A letter to congregants about BLM and the Jewish community
by Rabbi Toba Spitzer
Friday, August 19, 2016
Two weeks ago, upon my return from a four-day retreat at the Weston Priory in Vermont, I discovered in my accumulated email that in the short time I was away, a storm had engulfed much of the Jewish community. During that week, a coalition of groups affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement released a platform entitled “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, and Justice. <policy.m4bl.org>” It is an extensive, powerful document, and I would highly recommend reading it for all those interested in issues including everything from economic policy to criminal justice reform to voting rights to reparations to U.S. foreign policy.
It was in reaction to a part of this latter section, “Invest-Divest,” that the firestorm in the Jewish community broke out. In addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the U.S. role in that conflict, the document uses very strong language that, to many in the Jewish community (and I will include myself in that group), seemed out of proportion and extreme (including the use of the word “genocide” to refer to Israel’s policy towards the Palestinian people). There were a number of hasty reactions to this portion of the document, including from our Boston Jewish Community Relations Council, which seemed to condemn the entire Black Lives Matter enterprise, because of this one section of the platform.
The reason you have not heard from me sooner on this issue is because after my initial sense of dismay and confusion at reading the “Vision” document, I began seeing a whole variety of responses – all from within the Jewish community. While some individuals and organizations felt the need to question and condemn the language about Israel, even if praising much of the rest of the platform, others within the community – many, but not all, Jews of Color – expressed a deep sense of hurt by what they deemed organizational Jewish abandonment of the cause of racial justice, and/or an unwillingness to face up to the realities of Israeli policies. My head and my heart have been in some amount of turmoil, as I have tried hard to really listen to a wide variety of perspectives and to think about how my own perspective as a white person frames and limits my understanding. I realized I had a lot of listening and thinking to do before I could say anything of any benefit or use.
What I wanted to offer you here is not one more response to all of the issues raised by the “Vision” document and the reactions it provoked – there have been some very good pieces written about that, and I have included links below to a variety of explorations of the complex issues involved, everything from the complicated reality of Black-Jewish relations in the U.S. to anti-Semitism on the Left to racism within the American Jewish community to the legacy and impact of the Israeli occupation. Today I wanted to share with you where I see the opportunities arising out of a painful few weeks.
In observing my own evolution over this time, and in witnessing the heartfelt wrestling of many of my rabbinic colleagues, I am appreciative of the deep questions that have arisen in the wake of the release of the Black Lives Matter platform. Questions about what it means to be a white ally in the struggle for racial justice; questions about how the realities of imbedded, often unconscious racism and anti-Semitism shape our attitudes and our actions; questions about how we as an American Jewish community can do a better job of wrestling with the complex reality of Israel and the ongoing suffering of the Palestinian people; questions about what it means to be a racially diverse American Jewish community; questions about how to address the fears and historical trauma that continue to shape so much of our discourse within the American Jewish community.
Two weeks after opening those first emails that made me aware of this issue, I am actually feeling cautiously hopeful. The level of distress uncovered in these past few weeks signals to me there is, in fact, both a need and a desire within the American Jewish community – in all its fractured complexity, in all its diversity – to wrestle with some very difficult realities that we cannot avoid. There are conversations happening now that were not happening two weeks ago, in all parts of the Jewish communal world. There are voices being heard that were not heard a few weeks ago. There is some heartbreak, but a broken heart is an open heart, and I am hopeful that with open hearts, and a willingness to really listen, we can, as a broader community, reach a new level of understanding, and new kinds of commitments to creating a more just and equitable world.
Here at CDT, I want to express appreciation for our Understanding Race group, which has been doing its own learning about race and racism, and bringing opportunities to the community for discussion and learning. In the coming year, we will be exploring as a community issues around racial diversity within the congregation, and how to become a more diverse community as well as a community where Jews of Color can feel fully seen and respected. Under the auspices of the Tikkun Olam committee, we will continue our work in the realm of criminal justice reform, and explore new ways to ally with local struggles for racial justice. And I hope too that we will build on our trip to Israel and the West Bank this summer, and have opportunities for further learning and discussion in that realm.
One final note – I am heading off for one more retreat, my last get-away of the summer, this Sunday through the following Sunday. While I’m away, I will not be checking email. But I do welcome your responses and thoughts and questions, so please know that if you send something to me and do not hear right back, it is because I am off-line, and I will respond upon my return.
I wanted to give the “last word,” as it were, to a local Black leader whom I deeply respect, and whom we hosted a few years ago during our Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Shabbat celebration – Tina Chery, the founder and director of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute (the organization which we support each year at the Mother’s Day Walk for Peace). She sent this moving testimonial to supporters of the Institute this past week, and I offer it here for those who did not receive it – it’s a 12-minute video, reflections that put Ms. Chery’s work for peace in Boston in the context of the violence of this summer and larger issues of institutional racism (and please see below for links to some of the articles I referenced above). Hers is both a prophetic and a healing voice, even as she puts into words her own heartbreak.
This Shabbat is called “Shabbat Nachamu,” the “Shabbat of Comfort” following Tisha B’av. It signals the turn from destruction toward redemption and renewal. May we seek that comfort, that renewal, in a willingness to really listen to one another; to embrace the difficult questions; to turn towards – not away – from our own agitation; to persevere in our desire for a more just and loving world. I want to wish everyone a Shabbat shalom, a Shabbat of peace and reflection, healing and comfort.
[Links to outside articles for further reading:]
- How Studying the Talmud Helped me Understand Racism in America (The Forward)
- The Jewish Activist Behind the Black Lives Matter Platform (Haaretz)
- A Wounded Friend: A Rabbinic Response (Huff Post)
- Stop Being so Arrogant, White Jews (The Forward)
- Facing Anti-Semitism and Assimilation in the Movement (Yotam Marom)
- Black Lives Matter Should Change “Genocide” Language (+972)
- The Problem Isn’t Black Lives Matter (Tablet)