It’s been hard to write a progressive policy platform this summer without sparking a controversy over Palestinian rights. The Democratic platform drafters held high-profile sparring matches over an amendment that would have condemned Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, leading many to protest the party and the platform itself on the convention floor in Philadelphia. More recently was a debate over A Vision for Black Lives, an extensively researched set of policy demands that emerged from a collective of over 60 organizations from within the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). This time, though, backlash came from the opposite direction.
While the platform contains nearly 40,000 words on everything from reparations to public education, much of the public conversation around it has orbited around a few lines in a subsection on cutting and then reallocating this country’s military spending. While about a third of Americans support such cuts, it was a sentence about Israel that garnered the most attention: “The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.”
Almost immediately, liberal and conservative Jewish organizations alike released missives condemning the document. “One can vigorously oppose occupation,” T’ruah, a Rabbinical human rights advocacy group, wrote, “without resorting to terms such as ‘genocide,’ and without ignoring the human rights violations of terrorist groups such as Hamas.”
Boston’s centrist Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) distanced itself from the Movement for Black Lives outright, stating that the group would “dissociate … from the Black Lives Matter platform and those BLM organizations that embrace it.” They also took issue with the platform’s support for the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement, likening it to “cultural warfare.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, called the platform’s use of the word genocide “repellant and completely inaccurate.”
Shortly after the first round of statements, Jewish organizations aimed at opposing the occupation — like the member-based Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and IfNotNow, a movement of Jewish millennials — released their own statements in support of the Movement for Black Lives; the former even protested JCRC’s offices. “We refuse to follow leaders that force us to choose between [the] Jewish community and one of the most powerful movements of our time,” IfNotNow declared, and called on the Boston JCRC to retract its statement.
The JVP-affiliated Jews of Color Caucus wrote, “We are appalled at the actions of the white US institutional Jewish community in detracting and distracting from such a vital platform at a time when Black lives are on the line.” The caucus then listed a series of demands directed at the American Jewish community, such as cutting off support to police exchange programs between Israel and the U.S. and for a broad retraction of statements by Jewish groups that have come out against the M4BL.
That so much of the conversation surrounding such a wide-reaching document about Black liberation has boiled down to a fight between Jewish institutions verges on the absurd. But the episode also illustrates a growing rift within the American Jewish community, both around the question of the occupation and America’s own relationship to state violence within its borders, particularly against African Americans. “PEP” — Progressive Except for Palestine — has long been an insult hurled from the Left to those silent on or supportive of the occupation. Now, it seems, blanket and uncritical support for Israeli government policy is drifting further from the American Jewish community’s mainstream, especially among young Jews eager to fight for racial justice.
Rachel Gilmer was one of two drafters of the passage at the center of the controversy. Gilmer, who was raised but no longer identifies as Jewish, is the Chief of Strategy for the Florida-based Dream Defenders, which formed in 2012 in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s death.
“Negative reactions to the platform are disappointing, but not surprising,” she told me, and noted that M4BL has also received outpouring of international support for the document, including from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Legacy Project, comprised of civil rights alumni.
“We believe those who are suffering the brunt of oppression, mass killings and violence have the right to name what is happening to them,” Gilmer explains. Like the anti-police violence group We Charge Genocide, the M4BL uses the word genocide to draw connections between targeted, mass-scale state violence abroad to the killing of African Americans here in the US. The term is controversial, to say the least. In their statement endorsing the platform, the BDS National Committee — a coordinating body for BDS internationally — reference the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe’s characterization of the conflict as “incremental genocide.” Both scholars and grassroots groups debate whether the Israeli government’s actions fall within the UN definition of the word — some use it and some don’t — while leading human rights organizations like Amnesty International generally refrain from invoking it.
Gilmer points out, too, that the text in question also addresses the War on Terror, and the U.S. military’s presence in Honduras, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere. “It is deeply disappointing that the broader message has been missed,” she says, “and that the struggles facing Black people throughout the world that are explicitly named in the document have been lost, ignored or downright rejected over disagreement about our decision to stand in solidarity with the people of Palestine.”
After protests (and police crackdowns) erupted in Ferguson after Michael Brown’s killing in August 2014, Gilmer says that Palestinian activists began reaching out to the Dream Defenders and other racial justice groups over Twitter with advice on how activists could protect themselves against tear gas and other chemicals.
“It became clear then that what was happening in Ferguson was deeply connected to what was happening to people around the world,” she told In These Times via email. “And while our struggles are not exactly the same, it became clear that we are fighting against the same systems.” Since that time, the group has led two delegations of activists of color to Palestine, and intends to send more. As a member of a delegation that travelled there earlier this summer, Gilmer says that she was “ashamed to know that our taxpayer dollars are funding illegal demolitions of Palestinian homes, an apartheid wall that has literally ripped communities apart and an incarceration system that holds children and adults indefinitely without charge.”
Asked about the organizations that have shunned the Movement for Black Lives over the platform, Gilmer noted that, “While I understand folks might disagree with the use of the word, ‘genocide,’ it is incredibly hurtful that they would drop the entire movement and our agenda over it, which is about the basic human rights of Black people and all people.”
If genocide is a complicated word in the Jewish community, occupation is becoming less of one, at least among the younger generation. Millennials born after 1980 are the only U.S. age group where fewer than half sympathize more with Israel than with Palestine.
A recent study from Black Youth Project at the University of Chicago and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that over half of millennials aged 18-30 support the movement for Black lives, compared with 43 percent of all adults.
Emily Mayer, an IfNotNow organizer based in Brooklyn, told In These Times, “What we’re seeing now is moment of polarization in the Jewish community, where people are seeing the limits of a 50 year strategy of being progressive on race in this country and not on Israel.”
Mayer sees value in agitating the Jewish community to show up more fully for the movement for Black lives. For her and the rest of IfNotNow, that means being able to articulate Jews’ own interest in ending white supremacy, as people who have been on its losing end. “We have a stake in ending white supremacy for our own liberation, to reclaim our history and collective memory,” she says. Toward that end, Mayer was dismayed to see friends on the Left posting on Facebook — in support of the M4BL platform — condense American Jews to a monolith or question their allegiance to the Left, leaving out the experiences both of Jews of color as well as historic and ongoing anti-Semitism, in the U.S. and abroad.
“We straddle a line,” Mayer says of IfNotNow. “The majority of the American Jewish community is white and benefits from white privilege and perpetuates injustice in Israel-Palestine. And, we believe our community also is the object of real oppression in the world, has a real stake in ending white supremacy, and is worth transforming.”
Noting the many ways that accusations of anti-Semitism are used to stamp out critiques of Israeli and U.S. foreign policy, she also emphasized the ways in which Donald Trump’s campaign — now emboldening a small but increasingly visible base of racists and anti-Semites — makes the task of addressing anti-Semitism all the more urgent: “Young American Jews don’t know what real anti-Semitism looks like in our world, but we might be about to find out.” A recycled Trump campaign meme, featuring a Star of David against a backdrop of money, could offer a sign of things to come.
As Trump has shown, anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism are hardly discrete phenomena, often finding voice in the same rallies, far-right political parties and corners of the internet. Nor can anti-Black racism be fully separated from our violence abroad: police and military have proven themselves capable of a kind of intersectional and wide-ranging oppression, unleashing some of the same tactics in Palestine as they do in the U.S. Debates over language aside, it’s unlikely that young organizers are going to let being progressive on racial justice and on Palestine stay separate for much longer.
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Kate Aronoff is a staff writer at The New Republic and author of Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet — And How We Fight Back. She is co-author of A Planet To Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal and co-editor of We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff.