JOCI In Session

Not “Us-Versus-Them”: Black Jews, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and the Fight for Equity

“Black-Jewish relations.” It’s a phrase that we’ve probably all heard, and that is usually used to evoke images of white Jewish allies, often falsely imagined as saviors, in the Black Civil Rights Movement. It may call to mind neighborhood interactions or segregation in New York City or other urban hubs. But at the heart of this phrase is a forgetting, an erasure, of those of us who embody both Blackness and Jewishness, not in contradiction or separation from each other, not in an “us-versus-them” framework, but as an interwoven, singular way of being.

In this historical moment when the Black Lives Matter movement has become the largest civil rights movement in history, Black Jews have been speaking out on the white Jewish community’s silence on racism, calling for institutional change in our communities as the predominantly white Jewish ecosystem decides where to mark its place on the pages of history in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement and to Black Jews. Though the calls from Black Jews and other Jews of Color for white Jews to confront racism among our people are not new, white Jews are now increasingly acknowledging that change is needed.

On July 15, 2020, JoCI Executive Director Ilana Kaufman participated in a webinar organized by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) titled, “Black Lives Matter: A Conversation on Being Black and Jewish in this Moment.” This was one of over 55 educational sessions in which the JoCI participated during the last year as a way of advancing the communal knowledge about and understanding of Jews of Color. Facilitated by La’Mar Walker, a member of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Atlanta (JCRC, an affiliate of JCPA), Kaufman joined Yavilah McCoy, CEO of Dimensions Educational Consulting and an eminent leader in the JoC community.

A recurring theme in the conversation was the “us/them” mentality that plagues our human connections nationally and within the Jewish community. Kaufman emphasized that Jews of Color “are a testament to the myth that it is ‘us’ and ‘them’…We’ve always been here, we will always be here, and the Jewish community in the U.S. will continue to realize not only its potential, but its reality and its promise…”

Kaufman also called out the ways that many major Jewish organizations, including the JCRC hosting the webinar, perpetuate the us/them divide through a Black-Jewish relations-type approach. Kaufman discussed how “despite good intentions,” the JCRC and others have “reinforced some of the systems that are now important for us to dismantle, interrogate, and restructure.”

The us/them divide and the racism that gets codified in structures and policies is certainly not unique to the JCRC or the Jewish community. Interrogating the national culture and structure, McCoy tackled the systems of white supremacy that Jews inherited when arriving as immigrants. “We as a Jewish institutional community came into a country that set up its systems” based on genocide of indigenous peoples, the enslavement of Black people, and exploitation of immigrant labor. She continued by explaining how this history should position the Jewish community to act in the name of justice and equity: “and when it set up systems based on that, we were called to be able to interact with policies from a place of equity.”

In addition to the history of Jews of European background experiencing rampant antisemitism and exclusion from whiteness, both Kaufman and McCoy emphasized the ways in which white Jews have indeed benefited from the privileges of whiteness in comparison to people of color, especially in a post-World War II era. Privilege and oppression are relational, so while white Jews may be marginalized as Jews, the level of institutional access, resources, and life chances that most white Jews experience is scarcely afforded to people of color.

As a leader in the Jewish ecosystem, McCoy wants Jewish institutions and communities to think about racial oppression and the movement for racial equity across the boundaries of time. Investing in the dismantling of racial inequality necessitates “holding the history of where we’ve been,” McCoy stated. But she also emphasized that it is not only through understanding the past that we can realize racial justice, but we have to consider “the potential of the present” as well as how to build a just world for future generations, so that justice rings l’dor v’dor—from generation to generation. “I want any equity that we’re holding to hold me and my family seven generations into the future,” McCoy proclaimed.

Faced with the reckoning with racism across time and the call to action from the Black Lives Matter movement in our present moment, Kaufman tasked any white Jewish webinar attendants and viewers to ask themselves: “What am I willing to give up? What am I able to learn, and what am I willing to contribute to halt the perpetuation of racism and white supremacy in this country?” She emphasized that this isn’t only about financial resources, but that whites in general and white Jews must “reallocate and reapportion” resources and privileges “to actually advance equity.” This means going much farther than just writing press releases in support of Black Lives Matter.

In a compelling call for white Jews to empathize with the personal toll racism takes on people of color, McCoy drew parallels to whites’ experience of fear and uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I would love to see people be more deeply involved in the work of embodying the need for justice. In the same way you sat in your house and worried about if a pandemic, a virus you could not see, was going to have an impact on your and your family’s bodies, was gonna infect you, was gonna do things that you had no control over, that is the way I relate to racism and white supremacy continuing, unchanged, in this country. It has the power to infect and create situations where me and my family and my generations to follow are no longer safe. It is that that calls me into relationship with Black Lives Matter.”

McCoy maintained that we should all take on the chance to “engage in system-change” to tackle the immoral, unjust, and inhumane social structure of racism that oppresses and kills Black and Brown people, even if one’s politics don’t align perfectly with every component of the BLM platform. “There is so much more that we can do than parse out words and politics based on soundbites,” McCoy implored. “When are we going to stop resisting, shaming, and engaging in power plays” regarding political alignment at the expense of our Black and Brown siblings’ lives and livelihoods?

The full webinar, which has over 1,920 views, can be found here.