July 9, 2020 — New York
This piece originally appeared in The Jewish Week.
This moment is about racial justice.
In the weeks following George Floyd’s murder, activists in all fifty states and the District of Columbia have taken to the streets, amidst a global pandemic, to fight racism. Demonstrators put themselves on the line, donned masks, linked arms, and lifted their voices as one for racial justice. This is a paradigm shift in the making — everything from policing to pancake syrup may forever be altered because of this diverse coalition of Americans eager to make a change.
Yet, despite the pressing nature of the cause, for some the temptation to make this about Israel was far too great.
When students at the University of California launched a petition calling for systemwide divestment from Israel in the wake of Floyd’s death, they sent the message that scoring points against Israel is more important than having a clear message of solidarity with Black Americans.
Hijacking this moment to attack Israel fundamentally trivializes and distracts the work being done to achieve meaningful progress for the cause of racial justice in the United States. Activists who weasel anti-Israel agenda items into every social justice call may think themselves good allies; in truth, they are turning activism into opportunism.
This is not new. Anti-Israel activists, particularly on college campuses, rarely miss a moment to tie their disdain for the Jewish state into activism for other issues. Since the 2019-20 school year began, Israel has been blamed on campuses across the country for committing “Climate Apartheid” — notwithstanding the Jewish State’s tremendous contributions to sustainability — or “Pinkwashing” — denigrating the work of thousands of LGBTQ+ advocates in Israel striving to make the Middle East a safer place for all Queer individuals. Now some have the gall to blame Israel for Floyd’s murder.
This isn’t hyperbole. The UC petition — which boasts well over 100 pages of signatories — blames Israel for developing the knee-on-neck restraint used by the Minneapolis police officer charged with killing Floyd. In this perverted view, Americans had no history of state violence against Blacks before the Jewish state taught us how. This would of course be news to the millions of African Americans brutalized by the police before 1948. Similar petitions at campuses like Tufts and Wellesley make no secret of the attempt to tie Israel to violence committed in the U.S.
Let’s call this out for what it is: a conspiracy theory, like any other bit of bigoted rhetoric. While a small number of police officers from cities other than Minneapolis have traveled to Israel over the years for meetings with Israeli police, there is no evidence that Israeli cops are even taught to use this tactic.
Not only does this malicious assertion have no grounding in fact, it is detrimental to the needs of the Black community right now. In this moment, our leaders must pursue major reforms across government agencies, businesses, religious institutions, and schools in the U.S. The anti-Israel crowd’s monomania does nothing to advance policies to improve (and save!) the lives of Black Americans.
The call to action in the UC petition is unambiguous. It isn’t calling for an end to law enforcement exchanges with Israel. The petition calls for divestment from “companies that profit off of Israel’s illegal military occupation of Palestine, investments that uphold a system of anti-Black racism in the U.S.” Seriously. When you’re an Israel-hating hammer, every social ill looks like a nail.
Some activists have nevertheless been able to separate the Black Lives Matter movement from their disdain for Israel. UC San Diego’s student government broke from the UC systemwide petition and opted to remove reference to Israel in authorizing a resolution in support of Black lives. Even Jewish Voice for Peace, the notoriously anti-Israel organization that helped to popularize the false narrative claiming that Israel is responsible for racism in American policing, issued a missive asking supporters to not make the movement for racial justice about Israel.
Those of us who have been involved in interethnic diplomacy have always understood that we will never see eye to eye on every issue. The Jewish community needs to recognize that having certain opinions toward Israel is not a prerequisite for Black Americans to be accorded the respect and safety they are entitled to. Yet we have the right, and even the obligation, to speak out when conspiracy theories and rhetoric blaming the Jews infiltrate any movement, no matter how righteous the underlying cause. True supporters of racial justice—from all corners of the political compass—must not set any preconditions for allies in a defining time for civil rights and in this moment, should leave views on Israel at home.
Zev Hurwitz is the Director of Campus Affairs for the American Jewish Committee (AJC).