Editor’s Note: Ethan B. Katz teaches history and Jewish studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where he also co-leads a campus anti-Semitism education initiative. He is the author of “The Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France.” Deborah Lipstadt teaches history of the Holocaust at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Her most recent book is “Antisemitism Here and Now.” The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
In recent weeks, we have witnessed several anti-Semitic statements and postings by prominent black athletes and entertainers like DeSean Jackson, Stephen Jackson, Nick Cannon and Ice Cube. (All but Ice Cube have since apologized.) These have unfolded in the shadow of an outpouring of diverse support for the Black Lives Matter movement, which has undertaken arguably the most significant struggle for racial justice of the past half century.
In fact, those spouting anti-Jewish rhetoric — as they employ ugly, well-worn, anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jews and power in the financial system and Hollywood, or about Jewish conspiracies for world domination — have often done so by suggesting that Jews, in particular, are responsible for the oppression of Blacks. This has left many to wonder if we can find a way to talk simultaneously about both anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism.
We can — and we must.
What these recent incidents obscure all too easily is that, though they occupy largely contrasting positions in American life, the Jewish and Black communities are not as different from one another as they may seem. African Americans, like NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Zach Banner, have strongly condemned the recent expressions of anti-Semitism in these very terms.
In a Twitter video, Banner highlighted the need for Blacks to acknowledge Jews’ own history of persecution and grew emotional as he recalled the massacre of 11 Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in his home city in October 2018. “When we talk about Black Lives Matter and elevating ourselves,” he insisted, “we can’t do that while stepping on the back of other people.”
Abdul-Jabbar was more pointed in a column in the Hollywood Reporter: “These famous, outspoken people share the same scapegoat logic as all oppressive groups from Nazis to the KKK: all our troubles are because of bad-apple groups that worship wrong, have the wrong complexion, come from the wrong country, are the wrong gender or love the wrong gender. It’s so disheartening to see people from groups that have been violently marginalized do the same thing to others without realizing that perpetuating this kind of bad logic is what perpetuates racism.”
Indeed, anti-Jewish and anti-Black hatreds are not only parallel but often interconnected. Though it is too often ignored, both anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism lie at the core of White supremacist ideology. To take but one example, look at the infamous “Unite the Right” rally of White supremacists in Charlottesville in August 2017. Activists were there specifically to protest the potential removal of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. They carried Confederate flags and some shouted “White lives matter!” Yet they also carried a banner that said, “End JEWISH Control Over America Now” and chanted, “Jews will not replace us!”
Beyond their common enemies, Blacks and Jews have vital commonalities in their history. Each group defines itself, in part, by remembering a communal experience of being considered “other” over many centuries. Though they are far from identical, their respective group histories play a similar role. Each remains the site of a searing and defining collective experience that feels ever-present. Each community is profoundly invested in remembering episodes of persecution, violence and contested freedom that continue to shape their sense of fear, vulnerability and self-worth until today. Within a few blocks of each other, adjacent to the Mall in Washington, DC, reside two federal institutions that speak to some of these episodes: the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
In both communities, there is a version of the “talk.” Probably all Black parents in the United States have transmitted the message to their children — especially their sons — that because you are Black, you will constantly be perceived and judged differently. Be careful, always; keep your head down. Be polite, deferential and cooperative, especially with authority figures. Don’t conceal your hands in any way that might arouse suspicion. Above all, come home alive.
In Jewish families, there is a similar kind of “talk.” Whether from a parent, teacher or camp counselor, most Jewish children eventually learn a hard truth: from the moment they enter the world, there are people who hate them or have, in the not so distant past, murdered Jews just like them, simply for being Jews. It’s a bewildering story. In this light, Jewish children learn that they too should keep their head down and to be careful where they choose to wear Jewish attire, like a yarmulke (head covering) or a necklace with a Star of David or Hebrew lettering on it.
The need for empathy: Understanding anti-Black racism
There are crucial differences, of course. Black children know that often the ones they most fear are precisely those to whom Jewish children are taught to turn when they feel threatened: the officers with badges. Secondly, most Jews, unless they are Jews of color, do not have to worry about being stopped by police simply for walking or driving or sitting at a bus stop and looking black.
They have benefitted, whether they acknowledge it or not, from the fact that many of them look white. As the famed anti-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon, himself Black, explained in his classic book “Black Skin, White Masks,” “The Jew can be unknown in his Jewishness … He can sometimes go unnoticed … (But) I am given no chance. I am overdetermined from without. I am the slave, not of the ‘idea’ that others have of me, but of my own appearance.”
The ubiquitous phrase “Black Lives Matter” and variants of it have divided Americans, and Jews are no exception. Many have shown instinctive discomfort with the fact that the slogan focuses on the lives of a single ethno-racial group. What some Jews may forget is that they, more than virtually any other group, are well equipped to understand the moniker of Black Lives Matter. Due to their own historical experience of distinctive discrimination, violence and oppression, specifically due to their ethno-religious identities, Jews can viscerally relate to this powerful three-word statement for what it is: A signal of the particular, 400-year experience of often lethal racial injustice of Blacks in America and its persistence today.
The phrase is not about ethno-racial particularism, or disregarding the importance of other people’s lives. Rather, it is meant to insist that the murder of Blacks should be seen as every bit as terrible and avoidable as the shedding of White blood and that, in America today, crimes like those against George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others remain far too common. Jews should understand this, and, to be fair, many do.
In recent years, they have been at pains to highlight the specificity of Jew-hatred. Last year, in the wake of a number of disturbing anti-Semitic events, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders proposed the House adopt a resolution condemning anti-Semitism. But some members of her own party argued that condemning anti-Semitism alone made the resolution too narrow. They insisted it also condemn racism and bigotry against Blacks, Muslims, immigrants and other groups.
Jewish members, like New York Rep. Eliot Engel, contended that the immediate issue was anti-Semitism, not an array of other prejudices. The pushback against a resolution condemning solely anti-Semitism seemed to be “all hatreds matter,” a parallel to the rejoinder “all lives matter” that rightly troubles many Blacks.
Jews are similarly rankled when they hear, “many people died in the Holocaust.” In fact, while the Germans murdered millions of non-Jews, what we term the Holocaust — what the Germans termed the “Final Solution” — was an effort to exterminate specifically Jews from Europe, and given the opportunity, the world. And Jews, unlike many other victims of the Nazis, were killed en masse simply for the crime of being Jews.
In this light, in particular, it behooves Jews to appreciate that, while all lives matter, historically and currently not all lives have been or are under threat. At the same time, it behooves the Black community to address the anti-Semitism in its midst.
Like so many white Americans, Jews need to ask hard questions about their white racial privilege, their part in a system of racial injustice, and explore how they can better engage in the work of rooting out racism from our society. Some, like Eric Ward, an important activist against both anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism, advocate that Jews not see themselves merely as allies, but instead as full participants in a new civil rights struggle.
A two-way street: understanding anti-Semitism
And yet, we also need something from the organizers of the diffuse groups that are allied in the Movement for Black Lives.
For some time now, there has been a widespread perception that as a movement, not an ideal, Black Lives Matter is not a welcoming space for Jews. In August 2016, when a group of organizations allied under the BLM umbrella published their platform, it included a section on the Middle East conflict. There, they accused Israel of carrying out “genocide” against the Palestinian people and endorsed the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that demands the complete academic, cultural and economic boycott of Israel, an organization denounced by many as anti-Semitic.
More recently, on July 1, thousands of protesters across the country joined rallies in a number of cities in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, but more specifically in response to the call for a “Day of Rage” from pro-Palestinian groups. The gatherings were intended as a response to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to annex portions of the West Bank, a proposal that many people — including both of the authors — oppose.
As reported in the Times of Israel and a number of other outlets, at an event in Brooklyn, while the crowd chanted “Free Palestine” and “Black Lives Matter,” one participant led shouts of “Death to Israel” and “Death to America.” In Washington, DC, there were protesters who linked BLM with the Palestinian cause by chanting “Israel, we know you murder children, too.”
To be sure, Israel as a country is open to critique like all others. For years, numerous American Jews themselves have denounced the harsh realities imposed by the Israeli military control of the West Bank. Many fear that recent measures, like the annexation proposal and the controversial “nation-state law,” threaten to erode Israel’s democratic character.
Yet when Jews hear the litany of above-described attacks, no matter the intention, many do not hear fierce criticism of Israel. Rather, they hear words that seem intended to erase or to mock the peculiarities of Jewish history. Israel’s actions against the Palestinians, for all of its faults, do not come close to genocide, long defined as an effort to eliminate an entire culture and its people. The accusation is particularly egregious against the Jewish state, since it invokes the specter of the Holocaust.
Condemnations of Zionism frequently ignore its history. At its core, Zionism has constituted a national liberation movement for political and cultural autonomy on the part of an historically oppressed minority. While some right-wing varieties of Zionism have made anti-Arab or anti-Palestinian attitudes key to their ideology, they represent one pole on an exceptionally wide spectrum.
Calls of “Death to Israel” demand the destruction of the world’s only Jewish state, which has been a refuge for millions of Jews fleeing persecution. Invoking specifically the image of Israel “murdering children” reminds Jews inevitably of the classic “blood libel” accusation that Jews murdered Christian children and used their bodies to make ritual cakes. This charge originated in twelfth-century England, and has been a recurrent instigation to anti-Jewish violence ever since.
Finally, Jews have been scapegoated across large parts of the globe for 2,000 years. In many of these attacks, they hear themselves being singled out and blamed unfairly once more. What Jews find deeply painful and even threatening about all this is that these historical facts and associations seem unknown or unimportant to many participants in the events taking place under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement. Fairly or not, this gives the impression that these BLM activists are often utterly uninformed or totally uncaring about the past and present of Jewish vulnerability.
Advancing Black-Jewish solidarity
To advance the cause of Black-Jewish relations today, the great challenge is for voices of compassion and mutual respect to rise above the prevailing din of acrimony, misunderstanding and distrust. Such voices should begin with a greater understanding of both Jews’ and Blacks’ complex, often painful histories – and how the past has shaped each group’s collective identity.
And they would also do well to recall an element of shared history that still offers inspiration, when many Jews and Blacks stood shoulder-to-shoulder — and in some cases gave their lives together — in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched next to Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama, or Joe Rauh, Arnold Aronson and Marvin Caplan lobbied behind the scenes to help pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, their politics were defined by a persistent experience of Jewish vulnerability. At the same time, they appreciated that their own sense of greater security made it possible to advocate for the rights of others.
Likewise, Jews sometimes saw their own story as charting a path that Blacks were now following. When 19 Conservative rabbis flew to Birmingham in 1963 during a series of violent civil rights protests, they taught Hebrew songs in Black churches — with one declaring, “Our people are your people.” Indeed, in this moment, many Blacks and Jews found their commonalities more notable than their differences.
Today that sense of commonality must be renewed. If there are Jews who have found it hard to appreciate the distinctive experiences and pain of Blacks and to join their struggles on the front lines, the reverse is also true for segments of the Black community.
Without wishing to compare the challenges of our daily lives to those of African Americans, Jews need their Black fellow citizens, and particularly supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, to be willing to listen as well to the experiences and community narratives of Jews. By the same token, Blacks have a right to expect more Jews to get off the sidelines and lean into both their own distinctive history and vulnerability on the one hand, and their relative privilege on the other, to become stalwarts once again in the fight for racial justice.