Pursuing Racial Justice, Fighting Antisemitism

The Black Lives Matter movement, and the massive Black-led civil rights protests that have swelled up across the nation in the aftermath of the lynching of George Floyd by police officers this past May, launched a long-overdue reckoning over systemic racism in our country. The protests have been multiracial, multicultural, and multi-generational, in many ways a manifestation of what is best about America. And the clarion call of “Black Lives Matter” that has echoed from the streets to all corners of society is not just a phrase, but also an assertion of a basic moral truth and a straightforward demand for racial justice in this country. It is a call that must be answered with solidarity and compassion over division and hate.

As an organization founded to fight hate, ADL (the Anti-Defamation League) is in solidarity with this racial justice movement. That is because Black lives matter. Period. There should be no disagreement or dispute over this simple proclamation of humanity. And yet the need to assert that Black lives matter arises from repeated instances of violence against Black people, often at the hands of law enforcement officers. Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. Michael Brown. Rekia Boyd. Eric Garner. Philando Castile. Sandra Bland. Stephon Clark. Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco. Elijah McClain. Ahmaud Arbery. Rayshard Brooks. Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. These and so many other names will be forever tied to this moment, now movement, of reckoning.

The Black Lives Matter movement has gained unprecedented momentum in recent months in part because it is not owned or controlled by a specific organization or leaders. It is Black-led and radiates through the grassroots across this country, engaging every age and demographic, and across political, racial, religious and geographic divides. This may be the largest protest movement in American history; it will, we hope, be a lasting inflection point in the nation’s long fight for civil rights.

This decentralized, grassroots phenomenon has had broad reach. Countless churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples have mobilized under BLM banners. Black communities are leading this movement, including Black Jews who are active members of our diverse Jewish community.

As it was written more than 100 years ago, ADL remains committed to our historic mission to “stop the defamation of the Jewish people and secure justice and fair treatment to all.” This compels us to mobilize our resources and harness our capabilities in support of this movement. And so we are actively supporting it, whether advocating for legislation to combat police brutality and voter suppression, participating in litigation, working inside and outside our own organization to educate ourselves about institutional and structural racism, and monitoring and reporting on white supremacists and other extremists who seek to manipulate and undermine the Black Lives Matter movement.

There are those who are attempting to smear this movement as inherently antisemitic. It is not. In fact, the fight for justice for marginalized communities always has been core to our Jewish tradition.

At the same time, it is also true that some individuals and organizations associated with the Black Lives Matter movement have engaged in antisemitic rhetoric. And, as always, when we see antisemitism, regardless of the source, ADL will speak out –even if it emanates from some in the movement.

This is entirely consistent with our longstanding mission to call out antisemitism wherever and whenever it arises. Whether it’s a speaker making claims at a march, a celebrity spouting conspiracies on social media, or an elected official from any political party peddling tropes, when people engage in antisemitic statements or actions, we will speak up. When elected officials or community activists revert to anti-Jewish stereotypes, we will demand better of them. And we must ask the same of ourselves when we see bigotry in our own ranks.

I wrote in 2016 about the difference between the decentralized Black Lives Matter movement and some positions taken by specific organizations that have joined in the cause. For example, the separate not-for-profit organization, Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), as part of its larger foreign policy platform, published highly inflammatory statements accusing Israel (alone out of all states in the world) of contemporaneously engaging in genocide. For a people who still struggle with the myth of the blood libel, this charge of genocide — that the Jewish state of Israel seeks the mass extermination of a whole group of people in an attempt to wipe them out of existence — is not just false; it could be deadly.

M4BL also claims that Israel is an apartheid state, despite the fact that it is a dynamic multiethnic democracy, a society in which a majority of Jews are indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, a state that is far more open and liberal than any other country in the region. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with criticizing Israeli policy, including policies relating to the Israel/Palestinian conflict. But those who seek to delegitimize the very existence of the Jewish state and who regularly demonize its citizens do little to advance peace and can actually promote prejudice. And so, while I continue to agree with and respect many of the goals of the broader M4BL platform, I condemned these assertions about Israel in 2016 and I unequivocally condemn them again now.

More broadly, the delegitimization of the Jewish right to self-determination or the peddling of antisemitic diatribes on social media, whether from the right or left of the U.S. political spectrum, has particular resonance now because we are living in a moment when American Jews have experienced more antisemitic acts than at any point in the last 40 years. As ADL repeatedly has reported, the vast majority of violent extremism targeting Jews — as well as Black and brown communities, Muslims, Sikhs, LGBTQ individuals, and immigrants — has come from right-wing extremists, and notably white supremacists. Amidst so much hate, it’s all the more painful to see anti-Jewish conspiracy theories and tired tropes recycled in the public conversation.

With regard to BLM, however, let’s keep in mind that this is a bottom-up movement, not a top-down monolith. There is a very broad range of opinions among its leaders, let alone the rank and file. And we would be foolish to cede the conversation to the most intemperate voices.

Ultimately, I believe the best way to push back is to participate in this historic struggle for racial justice. If we believe Black lives matter, then we should not withdraw from this fight just because some involved in the cause hold hateful ideas. When faced with a moral challenge, the answer is not abandonment but engagement.

In closing, yes, we should call out antisemitic hatred without hesitation wherever it appears — but even as we do so, let us recommit to dismantle the systemic racism that runs so deep in our society. When we engage in this struggle with our full selves, we are true to ADL’s timeless mission. And we help make America a better country for all.

CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League