform’s drafters, the word genocide is simply descriptive. “We recognize that the use of the word genocide is controversial, whether used in reference to the systemic killing of black people here in the U.S. or the killing of Palestinians,” says Janae Bonsu, the national public-policy chair for a Chicago-based group called Black Youth Project 100, who was involved in drafting the platform. “But we do believe that it is accurate from a legal perspective and a moral perspective.”

“This reliance on … vague, theoretical terms that the left has been using in general has not been helpful.”

Yet others would say that this represents a slide of meaning: Genocide is not just a charged word to use in the context of Israel, they argue; applying it requires redefining it. “Genocide means the deliberate wiping out of a group of people based on their ethnic or racial background,” says Cheryl Greenberg, a professor of history at Trinity College who has written about the history of black-Jewish relations in the U.S. “But in the past 20 years, the word genocide has become much broader, and it has come to mean any kind of massive, racialized oppression.”

Part of this fits with language used throughout the Movement for Black Lives platform. The United States is an “empire”; the world is shaped by “interlinked systems of white supremacy, imperialism, capitalism, and patriarchy.” The claims are sweeping and conceptual; they’re written in a revolutionary idiom cribbed from academia. Even people who essentially agree with the Movement for Black Lives on the facts might find its language jarring, disagreeing over style rather than substance. “This reliance on jargon-y, sweeping, vague, theoretical terms that the left has been using in general has not been helpful,” Greenberg says. “It obfuscates important differences by [painting with] this wide brush. This tendency to move to these emotionally laden jargon words is not doing their argument service.”

The problem is not that they are inadequate orators or inept rhetoricians; it’s that “there’s a disconnect of meaning,” Greenberg says. “When one group uses the word genocide, they mean something different” from the other.

Jewish groups have also objected to what they hear as coded anti-Semitism in the linking of Israel, Zionism, and thus Jews to oppressive systems of global power. “To try to conflate the military-industrial complex with America’s support of Israel is to play on some pretty discomforting tropes—anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish power and the way that Jewish power is leveraged in the world,” says Daniel Burg, a Baltimore-area rabbi who serves on the board of the progressive group Jews United for Justice, speaking on behalf of his own views rather than any views of the institutions he represents. “As a Jewish American, and as a rabbi, I am concerned about the increase in anti-Zionism in the world that is bleeding into anti-Semitic language tropes and canards,” he adds. “It’s not to say that everyone who disagrees with Israel is anti-Semitic—on the contrary. But I do think that, increasingly, the rhetoric around Israel and those who critique Israel can be anti-Semitic rhetoric.” These feelings were echoed separately in statements put out by a number of Jewish groups.

And for some, the split is more fundamental. The Movement for Black Lives’ position against Israel violates a core conviction—enough, say groups like the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston, to warrant repudiation of the whole movement. The platform calls for boycotts, divestments from, and sanctions against Israel; it calls for an end to military support and aid to the country. For some Jewish groups, these actions would represent an existential threat to Israel—something they cannot support in any way.

“I don’t know how you can be for ending state-sanctioned violence ... and be supportive of [Israel].”

The Movement for Black Lives wasn’t trying to offend Jews or be insensitive, says Bonsu of BYP 100. “We remain unequivocally supportive of Palestine and critical of Israel, but I don’t think that precludes Jewish people who are pro-Israel from supporting other aspects of the platform,” she says. And yet, it’s difficult to see—from either side—how that alliance would work in practice. “Even in … saying that out loud, I don’t know how you can be for ending state-sanctioned violence in its many different forms and be supportive of a heavily militarized, occupied state like Palestine,” Bonsu says.

The Movement for Black Lives is trying to advance what it sees as a global struggle for liberation, including the struggle of Palestinians. Jews are expressing deep hurt at what they see as an attack on their history and homeland. Neither side seems to accept the other’s reasoning; both sides seem willing to walk away from their past and potential coalition. But unlike splits between black activists and other American groups, this one isn’t new. Jews have long accused black activists of anti-Semitism. And black activists have long accused Jews of forgetting the stranger, even though they were once strangers in a strange land.

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In 1967, James Baldwin wrote an essay for The New York Times as declarative in its title as in its prose: “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White.” Poor blacks in New York hated the Jewish landlords and grocers and pawn-shop owners who ran their communities, he said, but they mistakenly attributed their animus to Jews themselves. “The most ironical thing about Negro anti-Semitism is that the Negro is really condemning the Jew for having become an American white man—for having become, in effect, a Christian,” he wrote. “He is singled out by Negroes not because he acts differently from other white men, but because he doesn’t.”

Once they got to America, Baldwin argued, the long-oppressed Jews had become complicit in the oppression of others. “[The Jew] is playing in Harlem the role assigned him by Christians long ago: He is doing their dirty work,” he wrote. Where Jews and blacks should have been allies, they became enemies.

Baldwin was writing at a time when the relationship between American Jews and blacks had become particularly fraught and contested. When Israel was founded, many Jews—and blacks—saw it as a utopia. The kibbutzim, or collectivist farms and living communities, were the socialist’s pastoral fantasy. The strong union movement, centralized in an organization called the Histadrut, represented the ideal of radical equality for workers.

American Zionists and black activists had a natural connection, especially through the 1950s and ’60s.“The civil-rights movement presented this great moment of affinity,” says Marjorie Feld, a professor at Babson College. Rabbis joined arms with black freedom fighters in the South; the image of Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the most prominent rabbis and Jewish writers of the 20th century, marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma has become iconic. Jews also died for the cause: Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, two Jewish men in their 20s, died alongside James Chaney in the slaughter that was later memorialized in the film Mississippi Burning.

Israel’s “fall from grace was very powerful.”

But “even while that was going on, there were lots of indications, starting the ’50s, that African Americans would start linking their activism to broader, third-world causes, such as Palestinians in Israel,” Feld says. Israel maintained close ties with France while the European country struggled to maintain control of Algeria. Israel also had a tense relationship with Egypt under the leadership of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was a leader of the pan-Arab and pan-African movement. After Israel captured Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula during the Six-Day War in 1967, “even some black liberal allies of Israel—long-standing black liberal allies of Israel, including [Martin Luther King Jr.]—did not know how to contend with the occupation,” Feld says.

In the following decades, the sense of division between black activists and supporters of Israel deepened, especially as many Americans pushed to boycott, divest from, and sanction South Africa over the issue of apartheid. Israel was one of the last developed countries to maintain diplomatic and military ties with the apartheid government, although it eventually severed them in the late 1980s. For some black activists, Israel’s “fall from grace was very powerful,” Feld says.

In this way, the Movement for Black Lives platform is not anomalous; it follows a long tradition of activists critiquing Israel for its involvement in alleged colonialist activity. The platform drafters believed “the movement for Black lives must be tied to liberation movements around the world,” as they wrote in the platform. “The Black community is a global diaspora and our political demands must reflect this global reality.” In drafting their platform, Bonsu and her peers felt the bind of history. “Being committed to a fight for global freedom, we saw no choice, really, to not include a critique of the way the U.S. enables the state-sanctioned killing on an occupation of black and brown people globally across the diaspora,” she says. “Our freedom fight knows no borders, so that has to include unequivocal support for the Palestinian struggle for freedom and peace.”

While many Jewish leaders disagree with this framing of history and the current situation on the ground in Israel and Palestine, what seems to matter to them almost as much is being singled out. While the platform names a number of nations, claiming they’ve been victimized by the United States’ colonial-style foreign policy, it condemns only one foreign government: Israel. The platform does not express sympathy with the Kurds in Iraq or the Rohingya in Burma; it does not condemn Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers or Saudi Arabia’s oppression of Shiite Muslims. Perhaps, just like the landlords and grocers and pawnshop brokers of New York, Israel is held to a different standard by black activists—because Jews, they think, should know better. Or perhaps the special focus on Israel traces back to the pan-African movement, or owes a debt to the prominence of pro-Palestinian activism on American campuses. Whatever the origin, the result is the same.

While the Movement for Black Lives platform drafters may have wanted to express solidarity with Palestinians and the global diaspora, the backlash to their statement shows the near impossibility of creating a coalition around a global liberation movement. “The Movement for Black Lives has tried to articulate not only their narrow concerns, but framed those concerns in a more global and universal context,” Greenberg says. “I think, ultimately, that is the right thing to do. It is the ethical thing to do. It’s the effective thing to do. It’s the moral thing to do.” But, she added, “The problem is, once you articulate a whole vision in which you are a part, you open the door for other people to pick apart those details.”

Just like the landlords and grocers and pawnshop brokers of New York, Israel is held to a different standard by black activists.

The fact that the platform drafters did not anticipate this kind of backlash and were forced to regroup once it happened, combined with most Jewish groups’ unyielding condemnation of the language of the platform, shows how distant the relationships between many black and Jewish activists have become in the United States. Burg, whose congregation stands in a historically Jewish neighborhood that is now predominantly black, says he sees the platform as “a reflection of the lack of healthy dialogue right now between those who support BDS and what’s actually happening on the ground in the state of Israel.” The members of his largely progressive community expressed “a sense of hurt and betrayal” during a discussion on the Shabbat after the platform came out—there was “a sense that this platform speaks in the un-nuanced way that black and brown Americans hope white Americans won’t use in speaking about them and the issues that matter to them.” But it’s impossible to know how to listen to another group’s hurt when you don’t know any of its members; Bonsu says she does not know a single Jewish person who supports the state of Israel, although, as she pointed out, she is just one person.

No matter how deeply hurt many members of the Jewish community may feel about the language of the platform, the debate over Israel and Palestine has distracted from its impact. While some may recognize this with regret—“for me to try to pretend that the document is all about the Jews and the state of Israel is also, I think, doing a disservice to an underprivileged class and race in this country,” Burg says—the Jewish community as a whole has been very effective at mobilizing around this issue. The Movement for Black Lives platform drafters tried to use strong language to rally their supporters; in return, Jewish groups have used strong language to rally theirs.

That has produced more noise than justice and division rather than empathy. Fundamentally, Burg says, the spirit behind the Movement for Black Lives is one found at the heart of Judaism: “We should remember the widow and the stranger and the orphan and the oppressed, because we were orphans and we were strangers and we were slaves.”

But if, as in the case of the disagreements over this platform, “we close ourselves off to those who are different from us, who have different backgrounds, who have different races and ethnicities—even those who have different beliefs and opinions,” he says, “we do ourselves a disservice. We do them a disservice. And, to my mind, we violate God’s will.”