Schwalb: American Jews should recommit to allyship for racial justice

Jessica Schwalb, Opinion Editor

We American Jews tell ourselves a story about our history in this country: We live in tenement houses; we work hard to escape the lowest social and economic bracket, then we march with Dr. King. We emphasize the parts of our religious scroll that command us to make the world a better place. We are engaged and politically conscious. We love Israel.

The Aug. 1 release of the Movement for Black Lives platform tore the Jewish community across ideological and generational lines. As a progressive, young Jew I was hugely disappointed in the swath of religious leaders who condemned a movement based on its incendiary language around and support of divestment from Israel. That the platform uses “genocide” and “apartheid” to describe Israel are no small choices —  to accuse the Jewish people of genocide a little more than half a century after the Holocaust stunned American Jews. These words are vast oversimplifications of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; they are more instigatory than informed, and they certainly lack nuance. But these two words have become non-starters to a conversation about Jewish allyship for racial justice.

Instead of merely decrying the platform over a few words, American Jews would do well to take time and reflect on our role as allies in greater movements for social justice. It’s time to stop resting on the actions of our grandparents in 1968 and to start owning the ways we have benefitted from — and often abused — privilege in the years following the Civil Rights Movement. It’s time to condemn the occupation, unequivocally. It’s time to show up with our actions, not just our words, to prove our commitment to bettering the world.

A large portion of the American Jewish community has responded to the platform by decrying the shrinking space for Jewish involvement in activism, particularly on college campuses.

Yet we haven’t spent nearly as much time committing ourselves to pursuing justice for marginalized voices. Northwestern’s campus was dramatically split after the winter 2015 divestment vote, and the Jewish community as a whole has struggled to find our way back into campus advocacy after Students for Justice in Palestine effectively mobilized both students of color and other activist groups at NU to vote for divestment. My parents and Jewish communal leaders spent their time preparing me to “face” BDS (whatever that meant) and the “scary” reality of anti-Zionists before I arrived on our campus last year. They didn’t spend nearly as much time dissecting allyship and privilege.

If we complain about losing campus social justice credibility for support of Israel, some of our community members’ reactions to the platform sure didn’t help. If the Jewish community used half the time, money and energy that it does on BDS to instead declare, loudly, that “black lives matter” and to call for racial equity in this country, we’d be a lot closer to the world as it should be. Instead, we’re so wrapped up in ourselves that finding a safe space to be pro-Israel has become first on the agenda. We’ve neglected the practice of being good allies.

We’re being called out as a community for not showing up for racial justice because we haven’t done so. Jewish institutions on this campus have taken a collective step back from engaging in many forms of activism that make us uncomfortable, likely because of how they challenge our surface-level commitment to fighting inequality. We certainly have not reckoned with the ways that whiteness and privilege infect our every claim of historic oppression and discrimination. Repeating the well-worn trope of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. King is hard for some to swallow on a campus where most of the white Jews epitomize privilege. It isn’t that those two historic examples aren’t true — they are — but when repeated over and over without any kind of acknowledgement that white (and passing) Jews have benefitted from white supremacy in this country, they leave a bad taste.

Acknowledging we share complicity in a history of racial injustice is the first step to earning us a seat at the activism table. (We don’t get there by complaining.) The next step is action. We do not get to gripe about being left out of social activism and pretend not to know why.

There are certainly Jewish organizations that serve as great examples of allyship, and there are certainly individual Jews who commit to social activism. However, our community’s institutions do not bring Jews into the streets for justice for black and brown Americans, nor for Palestinians This fact, rather than a debate about the importance of semantics, was my biggest take-away from my community’s reactions to the platform.

It seems like the American Jewish community is far more concerned with presenting itself as pro-Israel than with fulfilling its commitment to justice. Communal leaders say our priority is social justice, but our actions show that our priority is combating anti-Semitism on campuses and fighting Big Bad BDS. The platform can provide an opportunity to reflect as a community: Do we care more about telling each other that we are committed to justice or about proving it through our actions?

This is the very work that American Jews haven’t been showing up en masse to do over the last 45 years. We haven’t lost our social justice credibility. We’ve lost our commitment.

Jessica Schwalb is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.