When I was a kid – and maybe some of you remember this – we were taught a little proverb to say back to people who were mean to us: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but [words will never hurt me].” Turns out, that’s a total crock.
I’ve spoken about the power of words in the past – but, given the events of this past week, I think the message bears repeating.
Words are powerful tools. They tell others exactly how we feel, and where we stand. From the mouths of compassionate and sensitive people, words can be enriching, inspiring, and healing. From the mouths of insensitive narcissists or bullies, words can be devastating – even life- threatening.
In last week’s Torah portion, at the end of the book of Numbers, we learn through the laws of swearing oaths that God presumes that we mean what we say, and that we have an obligation to fulfill what we promise. “If a man makes a vow to the Eternal or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself,” says the Torah, “he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.”
This Shabbat, in the first chapters of the book of Deuteronomy, as Moses begins his final oration to the people before his death, the Torah shows us the power of choosing our words carefully. Alternatively chastising and motivating, Moses reminds the people of all the times they neglected the oath uttered at Sinai, Na’aseh v’nishmah, “we will do, and we will heed,” resisting God’s commandments and his own leadership.
But his words also are a reminder to them that they have persevered under God’s protection through their forty years of wanderings, and that – despite their occasional outbursts of pique and frustration – God has indeed fulfilled the promise of bringing them as a free people to a land of their own.
Words can hurt. Words can heal. Words need to be chosen very carefully.
And that’s why so many of us in the Jewish community were so horrified, angry, and disappointed by the words – one word, actually – that appeared in the manifesto of The Movement for Black Lives – an umbrella statement on behalf of some 50 groups, including Black Lives Matter, that are fighting for racial justice. Most of the platform focuses on what the group sees as the systematic oppression of black people in America; it calls for an end to, and reparations from, economic, educational, social, and political discrimination. But then there’s this:
“The interlinked systems of white supremacy, imperialism, capitalism and patriarchy shape the violence we face,” says the document. “As oppressed people living in the US, the belly of global empire, we are in a critical position to build the necessary connections for a global liberation movement.” And to that end, the platform singles out one, and only one, nation outside the US as a partner in this imperialism enterprise:
“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.”
Genocide. “The deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.” The word sends shivers down our spines. We Jews know genocide. We lived it. We died in it.
In the wake of the Holocaust, it was the United Nations itself that adopted this word to describe the systematic destruction of the Jewish people by the Nazi regime, and to condemn it as an international crime.
We have watched in horror since then as tyrannical regimes have engaged in genocidal slaughter: Tens of thousands of ethnic Kurds slaughtered by Ba’athist Iraq in the 1980s; the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia in the 1990s; and, most recently, the wholesale slaughter of the Yazidi people by the Islamic State.
Israel today is threatened by the avowed genocidal ambitions of the mullahs of Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and elements of the PLO in the West Bank.
But Israel is a victim, not a perpetrator. It is not perfect, by any means, and it has caused a lot of damage and made a lot of poor decisions. I have challenged Israel’s leadership on any number of occasions from this pulpit, and criticized its policies. But it does not engage, and has not engaged, in the deliberate and systematic destruction of the entire Palestinian Arab population.
The person responsible for the language, Ben Ndugga-Kabuye, says he can’t understand what all the fuss is about. He says their solidarity with the Palestinian people is not any different than their connection with Somalis or Colombians. But his document does not single out any other nation for condemnation, nor attribute genocidal intent to any other. Only Israel. And that rightly sticks in the craw of Jews and Jewish organizations around the world, many of whom have worked in partnership with black civil rights groups for decades in the fight for equality and human dignity.
Some of us could see this coming. I preached last winter about Black Lives Matter and how it publicly turned its back on one of its strongest and most committed supporters, Rabbi Susan Talve of St. Louis, who had literally been on the front lines of protests in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Missouri, two years ago. Her crime was in being a Zionist – that is, by their definition, she is an enemy of the Palestinian people and therefore an enemy of black Americans. The Movement platform is a codification of that notion that black Americans and Palestinian Arabs have some commonality that Jews – we who lost six million of our brothers and sisters to genocide – somehow cannot understand.
It is a rupture in a relationship that will not be easily healed. As Yair Rosenberg wrote in Tablet Magazine, “It is sadly clear that those select activists who shoehorned such a slur in to the Black Lives Matter platform, whether out of ignorance or malice, have needlessly driven a wedge into the very necessary alliance to ensure equal treatment of America’s African-American brothers and sisters.”
Some Jewish voices on the left – many of whom support boycotts and divestment from Israel and identify her as a racist and aggressive state, came to the defense of BLM this past week. They told us to check our white privilege at the door and choose to side with these liberation movements. They contended that Zionism is antithetical to Jewish liberation.
To them, Rabbi Gil Steinlauf of Adas Israel in Washington DC penned a spectacular public response:
“Movements that struggle for racial justice teach us that privilege binds us,” he wrote:
“In America, good-hearted white people can delude themselves, believing that they understand black people because they care. But BlackLivesMatter and similar movements remind them that, while they may care, privileged people cannot understand what it is to be denied privilege . . .
“When BlackLivesMatter supports BDS and labels the Jewish people as perpetrators of genocide, then BlackLivesMatter is falling into the very oppression that it seeks to dismantle. BDS and similar groups are the product of privileged people who care about Palestinians, but who cannot understand the full complexity of dynamics in Israel-Palestine.
“From their position of privilege, BDS and all movements that seek to deny the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state, distort and oversimplify the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The result is a dangerous narrative that denies the voice of human beings – Israelis – who genuinely struggle for safe and just lives alongside their Palestinian brothers and sisters. The reality is that the Jewish state is an incredibly diverse and complex democracy, where the majority of Jewish people are struggling to end the occupation in a peaceful and just way.”
Rabbi Steinlauf has hit on two very important points. First, black Americans don’t understand what it’s like to be Jewish or Israeli any more than I can understand what it’s like to be a black American.
Second, the BDS movement and other similar anti-Israel groups are not really about the rights of Palestinians. They are committed to delegitimizing Israel’s right to exist, willfully ignoring the historic four-thousand year link between Jews and the Land of Israel, and characterizing the Jewish homeland solely as a post-Holocaust white colonial land grab.
As Bradley Burston wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz this week, “There’s a name for a belief that there is only one country which has permanently forfeited the right to exist, only one people which is so abhorrent, so incomparably wicked, that it alone has no right to self-determination.” That name, he said, is “racism.”
It is a sad, hurtful, and harmful thing that has happened: that a movement committed to racial equality has been coopted – perhaps by a small radical element – into championing what is, at its heart, a racist agenda.
I do not use that word lightly, because Torah teaches me how much power words have. But, like the Israelite who makes an oath, I have to take the Movement at its word. I have to presume that it has made a deliberate choice – in a world rife with slaughter and slavery – to single out Israel and only Israel as a perpetrator of genocide.
Movement supporters may say: Oh, but it’s only one word out of 40-thousand. But that doesn’t matter. As General Michael Hayden said this week in response to an equally incendiary public remark, “You’re not just responsible for what you say, you are responsible for what people hear.” And what I heard was untrue and unacceptable.
The Movement for Black Lives is insisting that I repudiate my Jewish identity and my Jewish home if I am to be their partner. And I’m not going to do that. There are plenty of religious, ethnic, and civil-rights groups committed to issues of social justice and personal dignity, with whom I can find common ground and who will not expect me to check my Jewish self at the door. It is, after all, that Jewish self that compels me to work for equality and freedom and justice.
I’m not going to give up the work. But I may have to find someone else whose hand I can hold, and whose counsel I can rely on, to get the job done.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin