Dear Jews Who Say ‘Black Lives Matter’
Remember that letter so many Jews signed back in June? Hundreds of Jewish organizations, congregations, and clergy “[spoke] with one voice when we say, unequivocally: Black Lives Matter.” Signatories representing many thousands of Jews agreed to heed Black-led calls for “accountability and transparency from government and law enforcement” and promised to “build a country that fulfills the promise of freedom, unity, and safety for all of us, no exceptions” (600+ Jewish Organizations Say…).
Have Jews and our organizations honored that promise? How? What more is required? And what does this election period demand of Jews who say ‘Black Lives Matter’?
Before looking at what still needs doing, let’s first note that simply signing something with those three words in order — Black, Lives, Matter — was a big step for some leaders and organizations. Some signatories experienced challenge and risk in publicly joining — in many cases for the first time — with Jewish groups on opposite sides of key issues.
Let’s recognize, also, that many congregations focused prayers, sermons, and reflections in recent months on advancing antiracism, in- and outside Jewish communities.
Moreover, some signatory institutions have been engaging in a variety of actions to support Black Lives Matter:
- adding their voices to calls for justice as more Black lives were lost to state violence;
- donating money to local BLM or other Black-led organizations seeking an end to police violence and steps toward justice for its victims;
- shoring up damaged or non-existent relationships with Black-led organizations;
- working in voter-focused coalitions with BLM and related groups; and
- seeking to figure out what it will mean, in actual practice, to “join together with our neighbors across racial and religious differences” and “protect each other and build the future of freedom and safety we all deserve.”
For every step toward support for BLM, however, Jews and our organizations have also hesitated or fallen back:
- We heard: “But, he had a gun,” and “We cannot condone property damage,” followed by calls for reflection and caution replacing demands for action.
- We saw deliberate stepping back from controversy, confusion, and community relationships that proved harder to repair than imagined.
- We witnessed, all too often, signatories to that June 25 letter actively choosing to husband resources — including time, energy, funds, and reputation — in ways that failed to prioritize that summertime promise.
A few months back, so many Jewish institutions and leaders professed readiness to support the movement for Black lives and “reject any effort to use fear to divide us against each other.” As we sit with electoral evidence that so many countrymen are willing to ratify a white supremacist agenda, it is time to for Jews to re-examine and recommit.
Unstable Ladders and Vicious Dogs
Jewish teaching obligates us to examine environments in our control for potential dangers to others: The Torah forbids building a house without ensuring that it has a parapet to prevent falls, for example (Deut 22:8); the Talmud extends this prohibition to setting up an unstable ladder or raising a vicious dog (Bava Kamma 15b).
We know, from study after study, that policing in this country results in disproportionate harm, even death, for Black people and for some other groups.
Are we any less liable for potential harm of policing than for the risk inherent in vicious dogs and unstable ladders?
Protecting Black people — in- and outside of Jewish communities — and others vulnerable to risk from policing means looking beyond the details of individual police-involved killings to examine potential dangers we can, and must, avoid.
Instead of asking if a particular shooting or chase was “justified” in the moment, as the police want us to do, we must look more broadly at systems, procedures, and training that lead to such incidents. We must call for transparency and accountability for individual incidents of police violence and for those who create, implement, and benefit from policing.
Jews must recognize that what is often called “public safety” does not protect all of us equally and comes at a terrible price for too many. And then we have to set about actively dismantling systems that do not support the June letter’s stated goal of “safety for all of us, no exceptions.”
Caution and Threat
While many of our Jewish institutions have been proceeding with caution, over recent months, Black-led groups and leaders have face increased threats to their safety.
Black Lives Matter leaders, locally and nationally, received direct threats to their lives. BLM and other Black-led groups have met with increased physical violence from police and worsening surveillance and harassment. Police and their supporters continually seek to discredit the movement and its organizers.
In DC, for example, police publicly linked the movement with a violent election-night crime before acknowledging the next morning that there was no evidence to support the initial claim. Around the country, similar efforts to intimidate and criminalize Black-led organizations abound.
We must remember —
When Black movements are undermined, it leads to more violence against Black people, including Black Jews. (emphasis in original)
When Jewish institutions fail to support Black Lives Matter, or fall short in that effort, we contribute to the work of white supremacy, endangering Black and Jewish people, in our overlapping communities.
The Same Machinery
There is a temptation, amid all of this election’s confusion and fear, to suggest that this is somehow not the time for Jews to be more vocal in support of Black Lives Matter. But this election moment is helping to embolden white supremacists and increase threats to the movement for Black lives. Moreover, as the June letter reminded us: “Antisemitism is part of the same machinery…”
Movements like “Jews Against Fascism” are essential in the coming days and over the long haul. Still, Jews cannot remove our attention from the ongoing threats Black people continue to face from police —
— In daily life, through “stop and frisk” and other policies that disproportionately affect Black and brown people;
— In direct targeting of the movement for Black lives and our leaders; and
— In disproportionate response to Black folks’ exercise of First Amendment rights.
Compare, for example, the treatment of predominantly white protest groups — some heavily armed and some interfering with lawful voting and vote-counting activity — with that of predominantly Black gatherings breaking no laws and bringing no armed threat. Compare, too, the reporting on protests: Who is treated as a threat and who benign? Who is vilified by police and government spokespeople? To what end?
“Just as the sword can kill, so can the tongue,” warns another Jewish teaching (B. Talmud Arachin 15b). We must be vigilant in naming and countering words of antisemitism, whether outright or coded. We must be equally vigilant regarding words of anti-Black racism.
Back in June, Jews signed on to “reject any effort to use fear to divide us against each other.” Tensions of this election period are no reason for further hesitation but an extra urgency for Jews to speak up now.
Sword, Tongue, and Silence
A recent teaching, from Ammud: Jews of Color Torah Academy, reminds us that “pikuach nefesh,” the commandment to save a life, takes precedence of other considerations in Jewish law. In her presentation, rabbinical student Becky Jaye linked that unstable ladder and vicious dog (above) with “racial violence and police brutality that we had seen this summer.” She explained that it is our duty to act if we know in advance that someone could be harmed — because we know a ladder is unstable, say, or because of our understanding of systemic oppression and policing.
Becky Jaye began her presentation by asking:
As witnesses to the silence, what would it be like if pikuach nefesh…this idea that we must intervene to preserve life…was just always at the forefront of our minds — how that would change our behavior, if it would change our behavior, and if that would change our understanding of what allyship could be?
With this teaching in mind, we can return to the text of that June letter and reconsider our institutional efforts, keeping at the forefront of our minds this idea that we must intervene to preserve life:
- Let us review our Black Lives Matter support efforts and share what is working in our organizations and congregations;
- Let us acknowledge what is not working or was dropped for one reason or another; and
- Let us look again at that promise so many of our institutions made this summer, reconsider what prompted it, and rededicate ourselves to making it more manifest, even through difficulties and apparent distractions.
We know how dangerous the tongue (or the keyboard) can be. Let us also remember that silence, too, can kill.
Action Needed Now
Twelve congregations inside DC, plus more outside the District with members living and working in DC and national organizations with offices in DC, signed in June. DC Jews, here are two current calls from BLM DC:
Statement on MPD and Election Response (11/4 Google Doc)
Statement on killing of Karon Hylton-Brown (11/2 Google Doc)
What’s the plan for joining in these calls for accountability and transparency?
An earlier version of this letter originally appeared at CrossRiverDC.net, signed by members of DC’s Cross River Dialogue, a small group of white Jews living west of DC’s Anacostia River and non-Jewish Black people living and/or working east of the river.
“Pikuach Nefesh: Agency, Allyship, and Hope” by Becky Jaye, was offered on election night at Tikkun Leil Election (presentation begins around the 31 minute mark), a project of Truah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.
Some resources for honoring Deon Kay’s shloshim: bit.ly/PausePrayer