by Anna Isaacs
First, came the backlash. Then, the backlash to the backlash. Following the Movement for Black Lives’ platform release earlier this month—a comprehensive list of policy demands ranging from education to criminal justice to economic reform—the outrage machine churned out two clear American Jewish sides: Those who condemned the platform’s embrace of divestment from Israel and its use of the words “apartheid” and “genocide” to refer to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and those who condemned the condemners.
But amid the press releases and picket signs, there was this: a dozen twenty-something Jews, gathered around a dairy Shabbat potluck in the basement of a Washington, D.C. apartment building this past Saturday, caught in the crossfire of recriminations, unsure.
This was a safe space, they were told—for uncertainty, for awkwardness, for cognitive dissonance. They were D.C. Jews for Black Lives—the name of their nascent group—but everything else was up for discussion.
“It came out of feeling like people weren’t in a space of being ready to talk about these things, or really [had] an appropriate place to do it,” says Yael Nagar, 24, a D.C.-area native who works for the United States African Development Foundation.
The group was first formed in July in the wake of the police killings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota. It was less an organized group than a small network of friends and acquaintances—mostly young Jewish professionals living and working in D.C.—led by Nagar and three friends. They made a few phone calls, created a Facebook event, expected maybe 30 people at the most to show up to their first discussion, “Jews Say ‘Black Lives Matter.’”
In the early evening of Sunday, July 24, they wound up filling the basement of All Souls Church at the corner of Harvard and 16th Streets NW with about a hundred people, all like-minded Jews grateful to engage in a conversation they couldn’t necessarily have elsewhere—one that squared their Jewish identity with their support for racial justice activism. “Then we realized that the need for this is overwhelming,” Nagar says.
Of course, there are existing Jewish groups that vocally and enthusiastically engage in racial and social justice work, such as the 25-year-old New York-based Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. Other progressive Jewish groups have lent their names and resources, and many of the more established national Jewish organizations—such as the Anti-Defamation League—proudly tout their historical ties to the civil rights movement.
But American Jews across the political spectrum are quick to point out the wide gap in membership and means between groups such as If Not Now—a two-year-old anti-occupation group that voiced its support for the MBL platform—and the mainstream major players, the latter of which have largely repudiated the platform’s inclusion of Israel and Palestinians, and even vowed to disengage from the movement.
“They have hurt their ability to secure allies in the mainstream Jewish community,” says Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, of Black Lives Matter activists. “They may get some help in the fringes. But the mainstream Jewish organizations are not going to be forthcoming.” Those groups, he says, have the activists, the infrastructure, the funding, the networks and the ability to rally the American Jewish community; the more left-leaning groups do not. In the lead-up to the Iran Deal, for example, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Republican Jewish Coalition spent tens of millions of dollars to fight it; by contrast, T’ruah has an estimated annual operating budget of around $1 million.
There’s also an urgency gap: Black Lives Matter is “not the force in the Washington area that they are in New York,” Halber says. “There’s not this galvanizing clarion call for the Jewish community to become active [in Black Lives Matter] here.”
Hence, the D.C. basement gatherings—and the sensitivity surrounding them: Most participants asked to be kept anonymous, and for their direct quotes to be off the record.
Dana Fleitman, 28, who works in the domestic violence field for Jewish Women International, found the first D.C. Jews for Black Lives event through her Facebook news feed, which informed her that an acquaintance was attending. She knew immediately that she belonged there, she says. “It felt good to be in a room full of Jewish people who care abut the issue and want to engage in it meaningfully,” she says. Those Jews certainly exist, she says, “But I hadn’t seen them all come together.”
Like many in the room for the group’s second event, which was held to discuss the MBL platform, Fleitman, who grew up in a Conservative synagogue, felt a little torn. The first she’d heard of the platform was in the form of backlash to its support for divestment. “My gut reaction was definitely like, ‘Why? Why is that included?’” she says.
It’s a gray area Nagar inhabits, too, even in the same sentence. Immediately after she expressed disappointment with the platform, she quickly added, “Which is totally not fair. They can say whatever they want.” Nagar grew up Orthodox, and her father’s family moved from Yemen to Israel, which “was a haven for them,” she says.
“It puts me in a weird place of—that feels wrong to me,” she says, “but I still want to support this.”
These vacillating, sometimes contradictory thoughts played out across two hours of discussion—after an opening kiddush—about the irony of accusing Israel of what it was created to defend against, about Jewish trauma and triggers, about how to articulate Palestinian oppression, about gradations of white privilege, about how showing up to a Black Lives Matter protest in a kippah would go over with the crowd, about how to be a good ally, or an ally at all. “It’s legitimate to have mixed feelings,” Nagar says afterward—sort of the theme of the afternoon.
For Jews of color, the tension is even more pronounced. But for MaNishtana, 34, a New York-based writer and speaker and a black Orthodox Jew, it’s nothing new. He was baffled by the inclusion of Israel in the MBL platform. But he has other things to contend with—the history of Jewish slave traders, midrashim with a racist bent, his attendance at synagogues where he has had to insist that he does, in fact, belong there. “I still show up,” he says. So with the release of the platform, he says, “I don’t particularly feel any more torn than on any other day that begins with a ‘y.’”
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah, says that for progressive Jews who feel a little lost, it’s a matter of finding the right community. “We need to strengthen these groups,” she says. “The way to do that is by showing up and by funding them.”
Halber says the onus is on Black Lives Matter activists to make Jews feel welcome. “They’ve put up a prohibitive barrier,” he says. “The ball’s in their court.” But Jacobs says the responsibility is shared. While those who wrote the platform should be in touch with those who are affected by the writing, “That doesn’t mean that we should sit around waiting,” she says.
“When [we] have strong partnerships, then we have a chance to ensure that words like ‘genocide’ don’t get used against us,” she says. “The most important thing is just to continue doing our work—not to spend more time debating the words.”
Some people are asking, “Why didn’t they talk to more Jews?” Fleitman says. “But like, that’s not their job. That’s our job. We can be disappointed or confused or not pleased or even angry, but for me, that’s not enough of a reason to disengage. It’s a reason to engage more.”