One Who Can Save A Life...
“Whoever can protest to his household and does not, is accountable [for the sins] of his household; if he could protest to his townspeople, he is accountable for their sins; if he could protest to the whole world, he is accountable for the whole world.” ~Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 54b
I’ve always believed that every person is created in the image of God. I know that equity and equality are essential to human society. I strive to fight racism. But for many years, I struggled in my support of the Black Lives Matter movement—not because I didn’t agree with the sentiment, but because in 2016 The Movement for Black Lives platform referred to Israel as “an apartheid state” and accused it of “genocide of the Palestinian people.” These were words that were so painful that I could not say the words Black Lives Matter. As much as I valued Black lives and as dedicated as I was to ending systemic racism, the organization that had adopted that slogan made me deeply uncomfortable, so I really struggled with them. As a proud Progressive Zionist who is deeply committed to the well-being of the State of Israel, I was so deeply conflicted.
I remain that same Progressive Zionist I was in 2016, but like so many in the Jewish world, I have come around to the Black Lives Matter movement; the slogan too, has changed for me. The 8 minutes and 46 seconds that led to the death of George Floyd at the hands of four police officers moved me to embrace the term. Should it have taken such a blatant abuse of power, such a violent demonstration of racial hatred to have opened my eyes? Of course not. But it did. And I have changed.
I couldn’t see the abuse without knowing, finally, what my black neighbors have been saying for years: fear is part of the reality of Black American lives, and the reality Black American children are born into. I have stood alongside people who have been oppressed, disenfranchised and othered for so long, but my not seeing it didn’t make it any less real. But now that I see, I cannot look away.
Yes, one part of a very loose and rapidly growing coalition that has formed around socioeconomic and racial justice in the past few weeks, continues, as part of its platform, to include a statement about Israel that continues to make me cringe. Yet the slogan, “Black Lives Matter” has become removed from and has grown far broader than any one organization—It neatly encapsulates an enormous and growing movement speaking a truth that we as a nation have struggled to hear (or needed to heed) for generations. The movement is focused on saving the lives of Black people by changing the way we do policing in our country and how we address systemic issues of race across America. I’m willing to bet that a vast majority of the people rising to the demand for racial justice aren’t thinking at all about international issues. The current moment is not remotely about Israel/Palestine. It is about the unfair and unacceptable precariousness of black lives right here, right now. The movement is trying to make this country safer and more equitable for Black and Indigenous people of color. Change is critical, and now is the time that change can happen. . . if we focus, commit, and work together.
Coalitions are complex. They are messy. As I’ve often heard said: “If you agree on everything with all of your allies, you don’t have enough allies.” Even as there are specific aspects of a huge movement about which we disagree, deeply, it is nevertheless critical for us to be in the conversation. We have a moral imperative to turn our urgent attention to the fight for Black lives lest we be remembered as embracing the wrong side of history. We will be judged by where we stand and what we say in these days. We must focus on the task before us: To bring safety and equity to Black people who live and who have suffered mightily in this country. This is the time for us as Jews to remember what Rabbi Avi Olitsky of MN recently wrote:
Just like not all white people are evil and not all cops are bad cops, not all members of the black community are anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. When those around me say “Black Lives Matter,” they don’t mean “cursed be Israel.” They don’t mean Jews are the enemy or that Israel is an apartheid state. They mean: “We people of color have been oppressed for centuries. And you have not put us on your priority list of urgent changes in this world. And we are hurting and suffering — and our children are dying. Why don’t we matter to you? Why does it seem like we only matter to us?
As a Jew, as an American, and as a human being, it is my obligation to step forward and to proclaim loudly and clearly that Black lives matter. Then, I must act to show the world that this is true. We must come together over our shared goal of ending systemic racism in all of its manifestations. That is the only way we can hope to find/create/pursue true justice in this country—for all people, everywhere.
Jews are taught that when we make a shiva visit, we should be silent until the mourner speaks with us. We should be a supportive presence, but we should listen, and follow the lead of the one in pain. We should be present, but we must not impose our agenda on them. Similarly, this is not the time to bring other issues to the fore, but instead to listen to what the Black community, that is hurting so deeply, is asking of us. The time will come for those conversations, but this is not the moment.
The murder of George Floyd cast Black Americans into a state of deep loss, grief and mourning. As Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg taught, we must act as we would at a time of shiva: we must be present, listen and follow the lead of those who have suffered enormous loss—even when it comes to the language we use. We do all of this with a deep understanding of our mutual responsibility. We do so with humility, with passion, with selflessness, and with deep empathy.
I still have a lot to learn, and I am listening carefully to my black and brown neighbors, congregants and friends. But I know that the first step, today, is to say the simple truth: Black Lives Matter.
As an expression of that truth, we will be hanging an artistic portrayal of the words Black Lives Matter (designed by former PSJC member, Aaron Hodge Greenberg) from our fence in front of the PSJC yard. While I recognize and respect that some congregants may disagree with this choice, I feel strongly that displaying a sign of solidarity in this moment hardly diminishes my or our community’s commitment to Israel. It does state clearly that we are people who know that we must live out a major dictate of the Torah: V’ahavta L’Rei-echa Kamocha—To Love Your Neighbor as Yourself. Hopefully, people who walk by will see this and understand that we, as a Jewish community, are here to honor and to support the lives of Black people...especially in this time of grief and anguish. . .That we are prepared to speak out for and to stand with the Black community, and, to paraphrase a great Jewish civil rights leader from a generation ago, to pray not only with our minds, but with our feet as well.
We have been taught that to save a single life is to save the world entire. This is our opportunity to help save a world, and it begins with a simple statement that counters a national narrative that has failed Black American lives for centuries. The time to say it, and to act accordingly, is now. We cannot wait another moment.
Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts with you today.
Rabbi Carie Carter