The Movement for Black Lives (MBL), a coalition of more than 50 Black-led organizations, provoked the wrath of the Israel lobby earlier this week following the release of its much anticipated policy platform, “A Vision for Black Lives.”
In response, voices from inside and outside the movement are pushing back without fear, signaling the shrinking effectiveness of Israel lobby groups in framing the narrative, particularly among the younger generation of social justice activists.
In a section titled “Invest/Divest,” the MBL platform accuses the US of complicity “in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people,” refers to Israel as “an apartheid state” and calls for ending US military and financial aid to Israel, arguing that it “diverts much needed funding from domestic education and social programs” in the US.
The backlash from pro-Israel groups and media outlets was swift, with the most scathing coming from the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) in Boston, a member of a national network of communal organizations that lobby for Israel, including by supporting anti-BDS laws in state legislatures around the country.
Lobby lashes out
“JCRC cannot and will not align ourselves with organizations that falsely and maliciously assert that Israel is committing ‘genocide,’” the group said in a statement published two days after the MBL platform’s release.
“[W]e dissociate ourselves from the Black Lives Matter platform and those BLM organizations that embrace it” and “reject participation in any coalition that seeks to isolate and demonize Israel singularly amongst the nations of the world,” the statement declared.
The JCRC also insisted that “the posture on Israel expressed in this platform does not reflect or represent the views of many in the African American community.”
This was far from the only condemnation.
“[I]t’s repellent and completely inaccurate to label Israel’s policy as ‘genocide,’” Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), wrote.
Greenblatt also complained that the platform’s “irresponsible and completely over-the-top references to the Jewish state” are “offensive in tone” and “bear little resemblance to reality.”
“We strongly disagree with the platform’s erroneous broad-brush conflating of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with civil and human rights abuses discussed in the document,” he added, dismissing Palestinian oppression as a distraction from the true fight for equality.
The ADL has repeatedly tried to discipline Black activists for expressing solidarity with Palestinians.
As recently as last month, Greenblatt accused Black Lives Matter of holding anti-Semitic positions with regard to Israel, arguing that support in the movement for the nonviolent Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign is “rooted in bigotry.”
Liberal Zionists wag their fingers
The less hawkish wing of Israel’s support base also wagged its collective finger at Black activists.
“We reject wholeheartedly the notion that effective anti-racism work can only be done by denouncing and excoriating Israel,” said Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner in a statement on behalf of the Religious Action Center/Reform Movement.
T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights said it was “extremely dismayed at the decision to refer to the Israeli occupation as genocide” and Israel as an apartheid state.
And prominent liberal Zionist pundit Peter Beinart called MBL “stupid” for using the word genocide.
Such dismissiveness and condescension ignores the growing chorus of scholars, including University of Exeter historian Ilan Pappe and the late Michael Ratner, long-time president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who have argued that Israel’s conduct towards Palestinians since 1948 constitutes a systematic process of “incremental genocide” as defined by international law.
Obama acknowledged “tension”
Today’s Israel lobby attacks on the Movement for Black Lives echo tensions between Jewish communal organizations and Black activists in the 1980s.
As Barack Obama acknowledged during his 2008 campaign for the presidency, “there was a tension that arose between the African American and the Jewish communities during that period when we were dealing with apartheid in South Africa, because Israel and South Africa had a relationship at that time. And that cause — that was a source of tension.”
Black leaders, including Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s long-time pastor whom the future president repudiated and denounced during the campaign to placate right-wing pressure, were highly critical of Israel’s alliance with South Africa’s white supremacist regime.
The attacks are also reminiscent of the Israel lobby accusing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a prominent Black civil rights group in the 1960s, of “inciting primitive anti-white and anti-Jewish sentiments” for its solidarity with Palestinians in 1967.
Unfazed and undeterred
Since the Ferguson uprising in the summer of 2014, prompted by the police killing of Michael Brown, Israel lobby groups are back at it, trying desperately to thwart deepening ties between Black Americans and Palestinians.
Last year, for instance, the St. Louis JCRC pressured the Missouri History Museum into canceling a panel discussion related to Ferguson because it included Palestinians.
But these tactics have not worked. In fact, those who drafted the platform are unfazed by the deluge of outrage from Israel supporters.
“When a united front of over 50 Black organizations produces something that is transformative in its vision, I’m not surprised that folks are wanting to hone in on one specific detail of the platform at the expense of really addressing the very important problems that we shed light on,” Janae Bonsu, national public policy chair of BYP 100, a Black youth organization involved in writing the platform, told The Electronic Intifada.
Though Bonsu wasn’t directly involved with the Israel-related section of the platform, she said, “I am in support of Palestine and stand by what the platform says 100 percent.”
“[Ferguson] was ground zero for the manifestation of Black-Palestinian solidarity,” Tef Poe, a St. Louis-based rapper and activist who grew up in Ferguson and participated in drafting the MBL platform, said.
“When you look at the timeline of Mike Brown’s death, you can’t ignore the fact that a week before, two weeks before, folks are at home seeing what’s going on in Gaza,” Poe told The Electronic Intifada, referring to Israel’s devastating summer 2014 assault on the territory that left more than 2,200 Palestinians dead.
“It’s a part of the same news feed, it’s a part of the same consciousness,” he added, noting how Palestinians offered advice to activists on the ground on how to deal with tear gas.
“I’ve been to Palestine. I walked the land. There’s no way you can go there and see people living behind a wall and walk away saying that’s right,” Poe said, emphasizing the material connections between Palestine and Ferguson.
“When I see backlash about the solidarity statement, I think it’s very hypocritical to not mention that the militarized US police has already formulated its own solidarity with the Israeli government,” Poe added. “So we’re supposed to watch them come together and learn tactics and unleash these tactics upon us without also communicating with the people who have seen these tactics before we have?”
Indeed, as the ADL condemns the Movement for Black Lives for drawing comparisons between the treatment of Black Americans and Palestinians, it is currently hosting its annual training junket in Israel for US police chiefs.
“A lot of people just don’t understand the times we’re living in and the type of people these times have created,” Poe said. “You can’t put people off into these cubby holes of oppression. You can’t put people into the projects, the ghetto, strip health care from them, make a person a second-class citizen and then control what it looks like when they begin to explore the reason they’re second-class citizens and they start to understand there are links between their worlds.”
Black activists recently called for Atlanta police to end their close training relationship with Israel, a demand rejected by Mayor Kasim Reed.
Deputy chief Joseph Spillane, who went on a 2015 junket to Israel, acknowledged that the Atlanta Police Department has been “mimicking” a number of Israeli tactics.
Wrong side of history
“The JCRC statement is so disingenuous and on the wrong side of history,” said Khury Petersen-Smith, co-author of last year’s historic Black for Palestine statement signed by over 1,100 Black scholars, activists, artists and organizations.
He was particularly incensed by the complaint that the platform singles out Israel.
Palestinian liberation is “a very significant part of this platform but by no means the central theme,” he told The Electronic Intifada.
Indeed, the document focuses mostly on domestic US policy. While the international solidarity section devotes several sentences to Israel, it also calls for cutting US military spending, ending US military aid to Egypt and putting an end to destructive US meddling in Somalia, Iraq, Libya, Brazil, Honduras, Kenya, Congo, Colombia, Haiti and El Salvador.
“They’re so clearly not taking the question of Black freedom seriously at all,” Petersen-Smith said. “Not only is the JCRC opposed to Palestinian liberation but they are uninterested in one of the burning questions of our time, which is anti-Black racism.”
The Boston JCRC also drew scorn from some in the constituency it claims to represent.
Writing in The Jewish Daily Forward, Ally Little and Michelle Weiser of IfNotNow, a protest group formed by young Jews angered by the hawkish support for Israel from mainstream communal institutions, blast the JCRC “for obstructing racial justice work, erasing Black Jews and attempting to maintain a status quo of Jews who are progressive on all issues except for Palestine.”
“By dismissing the entire platform over its critique of Israel, JCRC is complicit in perpetuating both racism and the occupation while standing in the way of Black liberation,” they argue.
IfNotNow is calling on the Boston JCRC to retract its statement.
The Jews of Color Caucus, a group organized in partnership with Jewish Voice for Peace, also demanded a retraction of “racist and harmful statements,” accusing US Jewish groups like the JCRC of “detracting and distracting from such a vital platform at a time when Black lives are on the line, simply because the organizers chose to align their struggle with the plight of Palestinians.”
- Jewish Community Relations Council
- Anti-Defamation League
- Jonathan Greenblatt
- Movement for Black Lives
- Black Lives Matter
- Tef Poe
- Khury Petersen-Smith
- Black for Palestine
- Peter Beinart
- Jonah Dov Pesner
- T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights
- Ilan Pappe
- Michael Ratner
- Barack Obama
- Jeremiah Wright
- Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
- Jews of Color Caucus
- Jewish Voice for Peace