#BlackLivesMatter: The Right vs Wrong Side of History
When I was nine years old, my family sat me down to watch the landmark documentary Eyes on the Prize. After I watched the story about Emmett Till’s horrible murder and his murderers’ eventual acquittal, I lay awake in my bed, too terrified to sleep. The idea that a child who looked like me could be brutalized just because he was black was so frightening, in part, because of how immediate it felt. It had happened a whole twenty years before I was born; at the same time, it had only happened twenty years before I was born. The injustice was so stark, so clear, that the rise of what we would come to call the Civil Rights Movement seemed the natural response.
I grew up on stories like these. It was the eighties; our retrospective of the Civil Rights Movement, in all its complexity, was crystallizing into one dominant, mainstream narrative, where the march towards freedom was linear, public opinion was on the right side of history, and Martin Luther King, alone, represented millions of voices. I was born in San Francisco, so I knew that the story had been a little more complicated; I tasted the occasional bean pie from the Black Muslim bakery in Oakland, and I knew my grandfather had been a Black Panther for all of about two days until he chose feeding a family of six over the revolution. These complicated and sometimes uncomfortable voices, just as much part of the Civil Rights movement as SNCC and MLK, weren’t part of the history I learned in school.
The often messy and human struggles between competing ideologies—at least in the textbooks I read—were receding into monochrome photos of Heschel marching in solidarity with Martin Luther King. There was only room for one story: Americans of all stripes, black and white, Jewish and Christian, had come together to overcome prejudice. A hundred years earlier, abolitionists had insisted that black people were deserving of basic human rights; the Civil Rights Movement had taken the next logical step, demanding their rights as full citizens of the United States. Now we were on the other side of the struggles of the fifties and sixties, and, thanks to protest and legislation, those rights were assured. To paraphrase MLK himself, the arc of history was long but it had ultimately bent towards justice.
Now we are midway through the second decade of the 21st century, sitting at the crossroads of this idealized memory of the Civil Rights Movement and the reality of its actual legacy in America. And Black Lives Matter has arisen out of the jarring awareness that full black citizenship has not been achieved and, without fundamental systemic change, may never be.
Earlier this month, the Movement For Black Lives—a group of organizations led by some of the people responsible for first launching the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter—published its first comprehensive platform. The platform calls for black liberation through widespread and systemic changes to American public policy from the local to the international level, including jobs programs, an end to capital punishment, and reparations for slavery. The Movement For Black Lives also calls for U.S. divestment from Israel: “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”.
The word “genocide” has sent reverberations through the Jewish world—as it should. It was no doubt, in part, meant to garner attention—and it did. And it’s entirely reasonable for us to find the use of “genocide” in such a context polarizing and upsetting. Any number of reactions are reasonable: to take strong exception, to criticize the Movement For Black Lives, or to discuss greater problems with divestment. What is not reasonable is to conflate #Black Lives Matter and work against racial injustice with the Movement For Black Lives, and to repudiate one while we challenge the other.
Like many Jews, my relationship to Israel is complex and constantly evolving. I don’t agree with every single action every Israeli politician takes—no one could. In the same vein, I don’t have to agree with every element of the Movement For Black Lives’ platform to advocate loudly and wholeheartedly for racial justice, any more than, fifty years ago, I would have had to agree with Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, and Elijah Muhammad to support full citizenship for black Americans. Discussion and dissent have always been an essential part of social change.
In the last few weeks, many op-eds in Jewish publications have insisted that to publicly support Black Lives Matter is to co-sign the Movement For Black Lives’ entire platform. This reductionist way of thinking presupposes that the Movement For Black Lives represents the opinions of everyone associated with Black Lives Matter, as if Black Lives Matter were a single organization headed by a single person, not a decentralized global activist movement made up of many voices struggling to be heard— just like the Civil Rights Movement.
This way of thinking also assumes that engaging or not engaging with the preeminent crisis in black America is a real choice for Jews, because it assumes that all Jews are white.
When I heard that the Movement For Black Lives painted Israel’s policies as “genocide” and called for divestment, I didn’t wonder whether to disavow Black Lives Matter. I am Jewish and I am also black, so, for me, first and foremost, beyond activism, beyond hashtags, Black Lives Matter is a phrase that speaks to my very existence..
Numbers don’t lie: black lives are not treated equally before the law. When I’m driving down the highway at night and my back headlight winks out, I can’t escape that reality. If we, as a community, say nothing while black men and women are killed by police without repercussion, our silence proves that their lives don’t matter. Our moral duty is to end that silence and make room for a multiplicity of black voices and perspectives.
We don’t need to wait for the textbooks, because our contemporary civil rights movement is happening all around us. This time, however, the historic model of white Jews marching (or not marching) with black activists simply doesn’t apply; these days, many of the Jews marching with black activists are black, too. In other words, Black Lives Matter is a Jewish issue, and there are as many black-and-Jewish responses to it as there are black Jews. When we, as a community, talk about Black Lives Matter, the many voices of Jews who grapple with racism and inequality everyday—voices that disagree, contradict, and even offend—must be heard. We can’t afford to isolate those inside our own community because we don’t agree with a single perspective outside it. It’s a terrible mistake—and an easy way to land on the wrong side of history.