This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Do Black lives matter in America? After the murders in Charleston, the historic debate about race in American history rages on a new level.
Do Black lives matter to Jews? Another longstanding debate stretching from the Civil Rights era to the present.
Yet of late a new and dangerous element is being reintroduced into the discussion by BlackLivesMatter and Jews of Conscience that threatens to resolve the issue in a definitive and negative way. The issue revolves around Jews and Palestinians: If Palestinian lives don’t matter to Jews, how can Black lives matter to Jews?
No matter the progress in race relations in America, most Jews interact with African Americans in stylized settings with symbolic backdrops. Martin Luther King Day, Black churches and political solidarity events dot the American landscape. This is happening in Charleston right now. In the coming days we will see more of this kind of interaction.
Jews mourning the murder of African Americans is heartfelt. What’s missing are the real lives of African Americans. Few Jews interact with African Americans out of the public glare, in their daily lives.
There is a long history of establishment Jews admonishing Black leaders on the very issue which would make the connection of Jews and Blacks in America real. Reverend Jeremiah Wright is the most recent Black church leader to be called on the carpet for “interfering” in the discussion of Israeli power and its claims of democracy. Years earlier, Jesse Jackson felt the brunt of the Jewish establishment for relating to Palestinians on a political level. On the international scene, the South African archbishop and Nobel Laureate, Desmond Tutu, is outspoken in his defense of Palestinians and his description of Israel as practicing apartheid. As with Wright and Jackson, Jewish leaders often describe Tutu in patronizing terms as misguided and worse. Often all three are vilified as anti-Semites.
Why are Jewish leaders so adamant about disciplining Black leaders on the issue of Israel-Palestine? For many years African Americans have wondered aloud whether the way Jews treat Palestinians gives insight into the true nature of the Black-Jewish alliance in America. By acknowledging Palestinian lives as mirroring their own, Black leaders have a lever to begin the discussion of the Black-Jewish relationship on a new, more equal terrain.
Most recently, the issue of Jews, Blacks, Israel and the Palestinians has been addressed by Keith Feldman in his book A Shadow over Palestine: The Imperial Life of Race in America. In a fascinating account of Jewish-Black relations, Feldman traces the vision of the Black Panther party and the thoughts of James Baldwin and June Jordan who linked the unfulfilled promise of liberal democracy in the United States with the perpetuation of settler democracy in Israel and the possibility of Palestine’s decolonization. Feldman, as has others have before him, also traces the disciplining of these connections by American and Jewish power. In sum, the Jewish establishment seeks to keep the Black critique of racism in America and Israel on a conceptual level. Kept on the conceptual level, the symbolism of democracy trumps the real lives of Blacks and Palestinians.
In an interesting confluence, what the Jewish establishment demands of Black leaders, it demands of Jews. Keep Israel conceptual rather than real. As a symbolic marker in Jewish life, PalestinianLivesDon’tMatter.
The task of a new Black-Jewish solidarity is to move that symbolism from the conceptual to the real. Only by focusing on democracy and equal rights in America and Israel-Palestine can Blacks and Jews come closer to that elusive goal where Black and Palestinian lives matter.