David Ben Gurion’s Lessons About Black Lives Matter

Posted on July 25, 2020

On Wednesday evening I got to watch Liverpool Football Club lift the trophy as Champions of the English Premier League, the first time they had achieved that goal in 30 years. This morning I saw an article that asked the question “Which is the greatest title-winning team in Premier League history?”  We love lists and we love to rank teams and people against each other – and it got me thinking who is the all-time greatest leader of the Jewish people? That, and I couldn’t resist mentioning Liverpool’s triumph this evening.

When we think about the greatest leader of the Jewish people it is hard to imagine that anyone could challenge Moses for the top spot. He challenged the despotic Pharaoh in Egypt, he led the Israelites through the wilderness to the brink of the Promised Land, and he took a group of slaves and formed them into a people. So, if we’re comfortable giving him the number-one ranking, the question is: who comes in second? And while there might be a bit of recency bias I think it is hard to look past David Ben Gurion, who was the founding Prime Minister of the State of Israel and the man who re-established us as a nation with a country and a homeland to call our own.

While there were many challenging moments that David Ben Gurion faced, first as the leader of the Yishuv, the Jewish settlement in Palestine, and then as the Prime Minister of Israel. I do think one of the hardest periods of his leadership must have been in 1939. This was the year that World War Two broke out in Europe with Nazi Germany on one side facing off against the British led Allies on the other. It was clear that the Nazis posed a very real threat to the survival of the Jews and Judaism. It was a no-brainer that David Ben Gurion and the leaders of the Jewish community in Palestine would be on the side of the British, at war with Nazi Germany, either directly or through proxies in the Middle East.

But in that same year Britain had published a White Paper which abandoned the idea of partitioning the land between Jews and Arabs, drastically limited Jewish immigration to the Holy Land, and severely restricted the ability of Jews to buy land there. This White Paper threatened everything that David Ben Gurion had been working towards; it was an existential threat to the idea of a Jewish State. Tensions between the Jewish community of Palestine and the British had been escalating for some time, but the White Paper brought them to a peak. It was clear that in the Land of Israel the British and Jews were on opposing sides.

And so, in September of 1939 David Ben Gurion declared: “We must assist the British in the war as if there were no White Paper and we must resist the White Paper as if there were no war.”

David Ben Gurion understood that the world we live in is rarely black and white. He was placed in an impossible situation with challenges on either side of him, but he found a way to articulate a vision and a path that would guide him and his community over the ensuing years. He gave permission to fight anti-Zionism on one side and Nazism on the other side. Without his leadership it would have been impossible to find a path through the turmoil that was engulfing his community.

David Ben Gurion understood that as a Jewish community sometimes we are forced to fight multiple foes in multiple directions in relation to multiple issues. Our allies in one area may be our foes in another. It is unlikely that there is ever a group, or even a person, with whom we agree 100% of the time on every issue or subject.

Over the last couple of months, on more than one occasion, I have been asked about the Jewish community in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement. The assumption underlying many of those questions seems to assume that the Jewish community and Black Lives Matter movement are in opposition with each other, as though you cannot support both. I would suggest that there have been groups who are trying to further sow the seeds of enmity between the Jewish and Black community, ignoring the fact that there is also significant overlap between us.

So, to begin, we have an obligation to speak out, stand up and fight against the inherent racism that is present in our society against the black community. I am not concerned by who else I will find on that side of the debate and the argument. I am concerned about being on the right side of the debate. I am concerned about ensuring that we as a Jewish community speak up in the way that our texts, our commandments, our Prophets, our history, our experiences and our basic goodness require. My support of an issue or a cause or a campaign does not mean that I support everyone and every organization who believes similarly.

I have seen a number of analogies and posts about this subject. For me the most powerful one is to suggest that a house is on fire, and even though there are other houses on the same street and those houses are important, the one on fire is the one that needs our attention. In that situation the first and only obligation is to extinguish flames. Let’s worry about having a conversation once the fire has been put out. Right now, this country is ablaze with racism against the black community, and our obligation is to extinguish the fire.

And I am perfectly comfortable in holding this position and simultaneously speaking out and opposing anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism wherever I might find it. I am deeply troubled by the voices in the Black Lives Matter movement, not all of them, but some, who seek to subvert the agenda of fighting racism against the black community and to begin a discourse against the Jewish community or Israel. We must speak out; we must stand up and we must fight against this dangerous current and feeling amongst some in this movement.

The problem is that too many people want to set up a situation that sees us as either this or that, they cannot abide the notion that we can be both. But fundamentally we have always been, especially as a Jewish community, both and. David Ben Gurion understood this idea and Reform Judaism, from our founding, has celebrated and put this idea at the very heart of who we are. We are simultaneously traditional and modern, we maintain a religion that stretched back thousands of years while innovating what it can be today, we are both Jews and Americans. Our very identity is based on the rejection of the idea of being either-or, and instead celebrates that we can be both and.

I am both against the racism that the black community faces and against the anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism that we all too often hear. Or to put it another way I am both a supporter of the cause that black lives matter and I am a supporter of the State of Israel.

I will not allow anyone to define what I can or cannot believe and the causes that I will or will not support. I am worried that we are being played here as a political football by forces who, at the end of the day, will neither be good for the Jews nor good for the black community.

So how do we respond?

The first thing we must do is recognize and acknowledge that the Black Lives Matter movement has, over time, shifted its position. While there are still voices present who share abhorrent views about Jews and the State of Israel; if you look at their charter the offending passages and statements are no longer present. If you go to their website, which I have done and in the search box type the words: Israel, Jew, Jewish, Jews, Judaism, Palestine, Palestinians your search will yield no results. I would suggest there were missteps at the beginning, but they have rectified those mistakes, apologized and removed the offending articles.

I don’t know what led them to make these changes to their charter and I know that there are some within the movement who still share and promote anti-Semitic positions. But there is one thing of which I am certain, they did not change the charter and their positions because of opponents attacking them and condemning them.  I am sure that they shifted their position because of allies and friends who opened their eyes to the problems of what they were saying.

Last year, when the Rev. Al Sharpton spoke at the Religious Action Center’s Consultation on Conscience, he not only appealed to Reform Jews for a united front in facing down anti-Semitism, racism and other forms of bias, but he also acknowledged his role in stoking division.[1] In reevaluating his position towards the Jewish community, after standing on the wrong side of the debate and the discussion, he said that it was Coretta Scott King who opened his eyes. She told him: “Al, the purpose of our movement has never been to just get civil rights for us, it’s to protect and stand for civil and human rights for everyone.” As he acknowledged none of his opponents, the editorials, cartoons or other critiques impacted him in the way that hearing from Mrs. King did, because she was a person he trusted, and ally – when she spoke, he listened.

And we can look closer to home for another example of how to face this situation. Earlier this month the Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver, DeSean Jackson posted two anti-Semitic messages on his Instagram account. They are offensive enough to not be worth repeating, and unsurprisingly there was an immediate backlash. But it was New England’s Julian Edelman who had the response that should serve as an example for us. First, he waited; he did not speak out immediately, but he took some time to ensure that he offered a thoughtful response to a complicated issue. He recognized that this situation created an opportunity for a conversation and while he spoke out against anti-Semitism, he also expressed the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement.

And then he got to the heart of it saying: “I think the Black and Jewish communities have a lot of similarities. One unfortunate similarity is that they are both attacked by the ignorant and the hateful. It’s really hard to see the challenges a community can face when you’re not part of it. So what we need to do is, we need to listen, we need to learn, we need to act. We need to have these uncomfortable conversations if we’re going to have real change.”[2] He invited DeSean to join him in Washington DC to visit the United States Holocaust Museum and the Museum of African American History and Culture– where they could then split a burger and have the uncomfortable conversations.

When a person is attacked, they automatically become defensive. When an organization or a movement is attacked, they respond in a similar way. To effect real change we have to follow Julian Edelman’s example and to take our time to have a thoughtful and uncomfortable conversation.

For me personally, I want to support the cause for which the Black Lives Matter movement is fighting. I fundamentally believe in the importance of equal rights for all and the opportunity of this moment to address the inequality that the black community has faced. I do this as a Jew. And so when we stood in Natick town center as part of a vigil we brought with signs in Hebrew and in English, quoting the Torah – Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – Justice Justice shall you pursue. We wanted people to know that we were there as members of the Jewish community, standing up for what we believe and what is at the heart of what it means to be Jewish.

At the beginning of the Torah Cain asks the question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The answer has always been and will always be “yes.” We are responsible for one another, regardless of the color of a person’s skin, race, religion, gender, or sexuality.

At this moment in time we cannot be limited, we must be ready to live with the discomfort recognizing that it is not a case of either-or, but rather an opportunity for both-and. I refuse to be silent in fighting for the rights and freedoms of the black community and I refuse to be silent in fighting for the rights and freedoms of the State of Israel. For me there is no contradiction in this both-and position. They are both expressions of my Jewish values, of the call to be a blessing and to bring blessing, and of our obligation to do all that we can to make this world a better place not just for us, but for everyone.

Ken Yehi Ratzon – May it be God’s will.

[1] https://forward.com/fast-forward/424623/al-sharpton-jewish-crown-heights/
[2] https://nesn.com/2020/07/julian-edelman-powerfully-responds-to-desean-jacksons-anti-semitic-social-media-posts/