A message from Rabbi Penzner and Miriam Messinger

Responding to the Platform of the Movement for Black Lives

Since the publication of the Platform of the Movement for Black Lives, the Jewish social justice world has been roiled with conflict. In the 40+ page platform, dedicated to the liberation and restructuring of American life in pursuit of equity in all realms, the Invest/Divest section of the platform identified the racism here in America with the suffering of Palestinians. That alone might not have caused such controversy, but, the word “genocide” was used to describe Israeli oppression of Palestinians.

For many of us who consider ourselves allies with this movement, that word caused deep pain. Reacting to that pain, several Jewish individuals and organizations made public statements that, in turn, created pain for other Jewish activists. Quickly taking sides condemning and supporting the platform, Jews voiced the fear and anger that lurks beneath the surface of American Jewry (particularly regarding Israel and Palestine), threatening to rend us asunder.

Desiring to support the movement and simultaneously feeling pushed away, I’ve spent this week confused and anxious.

In troubled times, how many of us know the best action to take, the right direction to follow, the way of truth?

In this week’s top-ten Torah portion (believe me, it has everything:  the Shema, 10 Commandments, one of the 4 children of the seder, loads of verses that we quote in services), perhaps we can find some guidance:

It has been clearly demonstrated to you that the LORD alone is God; there is none beside God. (Deut. 4:35; the Rabbis chose this as the opening line of the Simchat Torah service)

In the Hasidic tradition, commentators read this text to mean “there is nothing beside God.” There is nothing but God. All is God.

From this idea, we can begin approach the divisions in our world, in the political realm, in our lives, even in our own minds, with more compassion. From this belief in ultimate interconnectedness, we can search beneath the surface to discover the truth that unites us. Even when we disagree.

Having spent a lot of time this summer in Israel and Palestine exploring what it means to live there, I witnessed ways that life under occupation resembles the problems of race in America. I also understand that they are very different situations, with Israel and Palestine entrenched in ongoing, mutual warfare. In addition, while I am not opposed to using the word “apartheid” in regard to practices in the West Bank, within its borders, Israel is not “an apartheid state.”

More problematically, the word “genocide” is a trigger word for Jews. I disagree with all my heart that it describes what Israelis are doing to Palestinians.

However, the Movement for Black Lives has a noble and expansive purpose that is not targeting Jews or the Jewish state. The essence of the platform is a sound call to action. It is worth a full discussion of its points. Jewish disagreements with the language should lead us to share our pain, ask questions, and continue to talk and work honestly with leaders of that movement to advance equity and justice in America.

Searching beneath the surface takes a lot more work than issuing statements. I do not condemn the Jewish leaders who spoke their pain or the writers whose pain was expressed in the platform. Nevertheless, to find the truth that surely resides in every person requires deep listening by all parties.

I invited Miriam Messinger to add her thoughts about this week’s controversy. Though we have different stories and have come to these issues from different vantage points, I believe we arrive at similar conclusions. Statements build walls; relationships tear them down. At the heart of the eternal covenant of the Jewish people is the commandment to find Oneness: to reach out and to listen and to discern the truth that we hear from others, uncomfortable as they may make us feel. Difficult as that is, that is the only viable path to Tikkun, healing and repair.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

My support for a black-led liberation movement that asks us to transform how we as a society see, think about, and treat Black people within and beyond the boundaries of the United States and, more important, enact policies that can transform a violent history against African Americans is strong. It is even stronger after the release of the platform of the Movement for Black Lives. It is an in-depth, thoughtful document that names problems without apology and lays out clear strategies at all levels to address inequity and anti-Black violence. 

I see the focus by the media and some Jews/Jewish organizations on the small piece about Israel-Palestine as a distraction from the platform and the work we as a country, and particularly white Americans, need to do. The attention to "the" Jewish reaction is actually an example of how privilege (in this case of Jews) amplifies one’s voice. There has been more focus on the Jewish response to the platform than on the platform itself. And we, as a community, could be doing a better job of sh'ma, listening. 

I support people struggling with language and concepts that feel uncomfortable; leaning into discomfort is the only way to begin to dismantle racism. There is much in the platform besides the critique of Israeli government policies that probably make many white people uncomfortable. This is an opportunity to do the pausing and reflecting, with friends and in community, to examine our discomfort and to work through it so that we can be true and effective allies. 

I am pained, however, that people are calling a critique of Israel anti-Semitic. I am pained, however, that this has been used by some Jewish leaders and groups as a time to say who and how we stand or don’t stand with a movement for Black Lives. Even if one disagrees with one or two words (genocide and apartheid), it is only privilege that makes it legitimate to then distance from a collaborative and massive change movement.

I believe it is our obligation to get in the work and be in relationship with individuals –it is through those relationships that we will learn and transform and be in more equal relationship. In fact, at this moment, I believe that just remaining silent or focusing only on the Israel/Palestine component of this impressive call to action makes us complicit in the anti-Blackness the the Movement is lovingly calling on us to shed.  I don’t pretend that anti-Semitism does not exist in the world but I prioritize right now the movement that is addressing daily and deadly outcomes of anti-Black violence and policy that affect me and us as a community, and affect my family directly. 

Miriam Messinger