Picture of the Palestine Contingent during the main march during Ferguson October.

The Anti-Defamation League Kills the Black/Jewish Alliance

Image: Palestine Contingent during the main march during Ferguson October (Credit: Christopher Hazou)

Written by Lesley Williams, member of JVP–Chicago.

Recently the Movement for Black Lives issued a stirring and provocative call to action, a platform [1] demanding an end to the ongoing war against people of color. As a global, intersectional movement, MBL rightly challenges colonialism and racism around the world, exhorting us to “recognize and honor the rights and struggle of our Indigenous family for land and self-determination”.

Dozens of progressive organizations have applauded and endorsed the MBL platform, including Jewish Voice for Peace and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. In fact, it is hard to see how anyone committed to equality and human rights could not.

But then there ‘s the Anti Defamation League, and the response of its CEO Jonathan Greenblatt: Eyes on The Prize: In Pursuit of Racial Justice, Stick to the Facts and Avoid the Fiction [2]

A bit of background, I am an African American Jew by choice. My father fled racial terror in the deep south in the 1930s’; my mother worked on civil rights and peace initiatives in Europe after WWII. For both of them, Jews and Jewish organizations like the ADL represented hope for racial justice in their lifetimes.

Which explains my confusion over the ADL’s response. I would have thought that a group whose mission is to, “fight all forms of bigotry, defend democratic ideals and protect civil rights for all” [3] would be totally on board with the Platform. And it is, they assure us. Mostly.

Unless we’re talking about Israel, and its well documented oppression of Palestinians, which Greenblatt apparently considers to be “fiction”.

I beg your pardon?

Like others in the black community I naively assumed that those who condemn racist policing in the US would likewise condemn the country that trains many of those police departments. That an organization devoted to “building a just society where fair and equal treatment is guaranteed for all” [4] would protest the routine confiscation and demolition of Palestinian homes. That a civil rights organization which presses for equal treatment under the law would have problems with a nearly 50 year illegal occupation in defiance of UN resolutions, which deprives the occupied population of property, freedom of movement, and even access to water and electricity.

Foolish black people. What were we thinking?

Greenblatt patiently explains that the MBL platform is one sided because it “completely ignores incitement and violence perpetrated against Israelis by some Palestinians… challenges that have faced the Jewish state since its inception “ [5]

Silly us. How could we Negroes be so ill-informed?

But here’s the funny thing. African Americans such as myself, as well as indigenous people around the world, have an inexplicably stubborn prejudice against the “inception” of states which dispossess local populations. And we tend to feel that those indigenous populations have a right to fight back.

We know there has been horrific Palestinian violence against Israelis. But that can happen when a country’s “inception” (a much nicer term than “mass ethnic cleansing”) results in the displacement and death of thousands. And we’re puzzled that while Greenblatt is so quick to condemn Palestinian violence, neither the ADL’s statement nor its slick “ Key Facts About Israel” [6] contains the slightest mention of unrelenting daily Israeli violence against Palestinians. Rather than acknowledge the incitements that might drive violent resistance, Greenblatt scolds MBL for its “blatantly one-sided position on US-Israel relations and Israeli-Palestinian issues” [7]

Yes, we do tend to be “one sided” in our views on exploitative colonialist initiatives. Terribly shortsighted of us.

However, what has upset Greenblatt (and many other Jewish organizations) most about the MBL statement is its “repellent and completely inaccurate description of Israel’s policy towards Palestine as “genocide”.

Genocide is indeed repellent, but MBL is hardly the first to suggest that it is a completely accurate description of the Palestinian situation. Human rights lawyer Michael Ratner, co-founder of Palestine Legal, stated in a 2014 interview:

“It’s not just the thousands of people — Palestinians — that the state of Israel has killed over the years in its regular assaults, dwarfing the handful killed by Hamas’s rockets. Israel has, for decades, been carrying out what Israeli historian Ilan Pappé describes as an “incremental genocide,” one that has since 1948 seen Palestinians steadily removed from their land, their homes destroyed, and their families forced into fenced-in refugee camps, for no reason other than that Palestinians were born to the wrong mothers…It’s been going on for a long time, the killings, the incredibly awful conditions of life, the expulsions that have gone on from Lydda in 1947 and ’48, when 700 or more villages in Palestine were destroyed, and in the expulsions that continued from that time until today. It’s correct and important to label it for what it is.” [8]

I would like to hear why Greenblatt does not consider Israel’s “ policy” to be genocide, or even merely criminal. But he was a bit vague on that point, as well as on why the term “apartheid” (used by former president Jimmy Carter among others) [9] is a “gross mischaracterization”, given that Palestinians are subject to separate legal systems and are not allowed to build or even walk on certain areas of their own land. I suppose his reasoning would have been too subtle for us black folks. After all, “The Jewish community knows too much about genocide.” [10]

If only African Americans were as wise and knowledgeable about genocide as Mr. Greenblatt! Heck, we only lost 60 million or so of our people in the transatlantic slave trade, not to mention the thousands of lynchings and dispossessions during the post reconstruction era.

What could we possibly know about genocide?

Many White American Jews are fond of reminiscing, (most of them vicariously), about the old 60’s alliance between Blacks and Jews, extolling the hallowed moment when Abraham Heschel locked arms with Martin Luther King, and when Schwerner and Goodman died alongside Chaney in Mississippi.

These were indeed inspiring moments of solidarity — but they are in the past. If the ADL and other Jewish organizations wish to remain relevant, they must embrace the future of the movement, rather than revisiting past triumphs with nostalgic “legacy tours” [11] of the Deep South. Trotting out Heschel and King every time you disagree with a black person will not shame us into compliance. Frankly it sounds just the teensiest bit patronizing, as does Greenblatt’s self serving advice that we “keep our eyes on the prize”, and be grateful to good ol’ Uncle ADL, who clearly understands our needs better than we do.

The Movement for Black Lives has moved beyond the traditional civil rights movement; it is not dependent on well-meaning white “help”. Like it or not, it is a global movement, aware that human rights abuses in Palestine are far from fiction. You may disagree, but if your goal is true solidarity, you must not disrespect. My parents had a great deal of respect for the ADL; thank G-d they weren’t around to read that shameful op-ed and the betrayal it represents.

Lesley Williams is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace Chicago, and participated in the July 2016 “Occupation is Not Our Judaism” solidarity trip to the West Bank with Center for Jewish Nonviolence.

[1] “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom and Justice”. The Movement for Black Lives, https://policy.m4bl.org

[2] Jonathan Greenblatt blog, https://medium.com/@J0NATHAN_G/eyes-on-the-prize-in-pursuit-of-racial-justice-stick-to-the-facts-and-avoid-the-fiction-5a5486a5cb4e#.1z2jr558o

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

[6] Anti Defamation League: Israel a Guide for Activists, “Key Facts about Israel” http://www.adl.org/israel-international/israel-middle-east/content/AG/table-of-contents.html#.V6dd8nD3arW

[7] Jonathan Greenblatt blog, https://medium.com/@J0NATHAN_G/eyes-on-the-prize-in-pursuit-of-racial-justice-stick-to-the-facts-and-avoid-the-fiction-5a5486a5cb4e#.1z2jr558o

[8] “UN’s Investigation of Israel Should Go Beyond War Crimes to Genocide”, Interview with Michael Ratner, The Real News Network July 27 2014 http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=12155

[9] “Jimmy Carter: Israel’s ‘Apartheid’ Policies Worse Than South Africa’s” Haaretz, December 11 2006 http://www.haaretz.com/news/jimmy-carter-israel-s-apartheid-policies-worse-than-south-africa-s-1.206865



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