As Black National Convention opens, Black Jews speak out about Black lives

(Image by Forward Montage)

The Black National Convention on Friday is a watershed event — a multi-hour online broadcast that is a “a series of conversations, performances, and other activations geared toward engaging, informing, and mobilizing Black communities,” according to its website.

The event is a production of the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) Electoral Justice Project. The tagline: “Building Power & Policy in Defense of Black Lives.”

Many confuse M4BL with the Black Lives Matter movement. They are not the same thing, although they both espouse the same rallying cry. The Black Lives Matter movement is more diffuse; M4BL is action-driven. It brings together organizers, activists and leaders of all kinds for a conversation about building a Black community agenda to bring about change.

“Combined with COVID-19 and four years of Trumpism, Black communities are demanding: justice; accountability; a divestment from policing; and an investment in flourishing, sustainable communities,” wrote Jessica Byrd, co-founder of M4BL’s Electoral Justice Project, in a post on the convention’s website. The organization declined to comment further, to make anyone available to speak for this article.

In 2016, M4BL’s Electoral Justice Project created a platform that, among many other items, included a section in solidarity with Palestinians. There was language calling Israel an “apartheid state.”

Those words caused tension with some allies, but four years later, the Black Jews interviewed here said they feel abandoned by white Jews who are uncomfortable with the cause. All Jews must come together for the sake of humanity when it comes to justice for Black Americans.

Here are their voices, as the convention opens:

Graie Hagans, top left image, chapter organizer of the convention and a community organizer and trainer with the Jewish advocacy group Bend the Arc

For me, thinking about the Movement for Black Lives, how can I not be in favor of a movement for freedom? The cornerstone stories we tell about our community is that we came here fleeing persecution, fleeing genocide, fleeing pogroms — and the United States is the safest Jews have been in our history.

Then I hear that the United States is the land of opportunity for Jews and we have been able to secure economic security and economic mobility and have been a part of the economic fabric. When we talk about the civil rights movement, we have been the leaders in the fight for equality. If part of our calling, as I have always been told about Judaism, is to do work of repair, we cannot continue to act as if our safety and security is wrapped up in someone else’s oppression.

Enzi Tanner, 36, bottom left image, social worker in Minneapolis

I don’t know that much about the conference, but I like the concept and I’d like to be able to go, especially now that it is virtual. It is important to have conversations about policing. I hope they are also going to address the prison system and incarceration.

I remember when they had their first conference a couple of years ago. Congregations were not involved at all with Black Lives Matter. When the Movement for Black Lives came out, there was an immediate call by some local Jewish organizations to denounce Black Lives Matter. They were denouncing them, even though they had no relationship with anyone from the Movement for Black Lives.

Sometimes Jews see Blacks as “others.” Even if they are perceived as the other, Jews should care — they should care about everyone in society. The movement for black lives is the very essence of who we are as a society — it says that we are committed to those who are the most vulnerable in our society. None of us can get free until we are all free.

Courtenay Edelhart, 53, center image, school teacher in Simi Valley, Calif.

The demonstrations were a good start, but now we need to translate that energy into some concrete solutions. All of the silos need to come together to plan, coordinate, and implement strategy. If we don’t come out of this with real change, all of that marching was for nothing. I love the idea of the convention.

Professor Lewis Gordon, 58, top right image, head of the philosophy department at the University of Connecticut

I see the need for such a convention even if the George Floyd murder hadn’t occurred. Antiblack racism is a political matter that requires political solutions. Meeting and organizing around what to do is a political response. Conventions get people together to put issues on the table. It is not the solution, but a part of the solution.

Left-wing Ashkenazi Jews have never abandoned black struggles from the 60s throughout. That’s just a fact. The struggle for Black liberation is the struggle for democracy. It is true [M4BL organizers] do support the Palestinians, but Palestinians are human beings. They are people. That doesn’t mean that [M4BL supporters] are anti-Jewish, but they are read in that way.

Blacks are always being prodded to work with whites who hate us. We work with whites because there is a problem greater than their hatred of us. It’s a fight for humanity. The idea that (white) Jews would support Blacks working with white supremacists and they would not work with Palestinians smacks of hypocrisy. There are issues greater than the United States and Israel. There have been (white) Jews who have been committed to those causes, and they understand that the issue is a fight for democracy.

Marc Steiner, 74, bottom right image, radio host, Maryland

We have to really understand the profound importance of how the interlocking worlds of anti-Semitism and racism define this modern world and how we have to fight against it to build a new world. Fighting racism, understanding its depth and how it is crippling all of us is of the utmost importance.

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