Anguish & Debate in the Jewish Community
Last week a nation-wide network of “Black Lives Matter” activists, newly organized as "Movenent for Black Lives" (M4BL), published a remarkable platform for social change toward racial justice in America. Every American should read it -- see https://policy.m4bl.org/platform/
The platform has thousands of words that address both comprehensively and in great detail what it would take to fully end the legacy of slavery and the constant resurgence of racism in the US. It also addresses forms of oppression that echo racism in non-“racial” arenas, such as the oppression of sexual and gender minorities and the use of overwhelming US military power against various peoples around the world. Among these thousands of words is this one paragraph.
- The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people. The US requires Israel to use 75 percent of all the military aid it receives to buy US-made arms. Consequently, every year billions of dollars are funneled from US taxpayers to hundreds of arms corporations, who then wage lobbying campaigns pushing for even more foreign military aid. The results of this policy are twofold: it not only diverts much needed funding from domestic education and social programs, but it makes US citizens complicit in the abuses committed by the Israeli government. Israel is an apartheid state with over 50 laws on the books that sanction discrimination against the Palestinian people. Palestinian homes and land are routinely bulldozed to make way for illegal Israeli settlements. Israeli soldiers also regularly arrest and detain Palestinians as young as 4 years old without due process. Everyday, Palestinians are forced to walk through military checkpoints along the US-funded apartheid wall.
In the American Jewish community, this paragraph and especially one word in it –- “genocide” – has resulted in an explosion of a wide range of reactions.
I will come back to these reactions in a moment, but first I want to invoke a passage of the Torah reading for this very week just past that no one in the “genocide” debate seems to have noticed.
Part of the weekly portion was Chapter 31 of Numbers. It describes with great precision how near the end of the 40-year trek in the Wilderness, God – the Breath of Life, the Wind of Change, now become a Hurricane of Fury -- commands Moses to take “vengeance” upon the Midianite people for “seducing” the Israelites into idolatry.
Moses decides this means committing genocide upon the Midianites. He orders a swiftly called-up army to carry it out – even though the Midianites were the community from among whom came his own wife, and his wise and fatherly father-in-law.
Here “genocide” is unmistakable -- all males and all females except those who had never lain with a man were killed, and those young girls and women were taken into Israelite captivity.
Almost everyone I know who reads this passage feels horror and revulsion – not only because it describes a genocide but even more because it names “us” – the ancestors whom we honor, the Moses whom we admire -- as the perpetrators.
Did this really happen? Most modern scholars don't believe that the whole Wilderness tale is factual history. They don't believe that 600,000 men of military age, plus their wives and children, could have marched through the Wilderness of Sinai for 40 years and have left no trace for archeologists to find.
Whether it happened or not, why is this story in our sacred Teaching? Why do we still honor its presence, read it every year?
For me, the most important reason, the one I learn from instead of just feeling disgusted, is this:
The story reminds us that any nation -- even if it were, God forbid, “we” -- might fall into the same murderous impulses that other nations have. That no people, not America, not the Jewish people, is free to say to itself, about itself -- to ourselves, about ourselves -- “It can’t happen here.”
The story is there to warn us that we, every "we," can be tempted to do this evil and that we must make sure not to allow ourselves to do so.
The chapter also suggests there are at least two major reasons for this cruel outburst. One is that "we" ourselves feel and fear the tug within us toward violating our best version of our selves, and try to project the impulse outward, on those who would "seduce" us. In thus acting, we make our fears real: We do indeed betray our selves.
The second reason is sheer greed. The chapter records with numbing specificity the numbers of sheep, cows, earrings, bracelets that were plundered. (We know this from our own recent history as those the Nazis both murdered and plundered. And whose plundered property they numbered, numbingly.)
So now let us come back to “M4BL.” The specific allegations in the paragraph about the Israeli government's behavior and its effects in the US are largely accurate. The Jewish people, and the American people, need to face these truths.
BUT --factually, it is not true that the State of Israel has committed, is committing, genocide upon the Palestinian people. For “genocide” to be occurring requires that there be “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”
Oppression, yes. Genocide, no.
To say, as I think the Torah teaches, that any "we" might become genocidal is not the same as saying that any "we" is already committing genocide.
The naming of oppressive acts and a warning that these acts are markers on a path that might become a genocide would beckon Jews, Blacks, and everyone else into a committed engagement aimed toward change. The flat assertion beckons eveyone toward hatred.
We need to be clear that to make this false assertion -- "Genocide!" -- is not a critique, not a warning, but an all-out attack upon a part of the Jewish people.
Many of us see that part of us -- the Government of the State of Israel, and some parts of its society and culture -- acting in ways that betray what it really means to be Jewish. We do not claim that part of us to have been "seduced." We own it and we struggle against it.
But for even that part to be falsely named in a way that will turn hatred on it -- not a commitment to transform it or defeat it, but a hatred strong enough to kill it -- that is a strand of anti-Semitism in a platform that in most other ways is radically humane. Menshlich.
It is anguishing to say this, even to name as anti-Semitic one dangerous strand in a larger fabric. Anguishing because M4BL grows out of the movement of precisely those Black Americans who have in our generation been so brave, so committed, so adroit, so creative as to make our country face itself.
How shall we respond to that one dangerous strand? Let us look at the responses from a range of American Jewish organizations to the M4BL platform. (I hope you will indeed keep reading to see my assessment of those responses.)