Why Does It Come So Easily for Pundits to Lecture Black Lives Matter Activists?
There’s been a wave of backlash from U.S. pro-Israel groups against a Black Lives Matter umbrella group, Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), after its platform released three weeks ago contained harsh condemnation of Israel and expressed unqualified solidarity with Palestinian liberation. What made this platform so impactful is its reach; M4BL is endorsed by a large number of Black Lives Matter organizations, including relatively influential names like Center for Media Justice, Baltimore Bloc, Dream Defenders, and the Black Lives Matter Network.
Nominally left-leaning pro-Israel groups cried foul, specifically at the description of Israel as an “apartheid” state that was committing “genocide” against the Palestinian people. Emma Green, an editor at The Atlantic, joined the outrage train Wednesday with a piece documenting the controversy, framing the blowback as a division between American Jewish and black communities and expressing, time and time again, “concern” over how M4BL could divide liberals along ethnic lines.
The first problem with Green’s piece is the casual nature with which it conflates Jews and Israel. From the sub-headline, the piece begins by positioning the discussion as “black vs. Jew” as opposed to “black vs. empire.”
A controversy over anti-Israel statements in the Movement for Black Lives political platform shows the long history of tension between Jews and blacks in the U.S.
But the word “Jew” is never used by the Movement for Black Lives. It levels a brief but scathing critique of Israel in the context of its much longer, just as scathing critique against the United States military apparatus. Its solidarity with the Palestinian people is specifically put in the context of a broader anti-imperialist struggle. Movement for Black Lives, like many black activist groups before it, sees parallels between the racist oppression of Palestinians and its own struggle. But this specific critique doesn’t lend itself to allegations of bigotry, so the author sets up the confrontation as being American Jews against African Americans and goes from there. A false binary is established:
But this is also a conflict of history. Jews and blacks in America have long danced around one another, at times feeling solidarity and at others, opposition. Both groups have developed a self-understanding rooted in a history of oppression and struggle, often in solidarity with others in need. Their clash on Israel may be a testament to how much U.S. views have changed on this issue, or how much Israel’s self-vision has changed since 1948.
Green assumes that all American Jews are Zionists and makes no mention of the long history of American Jews fighting on behalf of Palestinian liberation. She decides to skip the messy work of addressing M4BL’s anti-imperialist critique on its own terms, and instead accepts the pro-Israel canard that being Jewish automatically makes one a defender of Israel and vice versa. In doing so, Green must paint M4BL as being part of a larger problem of black antisemitism and to do this, must give Palestine the “All Lives Matter” treatment:
While the platform names a number of nations, claiming they’ve been victimized by the United States’ colonial-style foreign policy, it condemns only one foreign government: Israel. The platform does not express sympathy with the Kurds in Iraq or the Rohingya in Burma; it does not condemn Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers or Saudi Arabia’s oppression of Shiite Muslims. Perhaps, just like the landlords and grocers and pawnshop brokers of New York, Israel is held to a different standard by black activists—because Jews, they think, should know better.
This is common trope among Israel’s defenders, that Israel is somehow being singled out, the implication being that this supposed selectivity on the part of M4BL can only be explained by antisemitism. This charge doesn’t pass the most cursory review. Israel is “singled out” because the country Black Lives Matter cites as its primary oppressor, the United States, singles it out. This is the frame the Movement for Black Lives uses, that Israel is an instrument of American imperialism. A traditional leftist critique leveled by everyone from Noam Chomsky to Malcolm X to Chris Hedges.
Israel is singled out because president after president insists that the military and diplomatic bond between Israel and the U.S. (the primary oppressor of African Americans) is unique and unimpeachable. In an anti-imperialist context, a settler colony backed by another, much larger settler colony is not at all comparable to the sectarian or ethnic injustices Green references above (Iraqi Kurds, Saudi Shiites, etc.) and this connection—between the two European settler colonies—is an obvious one to people of color throughout the world. Israel is singled out in the context of military spending because of its unique closeness with the U.S. military apparatus; the U.S., for example, gives more aid to Israel in than the last seven countries it bombed, combined.
Green goes on to insinuate, again and again, that the Movement for Black Lives is antisemitic, with little or no evidence.
Jewish groups have also objected to what they hear as coded anti-Semitism in the linking of Israel, Zionism, and thus Jews to oppressive systems of global power. “To try to conflate the military-industrial complex with America’s support of Israel is to play on some pretty discomforting tropes—anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish power and the way that Jewish power is leveraged in the world,” said Daniel Burg, a Baltimore-area rabbi who serves on the board of the progressive group Jews United for Justice, speaking on behalf of his own views rather than any of the institutions he represents. “As a Jewish American, and as a rabbi, I am concerned about the increase in anti-Zionism in the world that is bleeding into anti-Semitic language tropes and canards,” he added. “It’s not to say that everyone who disagrees with Israel is anti-Semitic—on the contrary. But I do think that, increasingly, the rhetoric around Israel and those who critique Israel can be anti-Semitic rhetoric.” These feelings were echoed separately in statements put out by a number of Jewish groups.
So, Rabbi Burg has a vague fear that anti-Israel language plays into antisemitic sentiments, but doesn’t quote exactly where the Movements for Black Lives does this, simply alluding to the conflation of the “military industrial complex with America’s support for Israel.” The only problem is that U.S. support for Israel is overwhelmingly militaristic in nature, as the Movement for Black Lives expressly notes: "The U.S. requires Israel to use 75 percent of all the military aid it receives to buy U.S.-made arms."
This is money allocated for military use mostly for the purpose of the continued occupation of Palestinian territories. Since Israel’s founding 70 years ago, the U.S. has given almost a quarter-trillion dollars to Israel, the vast majority of which has been for the express purposes of feeding the American military-industrial complex. This is a critique of Israel and its dependence on U.S. empire, not a critique of Jews, as Green keeps insisting. Indeed, antisemitism would be if M4BL insisted (as many on the far right do) that the U.S. is somehow being corrupted by Zionist plotters rather than viewing (as many leftists do) Zionism as a logical extension of an already existing Anglo-U.S. imperialism in the Middle East.
Rabbi Burg and Green are correct in saying that criticism of Israel can serve as cover for antisemites, but nothing in the platform language suggests this. To make the connection, the article relies on innuendo and the bashing of strawmen. The Movement for Black Lives’ common leftist critique of Israel somehow becomes evidence of a lurking black hatred of Jews, complete with this highly suggestive framing:
Perhaps, just like the landlords and grocers of New York, Israel is held to a different standard by black activists. https://t.co/D7jCyI76AX— Emma Green (@Emma Green)1471524482.0
Green won't outright say it, so she relies on insinuation (by way of an out-of-context James Baldwin quote): “Those hot-headed blacks are blaming Jews again!” Except the movement for Black Lives is simply echoing the criticisms leveled by anti-imperialist left for decades. Someone's getting unfairly singled out here, but it's not Israel.
The piece primarily suffers from framing the controversy as competing realities and makes little effort to dissect the object truth of the Movement for Black Lives' claim that Israel is indeed an “apartheid” state that commits “genocide” against the Palestinian people. It simply asserts these claims as the hyperbole of black radicals, then spends the majority of the piece interviewing one concern troll after another, all of whom insist they would otherwise support M4BL if they just dropped their unequivocal support for Palestinian liberation. Nowhere in the piece are the claims of genocide and apartheid addressed in good faith; they are simply dismissed out of hand and the author moves on to the meta-story of how pro-Israel liberals have had their feelings hurt.
In fairness, Green does populate the story with some historical context and interviews a vaguely sympathetic expert on black-Jewish relations but nowhere in the piece does she interview any member of the group that’s a critical part of the story: Palestinians. After all, the Movement for Black Lives likely adopted these terms because they are used by Palestinian activists who do indeed see their ethnic cleansing in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as genocidal and the two-tiered political system for those living in territories as apartheid. Instead, Green confronts the use of these urgent terms with naked condescension:
Part of this fits with language used throughout the Movement for Black Lives platform. The United States is an “empire”; the world is shaped by “interlinked systems of white supremacy, imperialism, capitalism, and patriarchy.” The claims are sweeping and conceptual; they’re written in a revolutionary idiom cribbed from academia.
It’s unclear what’s “academic” about any of those terms. Activists, from prisons to soup kitchens, routinely use these terms. Those whose struggle is defined in terms of white supremacy, imperialism, capitalism, and patriarchy don’t view these ideas as ethereal or abstract, but as different manifestations of clear, everyday oppression. Green’s attempt to paint Movement for Black Lives' rhetoric as a bunch of radical academics is patronizing and cynical; white liberal ideology policing under the guise of PR advice. Don’t be so harsh, don’t be so confrontational. Don’t be so provocative. These are criticisms that white liberals have been finger-wagging black activists with for decades. Green’s attempt to do so, regardless of all its writerly trappings and historical filler, is no different.