Failing to Protest

With the heightening of our national consciousness and conversation about racial disparities in the criminal justice system, many of us in the Jewish community feel moved to take action. Yet there is an acknowledged reluctance on the part of many of our communal institutions to express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM). I’ve been wondering about this and have been consulting with community members to understand this ambivalence about participating in a movement that would seem so natural for us, given our history as a Jewish community.

The first obstacle I hear is a structural one. We have difficulty partnering with non-hierarchical movements, often feeling more comfortable working with institutions with identified leaders who ‘speak for’ the cause. And, in a movement with thousands of voices and no one shared strategy, there have been a few voices moving beyond a demand for action on racial injustice and toward a wholesale condemnation of all men and women in law enforcement - a notion we see as untrue, unhelpful, and likely to yield further divisiveness and rancor. It is also problematic, to say the least, that at least some in the BLM community moved quickly to co-opt their own movement in service to a biased and unjust agenda demonizing Israel - one that we cannot abide or ignore.

But in focusing on a selective few – if at times legitimate - concerns to define BLM, we hold them to a different standard than we do our other allies.

It bears reiterating that in our communal advocacy work we have always allied ourselves with those with whom we disagree on some issues, in service to a shared agenda on others; for example, with Evangelical Christians in order to build support for Israel while differing on social issues at home. And, we ought not condemn a movement of millions for the unacceptable and racist acts of violence by a few, in the same way we ought not condemn all law enforcement officers - who sacrifice so much including, too often, their lives – because of the actions of a few.

It also bears underscoring that acknowledging and addressing the oppression experienced by African-Americans with our criminal justice system is in the interest of all Americans, including our community. As I’ve said before, the American Jewish community is best served – as we’ve been over many decades – when our nation is dedicated to equality for all people. We all benefit from a free society where there is no tolerance for discrimination of any kind and where we remove obstacles standing in the way of equal treatment for every one of us. We believe that a nation that values the dignity of all people is one in which we all thrive, and that a society in which others experience discrimination threatens us as well.

This is also a moment to affirm the fact that our Jewish community is increasingly multi-racial, and our own African-American family members experience this racial disparity directly in their own lives, as my colleague at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Krissy Roth, reminded us so eloquently this week.

Finally, allowing our discomfort with a few voices within the BLM movement to keep us from allying ourselves with this grassroots effort to address the systemic, institutionalized racism that fuels a horrifying nightmare of extrajudicial killings – would result in our stepping away from the mandates of our own tradition.

Rabbi Shai Held, Dean of the Hadar Institute in New York, offers a call to Jewish action this week, driven by moral obligation, in which he notes:

“Jews don't just read the Bible…we also read our traditional commentators. One of the most startling comments in the history of Judaism is that of Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, who observes that in the eyes of God, there is ultimately no distinction between 'those who oppress'  and 'those who witness the oppression and keep silent.' This is haunting, and daunting, but more importantly, it is intensely demanding. In a society where some are oppressed, all are implicated.”

As is so often the case with complex and critical issues, there is more than one truth that can be held concurrently and without contradiction. As President Obama reminded us this week, it is a vital truth that “the overwhelming majority of police officers do an incredibly hard and dangerous job fairly and professionally (and) are deserving of our respect and not our scorn.” It is also uncomfortably, unmistakably and unacceptably true that in 2016 the experiences of too many Americans in their interaction with our criminal justice system are still defined by the color of their skin and not the content of their character.

Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, taught us that “there may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

For our own sake as well as for the sake of our nation we must not fail to protest. We must work together with those who seek to dismantle institutionalized racism in our nation and together bring about a better, more just America. To be silent is to be implicated in the injustice in our midst.