Will Jewish enthusiasm for racial justice extend to Israel/Palestine?
In early June, a group of young women from Huntington Woods organized a community march as a part of the global Black Lives Matter uprising.
The core team included a few Jewish women, including me, Rebecca Driker-Ohren, as well as several Palestinian siblings from the neighborhood.
We led the mostly white, affluent suburban residents in a powerful demonstration down 11 Mile Road and Woodward — loudly condemning police brutality, white supremacy and right-wing nationalism.
Based on our conversations that day, it appeared that the vast majority of the marchers had never participated in a civil rights protest before. Evidently, the whirlwind spurred by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor inspired our people to take new kinds action with determination and bravery.
Chanting “Black lives matter” and “no justice, no peace” alongside the folks who helped raise us made us feel incredibly proud of our communities in Huntington Woods. But we haven’t always felt proud of the political stances that these same communities have taken.
Actually, we’ve been alarmed by the ways in which our Metro Detroit Jewish community supports the Israeli occupation, which is a daily nightmare for Palestinians and a moral catastrophe for those who uphold it. So, we in the anti-occupation movement were left questioning whether this enthusiasm for BLM, with its attendant principles of universal equality and freedom, would extend to the arena of Israel/Palestine.
Responding to Annexation
Six weeks after that march, IfNotNow assembled the local anti-occupation movement for a rally outside the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit building in Bloomfield Township. Prompted by the Trump-Netanyahu plan to formalize Israeli annexation of more Palestinian lands on the occupied West Bank, we demanded that our communal Jewish institutions refuse to fund this flagrant violation of human rights and international law.
Our action showed that many Detroit Jews expect our communal leadership to take real action against right-wing chauvinism. However, the heads of our Detroit Jewish institutions have failed to respond to our calls to defund de facto Israeli annexation, a project which has continued unabated despite the suspension of the formal legal process following the Abraham Accords.
We believe that this official silence in the face of oppression contradicts the American Jewish community’s values — values embodied in the actions American Jews have taken in defense of Black lives. Surveys of American Jews show that we are overwhelmingly liberal and progressive. While in the past, some sections of the Jewish establishment have criticized the Movement for Black Lives, precisely because they saw the movement as aligned with the Palestinian freedom movement, this year Jewish leadership has wholeheartedly embraced the BLM uprising.
This is because our communal leadership recognizes that who we are as a people compels us to stand with those facing the brunt of state violence. But will they extend the Jewish ethical imperatives to “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Love the stranger as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18, 34) to Palestinians?
Apart from our duties to others, we as Jews have a direct interest in defeating the forces which uphold the discriminatory system of separation and oppression in Israel/Palestine.
Police brutality in the United States is built upon white supremacy, a racist ideology that ultimately imperils Black people as well as Jews, Latinos, Native Americans, Arabs and everyone else deemed as “non-white.”
Although many American Jews can pass as white today, our enemies never saw us as such. In October 2018, a white supremacist murdered 11 Jews in Pittsburgh, motivated by the belief that Jews were bringing “invaders” (i.e., refugees) into the United States to “replace” whites.
The anti-Jewish racism behind this conspiracy theory isn’t an isolated form of racism; its continued existence draws strength from the existence of other racisms, like anti-Black, anti-Native American, and anti-Arab racism.
But police brutality in the United States cannot be explained by white supremacy alone. It is also a function of militarism, or the political system that privileges the use of armed force as a means of addressing a society’s problems. Militarism explains how the murderer in Pittsburgh was able to obtain such lethal weapons as well as the reason why the police consume such huge portions of our municipal budgets to the exclusion of actual social services. Furthermore, militarism also structures our country’s incredibly violent and destructive policy in the Middle East, from the U.S. occupation of Iraq beginning in 2003 to the U.S.-backed Israeli occupation.
The term “occupation” refers to the system of violence and separation by which Israel denies Palestinians freedom and dignity by depriving them of civil, political and economic rights. It encompasses abusive Israeli state practices, like police brutality, family separation, home demolitions, illegal water shutoffs and mass incarceration. To be clear, IfNotNow affirms the right of Jewish Israelis to live in the land with freedom and dignity, just as we affirm the same right for Palestinians.
Today, after so many decades of military rule over the Palestinian territories, many anti-occupation Israelis are no longer referring to the situation as an occupation — which, as envisaged by international law, is supposed to be temporary — but rather as “hafrada,” a Hebrew word that translates literally to “separation.” It is no accident that the meaning of this Hebrew word resembles the Afrikaans word “apartheid,” which means “separateness” or “the state of being apart.”
Whether one calls it occupation, hafrada, or apartheid does not change the fact that this oppressive system needs racism and militarism in order to function. Without the principle that one nation deserves full civil and political rights and the other deserves basically none, and without the principle that Jewish security can be achieved by the sword, it could not continue. Therefore, if we are to be anti-racist and anti-militarist in our Jewish community organizing, then we have no choice but to withdraw our communal support for the Israeli occupation and instead back liberty and equality for all Israelis and Palestinians.
A Better World is Possible
As opinion polls repeatedly show, the vast majority of American Jews support a two-state solution. This means that they support a co-equal right to national self-determination for both peoples. Studies also show that more and more of us believe that the end of the conflict requires the evacuation of Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank. All of these findings indicate that American Jews want to see the end of the occupation.
We know that a better world based upon freedom and dignity for all is possible. Trailblazing Jews and Palestinians have already been laying the foundation, both in this country and in Israel/Palestine. The task before the Jewish anti-occupation movement now is to challenge our communal leadership to align its policies with the will of American Jews.
In July 2015, following the death of Sandra Bland, who was found hanged in her police cell three days after a pretextual traffic stop for a minor infraction, BLM co-founder Alicia Garza told the news program Democracy Now!, “We want to see a world where Black lives matter, in order for us to get to a world where all of our humanity is respected.” Today, in 2020, we are building a world where Palestinian lives matter, in order to get to a world in which all Israelis and Palestinians have the right to self-determination in the place that they call home.
Rebecca Driker-Ohren and Zak Witus are members of IfNotNow Detroit. Rebecca is a student at Macalester College, with a geography major, and environmental studies and creative writing minors. Zak holds a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies from the University of Chicago.