Last week the Standard printed an op ed, “Can Jews support Black Lives Matter?” by Sarah Wilbur of Teaneck. I sincerely believe that Ms. Wilbur’s expressed support for black Americans (and all Americans of color and victims of police brutality/state violence) and her attempt to reconcile her concerns about anti-Semitism in the Movement for Black Lives is genuine, but I felt like the letter simplified and outright misrepresented many things, so I’d like to respond with my own take to hopefully put her and any other Jews wary of anti-Semitism in the movement at ease about fully embracing solidarity.
Ms. Wilbur’s op ed starts off by claiming that the whole Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) “is rooted in anti-Semitic rhetoric and associations,” citing the 2016 policy platform that condemned U.S. military support for Israel’s actions against Palestinians. This isn’t too surprising, as it was widely reported and decried as being an anti-Semitic “singling out” of the Jewish state by M4BL, but I went and looked at the actual platform online—the mention of Israel is literally just one part in a six-page-long chapter (of an even longer platform overall) detailing stances on reinvesting U.S. military spending to better serve American communities of color. In context, the sentences about Israel are just one part of a comprehensive section criticizing U.S. policy in the war on terror in the Middle East overall. The section also calls out Egypt as Israel’s main military partner. This makes complete sense because, as it says, Israel and Egypt are the biggest recipients of US military aid. The rest of the document also condemns U.S. military interference in the homelands of black and brown peoples across Africa and Latin America; there are entire paragraphs detailing oppression in the Congo, Honduras, and Haiti as well, and it mentions a dozen other countries like Libya, Somalia, and Colombia.
The Israeli human rights abuses that the paper highlights are very sadly very real, as real as those of all the other countries listed. You can debate analysis and whether they are somehow justified or not, as you can debate whether they officially quality as “apartheid,” “genocide,” and/or “ethnic cleansing,” but they’re happening, and I think that looking at this in the whole context of M4BL’s platform just doesn’t prove the case that M4BL is anti-Semitic. It doesn’t unfairly single out Israel, and it definitely isn’t “blood libel” as Ms. Wilbur claims. The blood libel was the particular horror of European Christians accusing us of killing children to use their blood, especially in making matzah. Those accusations set off pogroms many times. I would say it is completely disrespectful to the victims of such violence to label M4BL’s paragraph criticizing a government’s actions as blood libel. The hundreds of Israelis who have had their own Black Lives Matter-inspired rallies to support the discriminated Ethiopian community there don’t seem to see it that way.
So it’s clear, then, that the core leadership and demands of the movement are not anti-Semitic—but Ms. Wilbur’s op ed does also mention some awful actual incidents of anti-Semitism in the United States over the past year, like synagogues being spray-painted with swastikas as well as some “Free Palestine” slogans. These cases shouldn’t be called anything besides anti-Semitic, for they are clearly targeting Jewish communities. But again, I fail to see how M4BL is somehow responsible for this. And in the wake of more severe cases, like the attacks earlier this year in Jersey City and Monsey by extremist black men aligned with fringe Black Israelite sects, the nearby leaders of Brooklyn BLM fully condemned anti-Semitism. Ms. Wilbur mentions some Jewish businesses vandalized during the more violent riots over the past month too, but literally all places in those areas have been vandalized, including churches. It wasn’t aimed at Jewish ones specifically;. This hasn’t been another Kristallnacht.
The op ed then tries to show how it was somehow predictable for M4BL to advance anti-Semitism, being a social justice organization advocating intersectionality and “identity politics” (the latter a talking point often used by white right-wing critics of racial justice efforts). Of course a strong, passionate racial-justice movement will come across as being based in identity politics—these are people fighting against prejudice based on their racial identity! Also, if you take a moment to look into what intersectionality and identity politics mean, they actually are conflicting approaches—identity politics is limited, and usually means groups only focusing on just a single identity as being the main political focus, while intersectionality literally means many different issues and identities intersecting together in their importance, rather than just one identity being more important than others. As we’ve seen a bit with M4BL’s platform, they are much more focused on intersectionality than just mere identity politics.
Anyway, the op ed claims that organizations built on intersectionality “tend to cast Jews as white oppressors,” dismissing our history of being the oppressed, and saying that many of us have white privilege. But the reality is that most (non-Orthodox) Ashkenazi Jews in the United States today do benefit from white privilege, as from the outside there is nothing starkly different about us compared to other white people, though once they see our last names that can change. It is hard for some of us to comprehend how racial categorization is fluid, since it’s an inherently murky construct. Over 100 years ago, the Catholic Irish and Italian immigrants weren’t seen as truly white, and they were looked down on as practically a lower race. But would we say that Irish- and Italian-Americans today don’t benefit from white privilege? There are still evangelical preachers who say that Catholics are the quasi-pagan minions of the Anti-Christ Pope, disloyal to America (which is of course not to say that they are facing just as much as we are today, as I’ve already mentioned). But the vast majority of Jews in the United States now still benefit from white privilege. Most of us do not face the same discrimination in housing, education, and employment that we would have faced even just 40 years ago, and we definitely do not face as much brutality from the police as people of color do.
Acknowledging this does not mean that we no longer face any prejudice, hate, and danger — “the shootings, stabbings, and violent assaults Jews have experienced in recent years,” as Ms. Wilbur so rightfully puts it. The idea is that people can face discrimination in one capacity while still having privilege in another—that we can face anti-Semitic hate while still benefitting often from white privilege, just as the working-class white woman can face economic hardship and sexism while still benefitting from that white privilege, not facing the unique obstacles that all people of color face in some way.
This is the true essence of intersectionality that Ms. Wilbur and many other people seem to simplify. We all have different arrays of ethnic, racial, gender, class, religious, and sexual identities, it isn’t either/or, and from what I’ve seen most intersectional organizations working to improve our world do recognize this. Ms. Wilbur tries to say that the Women’s March is one of those intersectional groups tainted with anti-Semitism, since organizer Tamika Mallory defended the virulently anti-Semitic Louis Farrakhan—but then she says that the organization ousted Mallory and two other leaders close to her, and added a new board including three Jewish women. She goes on to say that a clip of a recent speech by Mallory at a BLM rally received many shares online, implying that everyone sharing it is okay with her anti-Semitism, as if every random BLM supporter sharing that video of her knows that she’s friends with Farrakhan.
That’s pretty much the last of the straws that the op ed clutches at in trying to tie anti-Semitism to M4BL; some vague charge of rooted anti-Semitic intersectionality in an entirely separate organization. Ms. Wilbur then writes, “But this really isn’t about the Jews… There are many who would argue that a concern over anti-Semitism should take a backseat to seemingly the most pressing issue of our time.” And that right there further shows how it misses the mark; anti-Semitism doesn’t have to “take a backseat,” because the Movement for Black Lives in fact is not anti-Semitic. I may sound frustrated picking through Sarah Wilbur’s examples of anti-Semitism being tied to M4BL (I am), but I do get where it’s coming from. Given the oppression most of us have faced and still face throughout history, it’s scary to hear about another synagogue looted—until you see that everything else in that neighborhood was too. It may be scary to hear Israel called out, if you identify strongly with Zionism—until you see that the platform calls out the U.S. military and a dozen other countries as well.
Anti-Semitism is a stubborn evil, and still very much alive, despite how well most of us are doing in America, and our fear of it is very much real. But we can’t let that fear cloud our vision on a vital movement for justice and dignity that needs our solidarity right now.
Ben Berman lives in Mahwah. He is a graduate of Clark University, where he studied history and international relations.