NEW YORK (JTA) — The co-author of the Black Lives Matter platform passage accusing Israel of “genocide” defended the term, saying Israel’s actions fit in its wider definition.
Ben Ndugga-Kabuye co-authored the statement along with Rachel Gilmer, the former board member of a Zionist youth group. Ndugga-Kabuye told JTA he understood why Jewish groups disagree with the statement, but was perplexed that it has received so much attention.
He compared it with the accusations of genocide that black activists have leveled at the United States and called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one of many international conflicts US black activists feel connected to.
“The way we look at it is, we take strong stances,” Ndugga-Kabuye, a New York City organizer for the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, told JTA. “The demand we’re making is we’re against the US continuing funding and military aid to the government of Israel. These are all things that are going to be in debate.”
The platform, released August 2 by The Movement for Black Lives coalition, is largely a statement of the goals of a movement that coalesced around police violence directed against black people in the United States, mass incarceration of African-Americans and other domestic issues.
But it also calls for ending US military aid to Israel and accuses Israel of being an apartheid state. The platform includes a link to a website promoting the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel called BDS.
“The US 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” reads the “Invest/Divest” section of “A Vision for Black Lives.”
A string of Jewish organizations, from the Anti-Defamation League to the Reform movement and National Council of Jewish Women, has condemned the genocide and apartheid language as well as the BDS endorsement. T’ruah, a rabbis’ human rights group that opposes Israel’s West Bank occupation, also criticized the document.
Most of the organizations took pains to note that they are sympathetic to other parts of the platform, many of which jibe with liberal Jewish positions on the criminal justice system, economic justice and immigration.
“While we are deeply concerned about the ongoing violence and the human rights violations directed at both Israelis and Palestinians, we believe the terms genocide and apartheid are inaccurate and inappropriate to describe the situation,” NCJW wrote in a statement. “Further, BDS is too often used to de-legitimize Israel’s right to exist.”
Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports BDS, was the rare Jewish group that endorsed the platform in its entirety.
Ndugga-Kabuye said state actions don’t need to rise to the level of the Holocaust or other historical genocides to deserve the term, which he said could connote unjust state killing of a disadvantaged group. He compared his usage of the word to We Charge Genocide, a group that opposes police violence in Chicago.
“We’re talking about a structure of violent deaths that are state sanctioned, that are without accountability, and that are ongoing,” he told JTA. “We can say this is what’s happening in Palestine and not equate it with what’s happening in South America. It doesn’t say it’s the same number of people being killed or the [same] manner of people being killed.”
Ndugga-Kabuye said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is just one of many international issues the platform comments on — including the dangers African migrants face in crossing the Mediterranean Sea, or conflicts in Somalia, Colombia or Honduras. He said the passage on Israel is longer because “there’s a certain prominence to it, and that may require us to go a little more in detail.” But he said the statements about other conflicts, charging the United States with imperialist actions, are just as strong as the language condemning Israel.
“I don’t see it as a special connection,” Ndugga-Kabuye said about the link between the Movement for Black Lives and the Palestinian cause. “We stand in solidarity with Palestine, but it’s not any different than our connection with the Somali community. It’s not any different than our connection with the Colombian community.”
The vast majority of the platform addresses issues unrelated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its six sections deal with physical, social, economic and political discrimination against black people. Among its list of demands is an end to capital punishment, free universal education and a universal basic income for black Americans, the demilitarization of police, a broad reform of the prison system and reparations for black Americans.
In addition to demanding an end to foreign aid for Israel and Egypt, the platform calls for divesting from the fossil fuel industry and reducing the US defense budget.
The platform accuses the US of subjecting black Americans to “food apartheid” and “educational apartheid.” In both cases, it claims the government has deprived black communities of access to the same resources enjoyed by white Americans.
Ndugga-Kabuye told JTA that his goal was “thinking about all the different ways American military policy impacts different black communities across the world and how that’s tied into what’s going on here domestically.”
“The main effort of a number of the sections in the platform is to connect the domestic Movement for Black Lives to the international movement for black lives in a number of different countries,” he said.
Gilmer, the co-author of the Invest/Divest section, told Haaretz her father is African-American and her mother is Jewish. She is a former board member of Young Judaea, a Zionist youth group, although she no longer identifies as Jewish, according to Haaretz, and has become an anti-Israel activist. Now she is the chief of strategy for Dream Defenders, a black community organizing group based in Florida.
(Gilmer did not respond to email and Facebook messages from JTA seeking comment.)
Dream Defenders released a statement doubling down on the genocide language. The statement accused pro-Israel critics of being “wolves in sheep’s clothing” for supporting the Black Lives Matter movement only as long as it supports Israel. It asserted that Israel committed genocide during its 1948 War of Independence, as some 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from Israel or fled and were prevented from returning.
Fighting Israeli “apartheid,” the statement said, is inseparable from fighting racism in America. It called on its allies to join the BDS campaign.
“As Black people fighting for our freedom, we are not thugs and our Palestinian brothers and sisters are not terrorists,” the statement said. “For the children who are met with tear gas and rubber bullets as they walk home from school, for the families of those we have lost to police violence, for the communities devastated by economic violence and apartheid walls, we fight.”
On Friday, Jewish Voice for Peace released a statement from a group called the Jews of Color Caucus backing the platform’s section on Israel.
“We call on the US Jewish community to end its legitimization of anti-Black racism through its combined attacks on the Black Lives Matter Platform and US Palestine solidarity,” the statement said. “We call on the US Jewish groups that have engaged in this anti-Black violence to retract their racist and harmful statements.”
Mainstream Jewish groups rejected the notion that because they object to the use of the term “genocide” and the emphasis on Israel, they are opposed to the economic and social justice goals of the Black Lives Matter movement. The groups noted how difficult, if not impossible, it is for them to work with members of Black Lives Matter on common causes when the Israel language signals they are not welcome.
“JCRC cannot and will not align ourselves with organizations that falsely and maliciously assert that Israel is committing ‘genocide,’” wrote Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council in a statement on the platform. That being said, the statement continued, “As we dissociate ourselves from the Black Lives Matter platform and those BLM organizations that embrace it, we recommit ourselves unequivocally to the pursuit of justice for all Americans, and to working together with our friends and neighbors in the African-American community, whose experience of the criminal justice system is, far too often, determined by race.”
Ndugga-Kabuye said he understood that the genocide term could prevent some Jews from joining the Black Lives Matter movement, but said it was “something we have to consider, but it’s also something we have to accept.” He said negative Jewish reactions to the platform recalled the later years of the 1960s civil rights movement, when white and black allies split over tactics and ideology.
He rejected the idea that accusing Israel of genocide makes the movement anti-Semitic, saying the accusation is not connected to Israel’s Jewish character.
“Are you saying I’m committing genocide because of who I am, my identity?” Ndugga-Kabuye said, hypothetically placing himself in Israel’s role. “That would obviously be racist. But if you’re talking about a series of policies that are in place between one group over another, folks may argue we’re wrong, but the question of whether we’re anti-Semitic is another question altogether.”