The relationship between the black and Jewish communities has long been an important alliance, as the two groups throughout the years have worked together on the frontlines of social change. This was particularly the case during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, reflecting both an intersection of interests and the desire to seek justice and fight oppression—consistent with both cultural traditions. With the Black Power movement came a fraying of that relationship. Now, black-Jewish tensions have heightened with the recent news of a conflict between Black Lives Matter and Jewish organizations over the Palestinian occupation.
What will it take to repair that fissure, and what efforts exist to strengthen cooperation between the two communities? Local Jewish and African-American leaders believe the answer lies in the hard work of listening to one another.
The most recent rift developed when the Movement for Black Lives issued a broad public policy platform called “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom and Justice.” A sweeping document covering issues ranging from policing, politics and education to economic justice, reparations and community control, it was the section on Israel and the Palestinian occupation that upset some segments of the Jewish community, particularly some of the more establishment organizations. Specifically, in one paragraph, the Black Lives Matter platform referred to the occupation as “genocide” and “apartheid,” and supported the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement against Israel, or BDS.
Black-Jewish tensions have heightened with the recent news of a conflict between Black Lives Matter and Jewish organizations over the Palestinian occupation. These subjects do not make for easy discussion. Local Jewish and African-American leaders believe the answer lies in the hard work of listening to one another.
While some organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow endorsed the platform in its entirety, a coalition of groups such as the Reform movement, the ADL and J Street condemned it, some even threatening to disengage from the black-led movement. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston (JCRC) even called for a boycott of Black Lives Matter. Meanwhile, the human rights organization T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights criticized the language on Israel, yet remained committed to standing for racial justice with the Movement for Black Lives, and the dignity of both Israelis and Palestinians.
For those of us who remember the millions lost in the Holocaust, the word “genocide” can offend, even if today’s usage of the word is meant to reflect an updated legal and social justice definition of large-scale racial oppression. Meanwhile, some Jewish institutions were cited for failing to confront their white privilege or ties to structural racism, or understand the intersectionality between black oppression and Palestinian suffering, just as the intersectionality between antisemitism and racism has facilitated black-Jewish cooperation for decades. Such rifts harken back to the departure of white Jewish membership from SNCC upon the advent of the Black Power movement. These subjects do not make for easy discussion. Yet without engagement on the issues, discussion is impossible.
One local leader believes that it is necessary for Jews and blacks to acknowledge each other’s humanity and suffering. It was fitting that I spoke with Jared Jackson during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which commemorates the sheltering of the Israelites while they were in the wilderness. During this time, Jews build a temporary shelter, or sukkah. Jackson, a black, multiheritage Jew, is the executive director of Jews in All Hues, an education and advocacy organization that supports multiple-heritage Jews, and assists Jewish communities and organizations in the creation of sustainably-diverse communities. “Sukkoth hospitality is if somebody comes to your sukkah, it doesn’t matter if they’re Jewish or not. You welcome them for their humanity. We are dealing with two communities where there is historic trauma we don’t even see, and people get triggered,” Jackson says, noting the inherited trauma of Jews who may not have experienced full frontal antisemitism, and the inherited and recurring trauma black people face with racism and police brutality.
It bears keeping in mind that there is no monolithic Jewish community or African-American community, nor are blacks, Jews or Israelis mutually exclusive groups. Not all Jewish people are white, and not all black people are Christian. For Jackson, there needs to be more nuance in the discussion on identity and shared values.
“There’s a lack of nuance in this conversation. What is black-Jewish relations? What is that, me talking to myself? Or is it white Jews in power being in community with black Christians, black Muslims and black Jews?” asks Jackson, who notes that Jews of color make up 10 percent of Jews in the U.S., which is no small number. And he insists that black Jewish leaders, often forgotten and left out of the equation, must be brought to the table before decisions are made.
And we must get beyond stereotypes. “We need to realize people do not fit into these cookie cutter images of what black is or what Jewish is,” Jackson says, noting that he is often viewed as conditionally Jewish or black, even denied his blackness by the black community. “My blackness is not in question, my Jewishness is not in question. I don’t have the luxury of stepping away from racism. I’ve had guns put to my head, I’ve been called ‘boy’ and ‘nigger’ by police. It is undeniable that I go through life not knowing if I will see my infant son at the end of the day. There are a lot of people I know who are Jewish who are not Jews of color who don’t experience racism or police brutality. Some have completely skipped over the tens-of-thousands of words [in the Black Lives policy platform] dedicated to ending racism. But that is something that I see. Getting stuck on a few words? My life is worth much more than a few words.”
For Jackson, like many Jews, Israel holds a special place in his core identity. “I have family in Israel, I love Israel to the bottom of my heart,” he says. “I’ve been there so many times. I even wanted to move there. I can understand how people would have that gut reaction to the language they may not agree with. I personally don’t agree with the use of ‘genocide,’ but I don’t have the privilege of saying let’s throw out the entire platform because of one word. I live in a black male body and work hard to live my Jewish values for loving humanity. I have lived my life in a black male body, and in the United States that is seen as a weapon.”
Rabbi Shawn and his congregation not only talk the talk, but walk the walk. A Black Lives Matter sign hangs prominently in their Roxborough Deconstructionist synagogue, and a church is housed on one floor of the building. An alternative high school for youth in foster care is located on another, and an African-American imam and pastor spoke at Shawn’s high holiday services.
While the debate over the Black Lives Matter platform has engendered strong reactions, in Philadelphia churches, mosques and synagogues, congregants are still engaged in the day-to-day work of racial justice coalition building. “I have experienced no abatement, only a deepening with the African American community,” says Rabbi Shawn Zevit of Mishkan Shalom, a diverse Reconstructionist congregation in the Roxborough section of the city. Rabbi Shawn has taken a leadership role in forming interfaith and interracial coalitions in the Philadelphia area around social justice issues and police violence against communities of color. He is the clergy task force co-chair of POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower & Rebuild). In its mission statement, POWER says it “uses our belief in God’s goodness and compassion for the suffering to organize and empower the people of Philadelphia to live and work together so that God’s presence is known on every block, that people work together to transform the conditions of their neighborhood, and that life flourishes for all.”
Rabbi Shawn and his congregation not only talk the talk, but walk the walk. A Black Lives Matter sign hangs prominently in the synagogue, and a church is housed on one floor of the building. An alternative high school for youth in foster care is located on another, and an African-American imam and pastor spoke at Shawn’s high holiday services. All are a testament to Mishkan’s commitment to community engagement.
“For most of my African American colleagues who are connected with racial justice work, what particularly arose for some of the Jewish institutions was not a big priority compared to living wage and mass incarceration,” Rabbi Shawn notes. “They said, ‘We have real relationships with you, so why would that define our relationship to the Jewish community?…Why would I attribute a statement or an individual action to a whole group?’’’
One local organization is doing its part to improve black-Jewish relations by David Hyman, who is active in Jewish civil and political life and practices law as a managing partner with Kleinbard LLC in Philadelphia. Hyman is also a cofounder of Operation Understanding, whose mission is “to develop a group of young African American and Jewish leaders knowledgeable about each other’s histories and cultures to effectively lead the communities of Philadelphia and beyond to a greater understanding of diversity and acceptance.”
“The concept that we started with through our then-Congressman Bill Gray was we would identify high school students who were emerging leaders, and put them on an excursion together to places such as Israel and Senegal, and other places related to African-American and Jewish-American history,” says Hyman, who was co-chair of the organization’s board for 10 years. “We did a screening process, and some have emerged as leaders in civic, community business and religious life. The best way to foster relationships was to develop leadership that could talk to each other, which we had drifted away from.”
Hyman believes the recent controversy over genocide in the Black Lives Matter platform was a “flashpoint” that demonstrates the continued need for Operation Understanding. “My view is that too much of Operation Understanding’s time was pointing out the shortcomings of this country, and not enough time was spent looking at the blessings of this country,” he says. “If the only reason we are coming around is to reinforce the victim mentality, we’re doing ourselves a disservice. There is much to celebrate regarding the strength of our American experience, notwithstanding the dark moments.” In Hyman’s view, we must get beyond debates over whose suffering is worse, the Holocaust versus slavery.
“If we say we want a dialogue, when someone sees things differently we can’t call them a name,” says David Hyman, a prominent Philadelphia attorney and co-founder of Operation Understanding, which sends African-American and Jewish youth together on excursions into one another’s histories and cultures. “This is Operation Understanding, not Operation Agreement. When you call people a name, they shut down.”
Further, Operation Understanding has placed a priority not only on respect for racial and religious diversity, but on diversity of opinion. “I made sure that when we did programming we didn’t just say, this is what African-Americans think, this is what Jews think,” says Hyman. “If we say we want a dialogue, when someone sees things differently we can’t call them a name. This is Operation Understanding, not Operation Agreement. When you call people a name, they shut down.”
Meanwhile, in his sermon on the eve of Yom Kippur, Rabbi Shawn, reflecting on the hard work that must be done, said that Black Lives Matter is a Jewish issue because it is a justice issue, in keeping with Deuteronomy 16:20, which says: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” He spoke of the strangers in the land of Egypt, who had no rights, and warned that, “Any suppression of human rights opens the gate to the indiscriminate use of power and abuse of human beings that is the root of the entire abomination of Egypt.”
Finally, Rabbi Shawn offers that, “Being strong by engaging in the issues of our times does not mean holding opinions or providing answers; it means much more listening than talking.” If there is to be continued collaboration across culture, faith and race, there must be honest dialogue, a recognition of the role of trauma, and a willingness to step out of our comfort zone and find common ground.
“We have to be willing to get messy,” Rabbi Shawn insists. “You live in a diverse neighborhood? Well, who sits at your Shabbat table?”Header photo: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right) marches in Selma with Martin Luther King Jr.