Supporting the Black Community and Supporting Israel: Do We Have to Choose?
Do you want to be right, or do you want to be married? It’s a question long been asked by the authors of self-help books, and also by Jewish mothers dispensing advice. Of course, the relationship between spouses – between any two people – is much more complex than that pop-psychology question suggests. Nevertheless, the idea is an important one. There are times in our relationships with others when it’s more important, and more fruitful, to continue to be in relationship than it is to prove ourselves right in any particular conflict.
One of the major issues confronting our nation during this already fraught summer is the problem of racism in America. Those of us who believe in equality for all people, in a world devoid of brutality, have been shocked and saddened by the examples of violence against Black people that our country has witnessed over the past few months. For Jews, though, the issue of our relationship with the Black community has been complicated by expressions of anti-Semitism that we have been hearing from some sectors of that community.
In the past few weeks alone, we have heard Black celebrities spouting anti-Semitic rhetoric and conspiracy theories – including the rapper Ice Cube, the actor and TV personality Nick Cannon, and NFL player DeSean Jackson.
Many of us are still stung by the fact that in August of 2016, the Movement for Black Lives put out a policy platform that contained incendiary language about Israel, accusing Israel of “genocide” against the Palestinians.
Because of this, many Jews have felt torn between their desire to fight racism and support the Black community, and their sense of loyalty to Israel and to their own people.
Some people on the left have suggested that it is inappropriate, even selfish, for Jews to be concerned about the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric that has been espoused by the Movement for Black Lives and other segments of the Black community. They have called on us to remember that this is not about us. And with that, I disagree completely. If anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiments are not about us, then who are they about? And why should anyone else get to decide when we are allowed to speak out about our own denigration and oppression?
It is absolutely our right and our responsibility to speak out against anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, whether it is coming from white people or Black people. But – do we need to view standing up for ourselves and standing up against racism as being mutually exclusive? And do we want to let the anti-Semitic views of a few people or groups affect our feelings about an entire race of people? That would imply that we’re not very good at critical thinking – that we’re prepared to generalize about others the way the anti-Semites generalize about us. I would argue that we Jews are smarter than that.
Yes, the Movement for Black Lives represents a part of the Black community. But it does not represent all Black people, and it does not represent Congressman John Lewis, of blessed memory, who passed away last weekend, who has been a friend to Israel and the Jews throughout his long political career – or Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C., who participated in a trip to Israel with the Jewish Community Relations Council, despite the fact that she faced intense pressure for doing so. We need to be able to hear their voices above the garbage being spewed by the Nick Cannons and DeSean Jacksons of the world.
By the way, the Movement for Black Lives also doesn’t represent the Black Lives Matter movement, which is a much larger movement and which does not have a history of saying anything negative about Jews or about Israel.
It would seem like the African-American community is made up of diverse people and diverse groups who don’t all think alike. Imagine that. Does that remind you of anyone?
There was a great article in the Forward a few weeks ago by Carly Pildis, entitled “You Don’t Have to Choose between Black Lives Matter and Israel.” Pildis writes, “It’s often said in politics that if you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu. If people who love Israel decide they are going to stay home, close their wallets and take off their shoes, refusing to participate in the entire racial justice movement because some people within it support BDS or are anti-Zionists, then the only people fighting for the lives of black Americans will be those who support BDS and those who are anti-Zionists.”
That’s not a good way to support Israel and to support the Jewish community – to leave ourselves out of this national conversation about race and justice that is one of the most crucial things that is happening in our country right now.
Yes, of course, we can defend ourselves from those who malign us. We can and we should. But standing up for ourselves and our homeland and standing up for others do not need to be mutually exclusive. And it’s a lot easier to get someone to see your side of the story when you have a positive relationship with them than when you have no relationship with them.
This Shabbat is Shabbat Chazon. The special name for this Shabbat comes from the first words of the Haftarah – chazon Yeshayahu. The word “chazon” means “vision.” The Haftarah recounts in detail the vision of the prophet Isaiah – and the vision of the prophet Isaiah is not good. This Haftarah is the last of the Three Haftarot of Admonition recited before Tisha B’Av – and admonish is certainly what Isaiah does. He chastises the people for being unjust and being unfaithful to God.
Isaiah tells the people that even if they’re doing all of the “right” things religiously, they’re still not doing right by God.
In Isaiah’s words, God tells the people, “What need do I have for all of your sacrifices? Even if you pray at length, I will not listen.”
So what is it that God wants from us? “Cease to do evil, learn to do good, devote yourselves to justice, aid the wronged.”
Doing all of the “right” things – bringing the right sacrifices, saying the right prayers, performing the right rituals – all of that doesn’t matter to God if we are not doing right by others by standing up for those who have been wronged.
I started this sermon by referencing the pop-psychology saying “Do you want to be right or do you want to be married?”
The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai expresses this idea in a much more beautiful and powerful way in his poem “The Place Where We Are Right.”
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
What an amazing idea and image – “From the place where we are right, flowers will never grow.”
I think that the most humble thing, and the most powerful thing, that we can do right now as we figure out how to respond to the Black community and how to support the Black community is to worry less about being right and to worry more about doing right.
If you want to keep talking about how some Black people have said and continue to say anti-Semitic things, you’re right. You are right. But my next question to you is – now what? How do we respond in a way that helps us do right?
What are we going to do now to reach out to a people that has been brought to their knees – literally – by centuries of discrimination, by violence and brutality? Can we muster the courage to stand up for those who have been brought low and to realize that in doing so, we’re not betraying our own mission or our own interests? We have to remember that standing up for justice and for equality could never be an abdication of who we are as Jews – it’s the fulfillment of who we are as Jews.
I am so privileged that as part of my rabbinic role at TBS, I’ve been working with our incredibly thoughtful and committed Social Action Committee to figure out how we can bring Jewish teachings about equality and justice to the fight against racism. We’re excited to be launching a new initiative, called the Hineini initiative.
Hineini literally means “here I am,” and it’s the way in which our Biblical ancestors responded to God’s call. It indicates a willingness to listen, to learn, and to act in the service of God and God’s commandments. Through this initiative, we are going to be providing an array of learning opportunities to help our community understand the Jewish imperative to work for justice and to turn that imperative into action.
We’ve entered into a dialogue with our neighbor Pastor Victor Lewis of the Friendship Baptist Church in Roslyn – we hope to deepen our relationship with him and to find ways for our two communities to learn from each other. We’re also hoping to engage in some learning together about Jews of Color and the ways in which our national Jewish community is much more diverse than it was even a generation ago.
In all of this work, we are indebted to Rabbi Lucas for beginning our own process of self-reflection so powerfully in his sermon on Parashat Naso, and his community conversation on Jews and race. We hope to do right by him and his vision by heeding his call to engage in this work – to see the humanity in our Black neighbors and to stand up for them. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said “the time is always right to do what is right.” I think that Isaiah would have agreed with this sentiment. Let us make the choice to do what is right – for ourselves and for others. Hineni. We are here, ready for this challenge.