The showdown these past few weeks between the Jewish community and the Movement for Black Lives is frustratingly familiar, especially for those who experienced the split between Jewish and black activists during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. It would be a terrible waste of well-meaning efforts toward shared goals if we were to go down that same path again.
In the 1960s, the schism was based on accusations of Jewish privilege. This time, the attack is aimed at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. In both cases, it comes up against our own perceptions of victimhood and the basis for our empathy with black Americans.
We too have a communal memory of being discriminated against and reviled because of our identity, and of being targeted for elimination. We see the military might wielded by Israel as essential for its self-protection, not imperialist domination.
But neither the Jewish community nor Israel is seen as a victim. Given the very visible success of individual Jews and the Jewish state, the connection that seems so strong to us is not as obvious to young black activists. And that is a sore point: their obliviousness makes us indignant and defensive in ways they must find baffling. It would help if both sides would come together to consider the facts.
Last time around, black leaders declared Jews to be part of the oppressive economic system that they were fighting against, and, worse, perpetrators of financial exploitation. There was some truth to that; there were Jews behaving that way, just as there were Christians and agnostics, Anglos, Europeans, Hispanics, etc. Quite often, they were in positions that loomed most clearly to their accusers — as landlords or store owners. The fact that Jews were also teaching and healing and providing legal services got overlooked.
In the same way now, there is truth to accusations of Palestinian suffering at the hands of the Israeli military. The fatalities are hugely disproportionate, and on a daily basis Palestinians face hardship and frustration. Arab Israelis endure inequities that fly in the face of Israel’s declared ideals. So it gets overlooked that Israel allows more religious freedom and gender equity and protection under the law than any Arab country in the vicinity, and that Israeli aid workers and rescue teams do good all over the world.
Just as Jews, mindful of their history, have found it hard to understand how we can be seen as perpetrators of injustice, so black people fighting discrimination find it hard to see that they too can be racist, that some are selectively and self-righteously scapegoating one nation when others commit much more egregious crimes.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached against such intolerance, and so have Jewish leaders. As the Community Relations Committee of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ said in its statement on the Black Lives platform, we need a renewed commitment to our shared ideals of racial and social justice, both with the creation of new relationships and the strengthening of the old ones.