Which Side are You On? A Moment of Reckoning for American Jews
Guest author: Rabbi Brant Rosen, of Tzedek Chicago and co-founder of JVP Rabbinic Council
As is the case for many I’m sure, the refrain, “which side are you on?” has been echoing through my heart and soul this past week as the American legacy of structural racism and state violence has been so brutally laid bare in our country. In fact, I can’t recall a time in my own lifetime in which this question has ever been more critically relevant.
As I write these words, hundreds of cities around the US are being rocked by street protests in response to the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police. Police departments are responding to protesters in turn by deploying tear gas and rubber bullets. In Louisville, police shot live ammunition into a crowd and killed a local businessman. In New York, a police van was driven straight into a crowd of protesters. Philadelphia police fired tear gas directly into a crowd of protesters trapped with nowhere to run. And on Monday, after Trump vowed to deploy “thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers,” federal police were directed to use tear gas and flash grenades to disperse peaceful protesters so that he could visit a nearby church for a photo op.
Yes, if ever there was a “which side are you on?” moment, this is it. Thus, when I saw a recent article in the Jewish Forward written by three liberal Jewish leaders bearing the headline, “Every Jew must decide which side they’re on,” I read it with great interest. In the end, however, I was profoundly let down by their message, which I found to be disappointingly equivocal — and at times even harmful.
Authors Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, Matt Nosanchuk, and Rabbi Rachel Timoner begin their article on a promising note, noting that “the promise of ‘equal justice under the law’ remains out of reach in a system infected with structural racism.” They go on to say that this work “begins at home,” adding that for the Jewish community, this work “has only just begun.”
Sadly, however, they betray their own internal call to action with their statement, “we must show our black and brown siblings that we see the racism coursing through our society,” a statement grounded in the assumption that white = Jewish, summarily ignoring the significant percentage of Jews of color in the American Jewish community.
The authors’ error is particularly egregious as it comes in the wake of an infamous article recently published by the two editors of the American Jewish Yearbook that made deeply problematic claims about the number of Jews of color in the US. With their painfully ill-considered comment, Kleinbaum, Nosanchuk and Timoner reinforce long-held assumptions of whiteness in regard to the American Jewish community. They do indeed prove their point that “our work has only begun” when it comes to anti-racist work in the Jewish community — though clearly not in the way they originally intended.
Later in their article, the authors further betray their own call with this statement:
If we want to stand on the side of civil rights, we must respond to attacks on. people of color as we would a white student facing anti-semitism on campus, or a Hasidic man beaten on the streets of Brooklyn: We must see their pain and commit to disrupting the forces that cause it.
Though it’s not completely clear, I can only surmise they are referring here to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns led by Palestine solidarity activists on college campuses. If this is indeed the case, their casual conflation of racist state violence with tensions over campus activism is a muddled and harmful equation.
The canard of antisemitism has long been cynically wielded toward pro-Palestinian student activism by Israel advocacy organizations. To assert that BDS is inherently antisemitic is problematic for a host of reasons — but it is perhaps even more harmful to casually conflate so-called “campus antisemitism” with the structural racism faced by people of color in the US. Such a claim ignores the legacy of white supremacy that has long been woven into the very fabric of our country. And if there is anything we’ve learned from the current political moment, it is that we ignore the dangers of white supremacy at our peril.
The authors also engage in false equivalence when they invoke the recent violence against Hasidic Jews in New York. While these attacks, perpetrated largely by African Americans, most certainly deserve our condemnation, it is not at all helpful to compare them to the racist violence perpetrated against people of color by state institutions. While insidious, this violence perpetrated against Jews is not part of an organized ideology or single movement. And, unlike structural racism against people of color, it certainly does not have the power of state institutions behind it.
Moreover, as in the case of the backlash to BDS, these events are being politically weaponized by many in the Jewish community as an example of “antisemitism on the left.” This is, to be sure, a fraught and dangerous claim. As journalist Rebecca Pierce has observed, “(using) Black antisemitism as a cudgel against the left further divides the Jewish and Black communities at the expense of actually understanding and fighting antisemitism.” We must remember that the anti-Jewish conspiracy theories embraced by some African Americans are ultimately part of the same white supremacist power structure that has long oppressed their communities. In the face of this common enemy, we would do well to cultivate solidarity rather than sow further division with facile comparisons such as these.
Finally, Kleinbaum, Nosanchuk and Timoner state, “we must be prepared to take responsibility not only for our transgressions, but also for our silence.” This is an interesting choice of words, considering that they remain completely silent on the issue of Israel’s racist state violence against the Palestinian people. While the authors frame their call to action in terms of Jewish collective responsibility, it is remarkable that they have absolutely nothing to say about Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights, inarguably the most important moral challenge facing the contemporary Jewish community today.
No doubt there are many in the Jewish community who will reject such a comparison, claiming that one has nothing to do with the other. But in fact, they have everything to do with each other.
We simply cannot call out structural violence against communities of color in the US while failing to note its intrinsic relationship to Israel’s structural violence against Palestinians.
It’s been fascinating to witness so many Jewish communal institutions — who routinely defend or rationalize away Israel’s human rights abuses of Palestinians — now passionately taking a stand against systemic racism. But in truth, it is not a tremendously heavy lift for a Jewish institution to condemn the sickening events of the past few days. Even the Anti-Defamation League — the epitome of a Jewish establishment organization — took it upon itself to issue a statement in “solidarity” with the Black community.
But of course, this is the same ADL that coordinates exchange programs that bring police departments from around the US to Israel to coordinate with the Israeli military the very tactics they use to oppress communities of color — and currently, against unarmed protestors across this country. If the ADL was truly serious about systemic change of a racist and unjust system, it certainly wouldn’t actively empower the militarization of police, harming the community with whom it hypocritically purports to stand in solidarity.
In the end, if “every Jew needs to decide which side we are on,” then we cannot simply issue no-brainer statements that condemn the most open and obvious examples of state violence in our midst. Kleinbaum, Nosanchuk and Timoner are absolutely right: “it starts at home.” But the white Jewish community cannot claim to take a stand against racist structural violence at home while remaining silent on Israel’s racist structural violence against Palestinians. As long as support for the Jewish state remains at the core of the official Jewish communal agenda, we must see fit to name this connection at every turn.
As the authors themselves so eloquently put it, “we must be prepared to take responsibility not only for our transgressions, but also for our silence.”
Rabbi Brant Rosen is spiritual leader of Congregation Tzedek Chicago, and a founding member of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinic Council. He is the author of Wrestling in the Daylight: A Rabbi’s Path to Palestinian Solidarity.