By rabbi dr. samuel lebens
In this article, philosopher and Orthodox Rabbi, Samuel Lebens, reflects on Black Lives Matter, progressive politics and the Jewish imperative to support racial justice.
THE murder of George Floyd sent shockwaves through the world. In the United States, Americans of all races and creeds took to the streets to demand racial justice. Globally, protesters gathered in solidarity.
Many Jews were among those who took to the streets. In so doing, they followed in the hallowed footsteps of multiple generations of Jews who stood shoulder to shoulder with African Americans in their long campaign for civil and economic freedom. And yet, some Jews feel deeply uncomfortable campaigning under the umbrella of the movement for Black Lives Matter. Why?
"I can imagine that many South African Jews will relate to those Jews in America (and elsewhere) who sympathise with the plight of racial minorities but who also feel alienated from their political movements".
In 2016, when the movement released a draft political platform, it contained an inflammatory section on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The notion that a grass-roots domestic organisation aimed at promoting racial justice in the United States should have one, and only one, foreign policy position, and that this position should target Israel, and no other country, gave rise to a feeling that double standards were at play. To be fair, the website for Black Lives Matter no longer displays a platform with any content about Israel. But the UK branch of the movement tweeted that Zionist rhetoric has gagged political discourse – a classic anti-Semitic trope about Jewish control of politics and the media.
In the most recent round of protests, especially in Los Angeles, there were clear expressions of anti-Semitism. Synagogues were vandalised. Rioters were heard screaming “f***ing Jews”; “free Palestine”; and “kill the Jews.” I’m sure those rioters are not representative of the protesters in general. But these incidents keep alive a real fear that this particular campaign for racial justice has its own racist fringe, targeting Jews. This is the first issue that held a number of Jews back from taking to the streets.
The second issue is, I think, more profound. The rise of the movement for Black Lives Matter is part of a more general rise of identity politics. The idea is that justice and injustice centre around personal political identities: as gay or straight, trans or cis gendered, black or white, male or female, etc. One of the key notions at the heart of this politics is privilege. Some people, by dint of their identity, have an unfair advantage over others: they are privileged.
There’s no doubt that white straight cis-gendered men (for example) benefit from many forms of privilege. They escape various structural injustices that other people routinely face. Sometimes they are oblivious to these injustices. These are important insights. But, often, identity politics over-simplifies matters.
For example: the reflex instinct of contemporary identity politics is to treat Jews as white, and as the beneficiaries of white privilege. This reflex ignores the fact that not all Jews are white. There are Jews of all colours. But, of course, many Jews are white, or are perceived as white, and therefore do benefit from all sorts of privilege. Moreover, Jews in the West tend, on average, to be wealthier than other minorities, and face fewer obstacles in the pursuit of an education and career. But what gets ignored here is that even Jews who are extremely privileged tend to wear their privilege differently to non-Jews.
Jews have a long history of enjoying and then losing privilege. Between periodic pogroms, the Jews of Spain knew tremendous wealth, education and freedom. We were advisors to Kings and Queens. And then came forced conversions and its ultimate expulsion of all remaining Jews. Jews in the Weimar Republic were prominent members of the judiciary, the academy, the professions, and the government. And then the Nazis came to power. Given this history, one cannot expect Jews, especially in the Diaspora, to wear their privilege in the same way that others do. The experience of Jewish identity very often falls between the cracks of the new worldview of identity politics. This can leave Jews feeling alienated from the movement, especially when certain so-called progressive voices move from labelling Jews as privileged, to the endorsement of conspiracy theories that blame the Jews for all of their woes.
Are white Jews white? Are they privileged? These questions take on even more weight in a South African context where, under apartheid, race (and attendant privilege) was the subject of legislation. Jews were undoubted beneficiaries of the apartheid system. Yet, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and with the memory of European anti-Semitism etched in their souls, it’s hard to blame Jews at that time for feeling lucky that the apartheid authorities were, on the whole, willing to accept them as whites.
But how white can a Jew feel as a minority in a racist country, governed, at times, by Nazi sympathisers? How precarious was their position? Even though the relationship between Jewish anti-apartheid activists and the collective Jewish community was often deeply fraught, it’s no wonder that a disproportionate number of Jews were involved in the struggle for justice. But it’s also no wonder that many Jews decided to keep their heads down. As the sage Hillel used to say: “don’t judge a person until you’ve reached his place.”
Abraham was called a Hebrew because the word “Hebrew” indicated a person who stands on the other side of the river. Physically, Abraham was born on one side of the Euphrates and lived his adult life on the other side. Symbolically, the name indicates that Abraham was an iconoclast. To be a Hebrew is to be a social critic; it is to stand on the other side of the river to popular opinion. Likewise, Jacob was named “Israel” in the wake of his night-long battle with an angel. The name is supposed to describe the fact that Jacob struggled with beings, both divine and human, and prevailed. We have to care about all people, even when it’s uncomfortable, but we’re also supposed to be critical whenever criticism is warranted.
Even the idea that we have a homeland is supposed to make us less chauvinistic. Franz Rozensweig explained: we don’t really have a homeland; we have a holy land. Outside of Israel a Jew can never feel at home because she is in exile. But even in Israel, she cannot feel at home because that land is holy. A holy land can belong to no person or community, because a holy land belongs to God. Indeed, God told us in Leviticus (25:23): “Do not sell the land for all time, since the land is mine; you are resident strangers with me.” To be a Jew is never to feel at home.
"But progressive prejudices and misconceptions about Jews and Israel cannot be an excuse for ignoring the cause of racial and economic justice...".
The most progressive voices in South African politics today tend to be vocally anti-Zionist. I can imagine that many South African Jews will relate to those Jews in America (and elsewhere) who sympathise with the plight of racial minorities but who also feel alienated from their political movements. How should we respond to that alienation?
First of all. It isn’t an option not to care. Strictly particularistic interpretations of Judaism have been used to justify Jewish exclusivism around the notion of chosenness. But it’s easy to undermine those interpretations of Judaism. Abraham was only chosen so that “all of the nations of the earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3). In the book of Exodus (19:6), we are described as a kingdom of priests. But if we’re the priests, then who is the flock for whom we’re supposed to care? Once again, our role is to bring blessing to the entire world. This comes out most clearly in the book of Isaiah (42:6), in which we’re told to be a light unto the nations. A Judaism that doesn’t care about the well-being of non-Jews is a shallow perversion of the tradition.
I understand that we might feel alienated from progressive politics. We feel that it fails to understand our identity. We fear an anti-Semitic fringe. But as Jews, we have to fight for what’s right even when it doesn’t feel comfortable. We were never supposed to be comfortable. We were supposed to struggle. This doesn’t mean we have to conform to the groupthink that’s taking hold of the left or the right. On the contrary, we are Hebrews; we don’t conform to any easy categorisation and we challenge falsehood wherever we see it. But progressive prejudices and misconceptions about Jews and Israel cannot be an excuse for ignoring the cause of racial and economic justice; instead, we should join the fight and, when necessary, criticise it from within.
In the times of coronavirus, it’s not easy to protest for justice whilst practicing social distancing. Before and after the pandemic, I know it can be hard to march alongside people and movements with whom you disagree about important issues. But whatever the obstacles, I do know that, as Jews, we cannot disengage from the fight for justice. It is incumbent on us to call for justice for George Floyd. And, for Collins Khosa and the ten black men killed by South African security forces during lockdown.
Too often, we Jews feel at home in our community centres, synagogues, and schools. But, in our comfort, do we shut out cries for justice? Do we ignore the groaning of those who can no longer shoulder the burden of the massive obstacles in their way to prosperity and freedom? As the prophet Amos taught us, God doesn’t want to hear the music of our prayer-services more than he wants to hear the sound of “justice welling up like water” and the sound of “righteousness like an unfailing stream” (Amos 5:24).
Samuel Lebens is a philosopher at the University of Haifa, and an Orthodox Rabbi. He has published academic articles and books on a wide range of topics from Bertrand Russell and the philosophy of literature, to the philosophy of Judaism and the metaphysics of time. He is also a frequent guest of Limmud conferences around the world and was honoured to speak at Sinai Indaba at the invitation of Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein. Visit his website at www.samlebens.com