Anti-Israel platform tests alliances of social justice advocates

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

Tasha Kaminsky has donated to both Jewish Federation of St. Louis and to Millennial Activists United, an organization that, among other things, provides legal assistance to people who were arrested during protests in response to the Ferguson police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. 

She supports the Black Lives Matter movement as well as Israel, and works as director of development at the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri and Southern Illinois. 

So when the Movement for Black Lives coalition released a platform Aug. 2 that called for ending U.S. military aid to Israel and described Israel as “an apartheid state,” some might have predicted that Kaminsky would feel alienated by the coalition and decide to distance herself from the movement. 

But Kaminsky said that despite the “inflammatory language” on Israel, the platform “doesn’t make me reconsider my support of Black Lives Matter. They still matter just as much as they did before that document was posted.”

A number of people in the local Jewish community expressed disappointment with the statements about Israel in the platform but also said that they still support the movement’s fight against inequality and racial injustice.

Jewish Federation President and CEO Andrew Rehfeld was traveling, and unavailable for an interview. However, he shared a post he wrote on Facebook. 

“We have so many shared concerns and aligned values on which we should unite,”  he wrote. “Let us recognize the places we strongly disagree and double our efforts to forge common ground.”

The platform does not come as a total surprise to local Jewish leaders because of previous links between supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and Black Lives Matter activists. Late last year, people affiliated with groups like Black Lives Matter/Hands Up United and St. Louis Jewish Voice for Peace criticized Central Reform Congregation Rabbi Susan Talve, who was active in the Ferguson protests, because she supported Israel. One of the groups posted a picture of Talve on Facebook with the hashtag “#realterrorist” and the words “supports genocide and international apartheid.” 

Many Jewish leaders believe addressing racial disparities in the United States and achieving a two-state solution in Israel are both worthy causes. But most disagree with connecting the efforts.

“It establishes a false link between two things that have no link,” said Nancy Lisker, director of American Jewish Committee — St. Louis regional chapter.

Others say they can understand why the authors of the platform made the connection between Palestinians in the West Bank and African Americans in the United States. 

The authors have come to “a sense of solidarity between the struggle for Palestinian liberation and the struggle for black liberation,” said Michael Berg, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, a left-wing group that supports the BDS movement. 

Rachel Sacks, a social worker who has worked as an advocate for police reform, said she was “put off” by the statement in the platform that a “genocide (is) taking place against the Palestinian people.” 

But she added that “it’s self-serving and disingenuous to deny the genuine relationships” among African Americans and Palestinians and “their similar feelings and frustrations of feeling oppressed.”

Despite disagreements among Jews on the statements about Israel included in the platform, local leaders did not encourage people to distance themselves from the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“Relationships are messy and they are painful and really for us it’s about, how do we need to approach these relationships differently,” said Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis. “Where do we need to be doing more outreach and where do we need to do less outreach?”

Organizations like JCRC do not have any formal partnerships with the 40 groups that endorsed the platform, said Picker Neiss. The organization works with groups like the NAACP and the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, which tries to help African Americans achieve economic self-reliance and civil rights.

But had the Jewish community been more involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, say Picker Neiss and others, it may have been able to offer opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and affect the platform.

“The question I have to ask myself is, where were we in this conversation that we allowed this to take hold? It says to me that we were not in that conversation,” said Picker Neiss. 

Rehfeld condemned the platform for containing “baseless anti-Semitism.” He also wrote that when considering how the American Jewish community has treated the Black Lives Matter and the Civil Rights movements, the “overwhelming response” has “been indifference; its distinctive feature has been a lack of any collective response at all. Except to condemn and object when we are (rightly) offended.”

“History will only tell whether those few leaders who have joined in partnership today with BLM will join Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as historical figures who, in our collective memory, come to define what we remember to be our communal response despite the overwhelming indifference. Or whether they will be condemned for their involvement or simply forgotten,” Rehfeld wrote. 

“So if the demand is that we must not stand with those who do not stand with us, let’s ask a different question: have we really stood with them in the first place?” he wrote. “Not an easy question to ask, and perhaps a more difficult one to answer.”