This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
These last days have seen commentary after commentary about the platform placed before the Jewish community and the world by the Movement for Black Lives. The central controversy over the statement for the Jewish community has been Israel and the labeling of its behavior as genocidal. This, coupled with the statement’s linking of police violence in America with Israeli police training and the calling out of the US aid to Israel’s apartheid regime, has struck a controversial note with Jews in general and the Jewish establishments in America and Israel.
In general, the Jewish establishments have taken out their Jewish chalkboard and lectured African Americans on their place in society and global discourse. The accusation, with a long tradition, is that African Americans should stick with Black issues – as defined by the Jewish establishment. Progressive Jews, always closer to the Jewish establishment than they want to admit, have defended the statement by the Movement for Black Lives as a whole, while admonishing references to genocide and aid to Israel as too much but excusable. In their mind, Jews should listen to Blacks overall and let the Israel issue slide. After all, they’re fed up with the American Jewish establishment and Israel as well, at least to a certain extent. Jews of Conscience take defense of the Black Lives statement to another level. If aid to Israel, training of American police and genocide fit the bill, why not call out the Jewish establishments for what they are doing?
Largely unaddressed in this discussion, however, is what the Black Lives broadside means within the always fraught Black-Jewish dialogue. Since Blacks and Jews play on an unequal playing field with no prospect of equality in sight, and since taking on the Jewish establishment and Israel yields little or no positive political points on the American scene, why would the Black Lives Matter movement venture onto this terrain? Could it be that Black Lives Matter, on behalf of its own community, decided to slap the face of Jewish innocence by dramatically entering the hugely symbolic and crucially important aspect of the Jewish witness to the world?
Variations of the Black Power movement have been taking on American and Israeli Jewish establishments in this way for years. For the most part, these attacks have been beaten back through invocations of the Holocaust, Jews as at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement and Israel as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. Yet times have changed. None of these invocations work well anymore or at all. The fallback position of Jewish defense against charges of dislocation, oppressing and ghettoizing the Palestinians has worn thin. Hardly anyone in the world accepts this defense, including increasing number of Jews.
The slap across the face of Jewish innocence stings. When the language of genocide offends us more than ghettoizing another people, Jews on all sides of the debate about the Jewish witness to the world have entered a realm where symbolism takes on a new power. This, coupled with the knowledge that the ghettoization of the Palestinians is permanent and thus the Jewish establishments in America and Israel will triumph, leaves Jews of Conscience little room to maneuver.
The Movement for Black Lives has placed Jews on notice that we have arrived at the end of ethical Jewish history. What can be done, if anything, at the end, is the almost impossible question before us.