Once a small grassroots movement, the global support for Black Lives Matter has skyrocketed in the wake of the heinous murder of George Floyd by former police officer Derek Chauvin.
According to data produced by Civiqs, an online research firm, support for BLM has increased between the middle of May through early June as much as it has over the last two years combined. Originally founded in 2012 following the aftermath of the shooting of Travon Martin and subsequent acquittal of the shooter George Zimmerman, the group’s platform has become synonymous with protesting police brutality targeting the black community. It now seems that support for BLM is a prerequisite for showing your solidarity with the civil rights cause of our time.
Unfortunately for the Jewish community, one of the most talked-about movements in America right now is rooted in anti-Semitic rhetoric and associations. Early slogans adopted by the groups’ followers included anti-Israel sentiments, such as “From Ferguson to Palestine, Occupation is a Crime,” a phrase chanted at BLM protests following the killing of Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson. The group itself has adopted official anti-Israel stances as part of a larger coalition, the Movement for Black Lives, characterizing Israel as an apartheid state that commits “genocide” against the Palestinian people, the “blood libel” accusation of our time.
BLM’s embrace of anti-Semitism is further compounded by the active attempts of anti-Israel organizations to co-opt the movement for their own agendas. Despite the historical alignment of Zionist voices with the civil rights movement in our country, in recent years anti-Israel groups have worked to malign Israel, drawing false equivalencies between the relationship of police officers with the black community to those of the Israeli Army with Palestinians. This point recently has been encapsulated by a cartoon circulating on social media, depicting a police officer pinning down an African-American man while embracing an Israeli soldier doing the same to a Palestinian, captioned with the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” This content surfaced in the context of synagogues being vandalized with slogans like “free Palestine.” In Los Angeles, there was looting in Fairfax, an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. Many Jewish institutions, including synagogues and businesses with identifiably Jewish names and appearances (Syd’s Pharmacy, Mensch Bakery, a Jewish clothing store named Go Couture) were looted. A few blocks away, Congregation Beth El was vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti and another shul was spray painted.
While advancing anti-Semitism is not an explicitly stated goal of the Black Lives Matter movement, it has been a fairly predictable result. The organization certainly is not an isolated example of a social justice cause also serving as a venue for anti-Semitic incitement. Groups built on the doctrine of identity politics and intersectionality tend to cast Jews as white oppressors and are dismissive of their extensive history as victimized minorities. The “Jews have white privilege” narrative is indifferent to the six million who were murdered in the Holocaust and the plethora of synagogue shootings, stabbings, and violent assaults Jews have experienced in recent years through today. As many recall, the Women’s March, an organization also founded on an intersectional premise, ousted several organizational leaders for expressing egregious anti-Semitic sentiments. Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, the Black Lives Matter movement provided one of the disgraced former leaders, Tamika Mallory, with a platform to speak at a recent BLM protest In New York. The speech given by Mallory, who is an avid supporter of Louis Farrakhan, a man who once asserted that “I’m not an anti-Semite, I’m anti-termite” was well received. Its circulation on social media by millions would suggest that BLM followers do not find Mallory’s hateful beliefs to be at all disconcerting.
But this really isn’t about the Jews. The purpose served by the Black Lives Matter movement is in its name. There are many who would argue that concern over anti-Semitism should take a backseat to what seemingly has become the most pressing issue of our time. Hundreds of thousands of protesters filling the streets show a community that is begging the world for its acknowledgment and help. Is it even justified for us to care that the BLM movement has anti-Semitic ties when the overarching message of the organization, to simply support black lives, is one with which we all wholeheartedly agree?
Navigating support for the Black Lives Matter movement has presented the Jewish community with complicated choices. At a series of recent marches in the New York City area, there was a compelling contrast among Jews who proudly carried BLM signs, Jews who deliberately chose to carry signs bearing other slogans or participate in unaffiliated marches, and those who opted not to show their support at all.
Showing solidarity with the black community should not force us to have to overlook anti-Semitism, but it seems that it does. The creative approaches we use to proceed will have to balance our desire to support a community while also not silencing opposition to those who seek to destroy ours.
Sarah Wilbur lives in Teaneck. She has a masters degree in public administration with a concentration in policy analysis and evaluation from the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs at Baruch College. She has a background in public policy in New York City government and works in communications.