At the beginning of July, the Movement for Black Lives (MBL, commonly known as “Black Lives Matter”) released its platform, setting out its motivations, goals, and strategies to achieve social justice in America. Like any liberation movement, the platform touched on issues beyond domestic political and economic discrimination, referencing America’s foreign policy and its wars abroad. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Israel is mentioned in the platform as part of the American system of oppression. Specifically, Israel is said to be committing “genocide…against the Palestinian people” and called an “apartheid state.”
American Jewish groups responded quickly. Most of them, and all of the Zionist groups, criticized the platform for those two characterizations. This is appropriate: Though the platform lists only some of Israel’s discriminatory practices, it makes no distinction between policies toward or the status of Palestinian citizens of Israel within the Green Line, and Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and blockaded in Gaza.
In addition, there is no serious measurement by which Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians anywhere. Indeed, one of the platform’s authors, Ben Ndugga-Kabuye, indicated as much when he diluted the term of its intended meaning, asserting that “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,” comparing Israeli policy to police violence.
The most appropriate reaction to the platform has been by liberal, left-wing, or progressive Jewish groups that have noted the important work the platform represents and the need to continue working with the MBL, while criticizing its characterization of Israel as decontextualized and discriminatory on its own. T’ruah, for example, stated that “Jewish, Black, and Israeli are not mutually exclusive terms” and insisted “on standing up for the dignity and safety of both Israelis and Palestinians.”
But the MBL platform has highlighted pre-existing, and expanding, splits within the American Jewish community. This, in turn, has prompted groups to respond very differently, putting some of them even further at opposite ends of the advocacy spectrum.
First, Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council’s rejected the platform and decided to “disassociate” itself from the MBL, refusing to work with any group that approved of it. This is counterproductive. The platform represents a first cut effort to organize the movement, an exciting new effort to achieve social justice and a vehicle for mobilizing not just the youth but progressives and liberals across the country.
Dialogue is an essential part of building coalitions, and coalitions are necessary for making change in a political arena such as America’s. Cutting off discussion with a movement that has galvanized so many on a set of critical issues over a handful of words, however ill-informed they may be, is self-defeating. Any large movement is composed of a variety of individuals and groups with sometimes divergent views; the task is to work through them to achieve consensus on moving forward.
Second, in response to the JCRC’s position, IfNotNow, a grassroots Jewish organization, began a campaign to push the JCRC to retract its statement and join the progressive cause of social justice. In particular, IfNotNow put the JCRC statement in a larger dichotomy: “our vision or theirs.”
But this stance is just as self-defeating as the JCRC’s. IfNotNow has done valuable work within the American Jewish community, mobilizing important segments of the Jewish community and promoting a progressive agenda. But if it attacks other Jewish groups in this way, it risks alienating potential future allies. There is no need to take a diametrically opposed position on issues in order to effect change; indeed, a conversation between Jewish groups on how to move forward is desperately needed. Not every Jewish organization that identifies as part of the establishment is an enemy to progressive groups. Picking unnecessary fights is a waste of energy and resources.
Clearly the use of genocide to describe Israeli policy is concerning to the bulk of the Jewish community, and appropriately so. It’s not hasbarist or reactionary to account for such sensitivities. Just because some groups share opposition to the genocide characterization with right-wing and far right groups does not make the term appropriate for or tar moderate, left-wing, and progressive groups.
If Bernie Sanders has taught progressives anything during his nomination campaign, it’s that there are moments when politics need to be put ahead of principles. Clinging to the latter without attention to the consequences of doing so can lead to bigger dangers and worse outcomes. Sanders eventually came to this conclusion, long after it was clear he could not win the nomination yet could still undermine Democrats’ ability to present a strong front against Republicans. Indeed, he had faced growing criticism for staying in the race; he was increasingly seen as unhelpful and petulant, making it less likely his agenda would gain support outside his progressive followers.
Liberal, progressive, moderate, centrist, and left-wing Jewish groups would do better if they stopped fighting over whose agenda is the better one, and start working more closely together across the ideological and political spectrum.
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