“Genocide,” Torah, & “Black Lives Matter”:

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.)

If we were to see these reactions as a spectrum, we might see Jewish Voice for Peace on one edge of it: JVP “endorses the Movement for Black Lives platform in its entirety, without reservation.”

At the other end is the Zionist Organization of America, a consistently right-wing group that opposed Black Lives Matter from the beginning, long before the platform was created.

Close to the same edge of the spectrum is the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston. It not only denounced the paragraph but said,   

“We reject participation in any coalition that seeks to isolate and demonize Israel singularly amongst the nations of the world.  As we dissociate ourselves from the Black Lives Matter platform and those BLM organizations that embrace it, we recommit ourselves unequivocally to the pursuit of justice for all Americans, and to working together with our friends and neighbors in the African-American community, whose experience of the criminal justice system is, far too often, determined by race. <https://www.jcrcboston.org/jcrc-statement-regarding-black-lives-matter-platform/>

T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, took a much more nuanced view. It said,

“We applaud the leaders of Black Lives Matter for insisting that the United States meet its human rights obligations, and for concretizing these into specific policy recommendations. ...

“While we agree with many of the policy recommendations, we are extremely dismayed at the decision to refer to the Israeli occupation as genocide. We are committed to ending the occupation, which leads to daily human rights violations against Palestinians, and also compromises the safety of Israelis. Our work aims to build a just and secure future for both Israelis and Palestinians, both of whom deserve the same human rights protections as all people.

“However, the military occupation does not rise to the level of genocide. … While we agree that the occupation violates the human rights of Palestinians, and has caused too many deaths, the Israeli government is not carrying out a plan intended to wipe out the Palestinians.” http://www.truah.org/5-media/general/779-t-ruah-statement-on-black-lives-matter-platform.html

I applaud  T’ruah.  Even while it expresses “extreme dismay,”  it keeps the door open for reexamining the strand of falsehood, reweaving the fabric to make possible continued cooperation in combatting American racism along with at least some groups and energies in the Movement for Black Lives.

It makes clear that American racism is too pervasive and destructive for us to refuse to work with -- as I have already paised them -- 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.

Besides the importance of continuing that struggle, I think there are at least two reasons to respond this way. One is that continued dialogue is far more likely to bring about change, truth, and fuller understanding than slamming the door –- far more likely, though not for certain. Secondly, there is a broader question about how any organization or movement or community deals with others with whom it shares some values but also with whom it has some deep disagreements.

For example: The Catholic Church in the USA – at least on paper, and often in action as well -- shares many concerns about poverty and perhaps some about the climate crisis with a number of Jewish organizations. At the same time, its policies toward women in regard to abortion and birth control and its policies toward gay men, lesbians, and other sexual or gender minorities are deeply at odds with most Jewish social activism. Indeed, they have done far more to change US policy toward limiting the exercise of women’s moral agency and conscience on these questions (including Jewish women), and to try to prevent gay men and women (including gay Jews) from exercising the right to marry, than M4BL has done to stop US military aid to Israel.

Why is the one stance grounds for immediate political excommunication by “establishment” Jewish organizations, while the other is not?

And now let me bring back to our awareness the Torah of Numbers 31 -– the Torah of an Israelite genocide against another people.  Suppose I am right that one profound value of that chapter is to remind us that we too might commit genocide – even if we are not doing so today and perhaps did not even 3000 years ago.

Then we might respond to M4BL by saying, “Not so! – and still, let’s look at the specific events that seem to make you use that word. Let’s look at how to make sure we don’t go there.”

Then we have to look at ourselves with eyes wide open.

Both eyes. Not just a one-eyed gaze that sees with blinkered accuracy the violence aimed against us by some Palestinians.

 Both eyes. Seeing what it means to occupy another people for 49 years and counting, subjecting them every day to humiliating check points and job-shattering delays and arrests without charges of any crime, resulting in detentions that may last months or years.  

Seeing what it means to plunder land so as to offer Occupiers housing at low rents, and then to plunder scarce water for swimming pools when those who live under occupation run low on water for cooking.

Seeing what it means for the Jewish National Fund to cooperate in destroying the villages of Bedouin over and over and over and over again in order to force the Bedouin to abandon their tents and their life-ways, the shape of their culture, and creep around in ramshackle cities.

Seeing what it means for the Israeli government to allow Israeli settlers to burn the olive trees that are the cultural heart and the economic guts of the Palestinian people. 

And then to say, “No, this is not genocide. Our hands are not murdering a people. But on our fingers are the fingerprints of danger.  Thank God for a Torah that reminds us, ‘It can happen here, among us, in us, by us. Stop now, and let us turn ourselves around!!’ ”


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 



When the Israeli Government destroys Palestinian homes, forces people to leave their land, and occupies them in humanely, it is destroying the essence of Palestinian culture and LIFE. That, to me, is GENOCIDE. I am a Jew, and I agree with the BLM statement.

To widen the usage of a

To widen the usage of a fairly precise (and deeply painful) term like "genocide" is to cheapen its meaning. What Israel is doing in the West Bank cannot and should not be compared with what happened in Rwanda, Bosnia, and a few other places (let alone by Germany during WWII). There are other terms that are much closer to your meaning, such as "ethnic cleansing" (which also doesn't fit in this case) or "forced expulsion."

Thank you for news on this

Thak you for news on this and the multi-faceted manner of informing which is in keeping with your Center's multiple purpose and varied audience. Shalom, baruch yah, so say we all.

I appreciate the reminder

I appreciate the reminder that any "we" is capable of the worst atrocities. However, I do not see the current oppression of Palestinians as a warning sign of future genocide. Oppression can go on, and this oppression has, for a very long time. I think we need to face what is as what it IS. Not a fantasy of what it could be.

The term, genocide, gave me

The term, genocide, gave me pause, but I do not reject it entirely. First,

I think that stealing their land, trees and water, in a clearly stated attempt to make their lives so miserable that they will leave, is morally equivalent to genocide.

Perhaps Israel stopped short of actual mass murder because it would be abhorred by the world after the Holocaust. Second, some Israeli leaders have clearly stated that policies toward Gaza, especially limiting food imports to less than daily caloric requirements, destroying sewage treatment plants, so that 95 per cent of the water is polluted, are intended as a form of slow genocide.

Ethnic cleansing usually refers to removing a people from their land. it is not enough to describe all the other forms of persecution that are a daily reality for Palestinians. Perhaps genocide is too strong a word for the occupation in the West Bank and Jerusalem, but I think it applies to Gaza.

I am a Jew and not offended by calling out Israeli policies for what they are.

"morally equivalent to genocide"???? ... means nothing

Unless you want to utterly debase language, you should stay away from a phrase like "morally equivalent to genocide." What could this possibly mean? The word "genocide" was coined not to constitute an insult, not to convey extreme animus, but to describe precisely a particular kind of heinous crime for legal purposes: the intent to annihilate a people and acts carried out in furtherance of that design. If you just use it to mean -- "this is really, really bad" - you're just ruining the utility of the word. Then we'll need to invent a new word to describe the particular crime for which "genocide" was coined.

The phrase "morally equivalent to genocide" means ... precisely...nothing. All it seems to convey is, "I really disapprove of the occupation - no, I really do, really, really, really, really." The phrase "morally equivalent to genocide" makes it impossible to actually discuss anything. It's just a temper tantrum. I also oppose the occupation, think it's disgraceful and in countless ways criminal. It's not genocide. Period.

Note that many, perhaps most, Palestinians deny that the Jews are a people entitled to self-determination (despite the willingness of many, perhaps most, to grudgingly accept Israel's reality).

Some Palestinians kill Israelis - including civilians and including children - in furtherance of that position. But, no, this is not "genocide." Criminal, yes. Murder is a crime. But it is not genocide, unless it meets very specific legal definitions. Stop debasing language. You are doing a dis-service to thought, justice, and humanity.

Your response to "moral equivalent"

<p><span style="font-size: medium;">Let's say Abbie is correct that the phrase "moral equivalent of genocide" is meaningless. However, let's not debase the writer by calling this a temper tantrum. I do not mean it is "really, really, really bad." as you say. But I appreciate you forcing me back to sources to be more precise. So let me go back to definitions and show that the occupation is genocidal under the international legal definition of the crime of genocide, found in Articles II and III of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.(http://www.preventgenocide.org/genocide/officialtext-printerfriendly.htm). That definition includes ANY of 5 acts listed, which include: "(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part"; Lest there be any doubt if acts in the occupation fit this description, Article II describes "Punishible Acts" of the crime of genocide: "The following are genocidal acts when committed as part of a policy to destroy a group’s existence: "Killing members of the group includes direct killing and actions causing death. "Causing serious bodily or mental harm includes inflicting trauma on members of the group through widespread torture, rape, sexual violence, forced or coerced use of drugs, and mutilation. "Deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to destroy a group includes the deliberate deprivation of resources needed for the group’s physical survival, such as clean water, food, clothing, shelter or medical services. Deprivation of the means to sustain life can be imposed through confiscation of harvests, blockade of foodstuffs, detention in camps, forcible relocation or expulsion into deserts." Several of these are widely documented routine occurrences in the occupied West Bank, including: Serious bodily harm, including killing of people legally resisting occupation (legal under the Geneva Conventions of 1949), routine torture of prisoners; Deliberate deprivation of resources needed for the group’s physical survival, such as clean water, food (by stealing the water, not allowing Palestinians to drill as deep as the western aquiver, not allowing them in some towns to collect rainwater), clothing, shelter or medical services (by holding people in desperate need of medical care at checkpoints, sometimes to the point of death). Deprivation of the means to sustain life can be imposed through confiscation of harvests (e.g.by uprooting 800,000 olive trees), The discussion of genocide goes on to say: "Genocidal acts n aeed not kill or cause the death of members of a group. Causing serious bodily or mental harm, prevention of births and transfer of children are acts of genocide when committed as part of a policy to destroy a group’s existence." On this, let me just point to the bit on "mental harm." I think we can agree that seizing children at gunpoint in the middle of the night and carting them off to detention for a few weeks causes mental harm. It is a routine practice. Many Palestinian families have reported that their released children have been seriously traumatized and have lost their energy and joy. Shall we also include the cumulative effect of debasing Palestinians (only called Arabs in the Israeli world) by systematically teaching children that Arabs are a lower form of life, interested only in destroying Israel? Shall we include the 100s of discriminatory laws that broadcast the message that Jews are superior and subject to civil laws, while "Arabs" are subject to a harsh military code of law dating back to the Ottomans? Shall we include the division of the West Bank into A,B, and C sections, so that every Palestinian enclave is surrounded by walled roads they are not allowed to use, that cut their communities into little pieces, prevent their society from observing normal social relations? There are so many ways in which Israeli policies, teachings and propaganda debase Palestinians, curtail their right to a normal life, and thus cause incalculable mental harm. Let's not mess around with words. Israel's policies are genocidal. </span></p>

Genocide and the Bible

You write about the bible story where "god" asks the Israelites to commit genocide:

"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.'"

I doubt the story is there for this very subtle teaching. it is there because the bible among other reasons was written to show that Israelites could do even very nasty things because they were so special. interestingly the settlers occupying the last remnants of Palestine are the most devoted bible readers. reading stories like this absolutely encourages them to do what they are doing. it is not physical genocide, but they and the Israeli government and society as a whole, are doing what is necessary to make Palestinians disappear. If they just move to Jordan that will be good enough. as long as Israelis get all their land.

Jews have been very careful to keep their identity alive all these centuries. so they understand that there could be a kind of genocide that would not involve actual physical killings (which they are not very shy about either). so you are writing nice words, spinning the genocidal story into something unrecognizable while the settlers read it exactly as it was written, as justification for genocide. These days social genocide will do quite nicely, and they get to enjoy their swimming pools while steadfastly displacing the poor Palestinians.

Today's piece very well

Today's piece very well written and very well thought out. Thanks very much Arthur.

T'ruah missed an opportunity

Thank you for this wonderful essay, and i generally agree.

But as a T'ruah member, I was not pleased with the T'ruah statement. I thought they missed an opportunity to explain why Black Lives Matter is important at all. I didn't think "While we agree with many of the policy recommendations, ..." was an appropriate or effective way to explain the importance of ending police violence against African Americans.

Indeed, T'ruah was entirely silent about the issue of ending police violence against African Americans, or that there even is such violence. The statement just didn't do it.

I thought J Street as well as Rabbi Menachem Creditor speaking individually did a better job.

I don't disagree with where T'ruah stands on the "genocide" comment, but I found little to applaud in the statement. It was unfortunate that they (we) didn't find any space within their (our) statement to even explain what BLM is, let alone that there is a Jewish responsibility to support efforts to end police violence against African Americans.

Genocide: in the Bible & Today.

 Several commenters have had difficulty posting their comments. We are working to fix the software. Meaanwhile, at Prof Gordon Fellman's request i am posting his comment.--  AW

Thanks much, Arthur, for your lucid, excellent analysis. I don't see Torah stories of genocide as warnings we should not do it but rather as expressions of a mode of thinking and possibly acting common to the place and era in which the Torah was written.

I would be far more comfortable if we as Jews analyzed such phenomena in their historical context and denounced them from where we are now rather than rationalizing them as warnings rather than the blatant racism they to me clearly indicate in their time and place. Not to condemn the text but not to apologize for it either. We look back from NOW with concepts and politics quite recent in history.

Example: In 1964 I was hired as the 12th member of the Brandeis Sociology Department. We were 12 white men.  I did not notice at that time that there were no women and no non-whites in the department I was entering. I was neither racist nor obtuse in my social observations (I am indeed a sociologist), but in 1964 we did not have the race and gender lenses fit into our spectacles the ways we have learned to have them by now. 

For all its life, wisdom, and brilliance, the Torah is a remarkably flawed text reflecting social, political, and economic realities of the time and place of its writing. I do not find the rationalizations and cleaning up of the texts moving or useful. I prefer we celebrate what is there to be celebrated and distance ourselves from what by NOW is to be seen as intolerable. 

As for the genocide issue in the BLM statement, I sense that many Jewish organizations were simply waiting for a plausible reason to re-engage their racism which as we know is, like anti-Semitism, incredibly hard to shake off. Your analogy with finding Catholics acceptable while their Church, even under the current Pope, continues to represent positions we find intolerable, is spot on.

I urge us to use the current occasion to point out and challenge the racism of organizations that reject a movement because of an objectionable line or even word in a statement of policies. How ironic that Jewish organizations that insist we American Jews have to support Israel in spite of positions, personnel, and actions entirely abhorrent to countless of us, cherry pick ONE WORD in the BLM statement as reason to reject the statement and for many, the movement itself.

I find this morally and politically outrageous. To me, assimilation, anathema to the organized Jewish community, is less about intermarriage than about accepting and even embracing class privileges and world views, including racism, that continue to define significant parts of the population to which increasing numbers of American Jews are assimilating..

-- Gordon Fellman

Professor of Sociology
and Chair, Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence Studies
 Brandeis University
For information about my book RAMBO AND THE DALAI LAMA:
see my web page, people.brandeis.edu/~fellman/

"Listening is the beginning of peace." -- Elise Boulding

"one word"?!!

Oh please. Genocide is not "one word." It's an accusation of the most heinous crime imaginable. Please. Be serious.Don't insult the readers of this blog.

Reality beyond the word "genocide"

Several commenters have had difficulty posting their comments. We are working to fix the software. Meanwhile, at Harriet Cooke's request i am posting her comment.--  AW

Thank you Rabbi Arthur for your beautiful post that describes this situation. Too often we let words (like genocide), guide our emotional response. Your clarity about the issues is much more illuminating than a word. I was, however, inspired to look up the word. "Genocide: the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national or racial group." It doesn't say that we need to slaughter them like the brutality described in Torah, only that the effort need be systematic and deliberate AND with intent to exterminate.
      I saw a presentation by Compassionate Listening members of our congregation that showed a map of Israel since its nationhood, with the areas inhabited by Palestinians growing chillingly smaller and smaller and being broken up into more isolated parcels/ communities. What looked clear was a systematic destruction of Palestinian society within Israel. But perhaps the word, "expulsion" would be better than extermination. Though when a people is defined by their connection to land and they are expelled, the loss of culture and way of life may well be an extermination. And if the people have no place to go but a corner of their past world that has insufficent water that is unfit for human use.. we come dangerously close to a more protracted form of genocide.
     Much appreciation to T'ruah for encouraging a path forward that acknowledges the oppression and injustice and refuses to burn bridges with allies for justice over a word that is insufficient to describe the situation.

           -- Harriet Cooke

Disagree with "anti-Semitism" Assessment

Rabbi Waskow wrote: "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."

I don't agree with Rabbi Waskow's conclusion that the use of the word "genocide" in the Movement for Black Lives policy statement constitutes a strand of anti-Semitism. Genocide isn't the word I would have used. So what. Part of being an ally to #blacklivesmatter is allowing people of color to take the lead. I don't want to censor their analysis. And I certainly don't hold back my support from them because I would have used a different word.

Please explain the leap to anti-Semitism. How does preferring a different descriptor of Israel's behavior from what we might use constitue a strand of anti-Semitism?

While I agree that what's

While I agree that what's happening is not "genocide" per se, I think we might be safe in calling these policies and actions "genocidal" -- in other words, the continued marginalization of Palestinians and the systematic destruction of their way of life, as well as of their humanity, could easily end in the "destruction" of Palestinian society as it exists. Would this be "genocide?" Perhaps not -- but the impact on the Palestinians would be no different from an out-front campaign of genocide.

I would urge you to encourage us to add the phrase "v'al kol Yishmael" at the end of every Kaddish.
I have been doing this ever since you suggested it back during the first Intifada.

This is a powerful daily reminder that we're really in this together.

Thank you

<p>Such a thoughtful posting, Arthur, including the unusually civilized (for blog post comments in our time!) comments section. I'll be photocopying this and studying it with our Shabbat Torah Study group this week, even though it's a couple of weeks late - it's still very timely! Todah Rabbah.</p>

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