WASHINGTON — More than 150 groups dedicated to advancing racial justice in the US will host a first-of-a-kind national conference in August, bringing together thousands of activists to produce a “new agenda” that builds off the worldwide protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd.
Many American Jewish leaders have said they are eager to participate, but some are also wondering: Will the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be on the docket?
Their concern is founded upon a 2016 policy platform released by the coalition orchestrating the event — the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). The collective, which was formed in 2014 as an umbrella group for anti-racism advocacy organizations, produced a manifesto that was intensely critical of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and of the US-Israel relationship.
The M4BL document presented 40 policy proposals that largely focused on domestic issues like abolishing the death penalty, providing free tuition to public universities, and enacting reparations to Black Americans. But a section titled “Invest-Divest” addressed US foreign policy and called Israel an “apartheid state,” alleging the country systematically carried out a “genocide” against the Palestinians.
The platform supported the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) campaign against Israel and urged America to end its close ties with Israel, arguing it makes “US citizens complicit in the abuses committed by the Israeli government.”
August’s Black National Convention’s organizers have said the 2020 agenda will not be a “duplication” of the 2016 platform, but US Jewish activists anticipate the plank may revisit issues raised in the “Invest-Divest” section.
Amanda Berman, founder and executive director of the pro-Israel advocacy group Zioness, said she worries that Movement for Black Lives will insert language into the 2020 agenda that, she argued, could leave some Jewish Americans feeling unwelcome. Zioness describes itself as a coalition of progressive, pro-Israel, social justice activists.
“This is a moment when we can’t stay home, we can’t miss this opportunity to show up and be allies, but there is this fear that the only Jewish state in the world is going to be targeted and singled out,” Berman told The Times of Israel.
“That’s a real distraction from the work that we all have to be doing as Americans,” Berman added. “If we are talking about Israel and Palestine, we are not talking about the issues that are within our control and the things that we can do for racial equality in this country.”
‘Different freedom struggles are connected’
Not everyone on the Jewish left agrees with Berman. The anti-occupation organization IfNotNow welcomed the notion of linking the plight of Black Americans to the plight of Palestinians.
“We’ve seen these last few weeks that the Movement for Black Lives is a global movement, which understands that different freedom struggles are connected,” said the group’s political director Emily Mayer.
“The leaders of the Movement for Black Lives, our generation of American Jews, and so many others understand that there is a clear connection between the billions of taxpayer dollars used to fund militarized police in our cities and the billions of taxpayer dollars used to enforce a military occupation in Israel,” said Mayer.
She would not say whether IfNotNow agreed or disagreed with the specific charges made against Israel in the 2016 platform, but added: “The time has come for our political leaders to defund the police, defund the occupation — and invest in programs that will actually help our communities, like healthcare, homes, and jobs.”
BLM and the M4BL: Not the same thing
While some of the groups taking part in the upcoming confab advocate ideas that mainstream Jewish organizations call anti-Israel, veteran Jewish activist Carly Pildis emphasized that those groups don’t represent the broader Black Lives Matter movement.
“I think it’s important to make the distinction between Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives, one of which is an organization and the other is a coalition of organizations,” she told The Times of Israel. “They are not the same thing.”
In fact, the Black Lives Matter movement has already unveiled its 2020 campaign and policy goals — which doesn’t mention Israel or any other international issues. Rather, it focuses exclusively on domestic matters like criminal justice reform, voting rights and healthcare.
The Black Lives Matter movement was formed in 2014 after the police murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. It has gained major traction in the United States over the last six weeks, after several incidents of white police officers killing unarmed Black men and women, including Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor.
The August convention will come at a pivotal time for the movement, amid a surge in public support, an influx in donations and legislation on Capitol Hill to reform American policing.
Pildis, who is currently the director of grassroots organization for the Jewish Democratic Council of America, noted that Black Lives Matter is a highly diffuse and decentralized movement — and that no single group, or collection of groups, speaks for everyone affiliated with it.
For instance, while the Movement for Black Lives may hold deeply hostile views toward Israel, Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser is associated with Black Lives Matter and is notedly pro-Israel.
Bowser addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s policy conference in Washington every year and recently went on an Israel trip with the Jewish Community Relations Council. Last month, Bowser made international headlines by naming the strip of 16th Street leading up the White House Black Lives Matter Plaza.
That’s why, Pildis argued, Jewish Americans who disagree with the 2016 platform’s stance on Israel — and potentially the 2020 one — shouldn’t feel alienated by the movement, especially given the US Jewish community’s history of advocating for racial equality, most famously during the civil rights era.
“In the 1960s, it would be incredibly foolish and shortsighted not to march with John Lewis in Selma because you didn’t agree with a portion of the Black Panther party,” said Pildis. “While all these groups may be part of the same racial justice movement, they’re not all one organization — and they’re not all bought in on the exact policies.”
Rabbi Jonah Pesner agrees. The director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the Reform Jewish movement’s political arm, he said that differences over the conflict with certain groups affiliated with Black Lives Matter would not affect his organization’s allegiance with the movement overall.
“Our disagreement with the positions of specific organizations, such as the Movement for Black Lives platform in 2016, in no way diminishes our full commitment to the fundamental principle that Black Lives Matter and to doing the work to end systemic racism and white supremacy,” Pesner told The Times of Israel.
“When collective support for Black lives is in all of our best interest, we will not ask anyone to splinter themselves or take unnecessary sides. We support Israel and Black Lives Matter,” Pesner added.
If you want to lose the next generation of young American Jews on Israel, make them pick between racial justice and Zionism
That seems to be the consensus among most of organized Jewry.
Last month, a number of Jewish organizations called for the far-right Zionist Organization of America to be expelled from a Jewish umbrella group after its president Mort Klein posted tweets vilifying Black Lives Matter as “Jew hating.”
“If you want to lose the next generation of young American Jews on Israel, make them pick between racial justice and Zionism,” Pildis said. “This is a stark moment in America right now. There’s an actual shot at changing the systemic racism that has infected the country for so long. Of course, people want to be a part of that.”
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