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Principles to Guide Our Work

The following is a talk given by Cherie Brown (the RC International Liberation Reference Person for Jews) at a meeting of community and faith leaders called by the mayor of Washington, D.C. (USA). There had been painful accusations between people of color and Jews following a series of local incidents, and Cherie was asked to speak about principles and practices for dealing with anti-Semitism and racism.

Our community has recently been ripped apart. Painful feelings and accusations have been flying back and forth. There has been racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and Gay oppression. What practices do we need to put in place so that these incidents don’t drive a wedge between our peoples?

Tonight I’m offering four principles to guide our work:

1) No matter how unbearable it gets, we have to stay in the room! There is no other good choice.

After one of my many trips to Israel, I was leading a session in Boston (Massachusetts, USA) with an Arab man. We were addressing a group of five hundred people, modeling being allies to each other’s peoples. At one point I said that I was proud of Israel. I never got to finish my talk. A Palestinian woman started shouting at me from the back of the room, “How dare you say you’re proud of Israel!” She continued to scream out awful things about what Israel was doing to the Palestinian people. Some of her points I agreed with. Many I did not. But I did not interrupt her. And she kept screaming at me for fifteen minutes.

My insides were on fire. But I knew that if I refuted her and we went back and forth, we would be in a losing battle. Fifteen minutes is a long time when someone is attacking your people, but at the end of her speak-out she looked up at me and said, “You’re the first Jewish person who ever listened to me. Can we meet for lunch?” The room was electric.

This woman had come to the United States because her ears had been impaired by Israel’s bombing in southern Lebanon. She and I met for the three months she was here. That relationship-building led to the first-ever dialogue between some members of the Israeli Knesset and the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization], at a time when it was still illegal for them to meet. I knew intense emotions would be flying in that session. We required one thing of all the participants—they had to agree (in writing) that no matter how much they disagreed with what the other side was saying, they would stay in the room until the end of the session.

This work is not easy. But if we abandon each other when harsh things are said, we will never move forward. And the oppressive forces want nothing more than for us to remain divided.

2) We need to understand the specifics of each other’s pain and what triggers it.

Our work is not just standing shoulder to shoulder singing freedom songs. Many of our peoples have histories full of devastating experiences, and we need to be willing to learn about each other’s trigger points.

A number of years ago the African American Center at an East Coast (USA) college invited a controversial speaker to campus. During his talk he allegedly said, “The only good Zionist is a dead Zionist.” A Jewish student in the audience stood up and said that he was proud to be a Zionist. That student was slugged [hit]. It was the lead story on the six o’clock news that evening.

The campus administration was in a panic and invited my organization to lead a workshop for Black and Jewish students and faculty. When I arrived, camera crews from NBC, CBS, and ABC [large U.S. television stations] were setting up for the session. I told them that it was closed to the press but invited them to come back at the end to interview the students and faculty who’d attended.

At one point in the session we taught the NCBI [National Coalition Building Institute] “Controversial Issue Process,” in which a group chooses a highly controversial issue and then listens to the heartfelt concerns on each side of it. This group chose “Should controversial speakers that include hate speech in their talks be welcomed on campus?” (This is one of the most contentious issues on campuses across the United States.) The group was evenly divided.

An African American student spoke first: “Do you think we’re stupid? Do you think we can’t listen to someone and then discern what in their message makes sense and what doesn’t? Stop insulting us and telling us whom we can and can’t listen to. That’s racist.”

The Jewish student spoke next: “Don’t tell us to just trust you. Our whole history is one of being told that we are safe and then, when it’s too late to leave, being gassed and endangered with pogroms. And to make it worse, a lot of the hatred toward us now gets put into code words, so that people don’t even know they’re being anti-Semitic. We can’t trust you without more basis for the trust and knowing that you will speak out against anti-Semitism.”

Then it was time to reframe the question, taking the concerns of both sides into account. The question they came up with [thought of] was “How can the African American community on campus have full self-determination to decide who they listen to, while the Jewish community gets concrete proof that they have allies who will speak out about anti-Semitism?”

They ended up deciding to launch a Black-Jewish coalition—they would invite controversial speakers to a private meeting, away from media attention, and teach each other about hurtful messages. The students and faculty had moved forward, and the Black-Jewish coalition sustained itself for many years.

We don’t need to be afraid of making mistakes. We just need a way to use them to learn about our histories and the code words that have been used against our peoples.

3) We must hold firm as allies, not get confused, and not collude with the pull to choose sides—no matter how hard it is.

I was at the United Nations Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. It was an amazing place to be—there were ten thousand anti-racism activists from all over the world. It was also a painful place to be a Jew. Some people were wearing buttons that said that Hitler hadn’t done enough of his job. Being passed around the conference was a cartoon depicting a man with a beard and a long hooked nose, and blood pouring from his hands. It was similar to cartoons used in the Middle Ages to incite violence against Jews.

When the head of the conference, Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the time, saw these anti-Semitic pictures, she responded, “If these cartoons are being passed out here in Durban, then I’m a Jew.” The next day the conference newspaper headline read, “Mary Robinson says, ‘I’m a Jew.’”

On the last day of the conference, at least half of the audience hissed at and booed Mary Robinson simply because she had taken a stand against anti-Semitism. I was heartbroken. These were my people—anti-racism activists from all over the world—and they were not prepared to stand up against anti-Semitism.

I had gone to the conference with United to End Racism, a hundred-person international delegation. Black members of the delegation kept coming up to me all week saying, “We don’t know what to do. We want to stand up for Jews, but as people of color we don’t want to abandon our Palestinian brothers and sisters.” And the Jews kept coming up to me saying, “We don’t know what to do. We don’t want people to think we hate Palestinians because we care about Israel.”

I said, “I don’t want you to choose. I need you to be for both peoples. Otherwise the oppressors win. Our peoples get pitted against each other in these divisive ways, and it is sometimes hard to be for both peoples. Yet that is exactly what we are now being called to do.”

4) We must stand against the forces that pit our peoples against each other.

Anti-Semitism is used to divert the work of all progressive movements. For example, A Wider Bridge, a group that highlights Gay activism in Israel, was invited a few years ago to the Creating Change Conference (a U.S. national gathering on Gay liberation). Some people insisted that A Wider Bridge should be uninvited because Israel, they claimed, was so oppressive—so the group was uninvited. Then others asked, “Why are you inviting groups from all other countries, even those with horrible human rights violations, and only excluding this one group?” So they were re-invited. However, at one point a member of A Wider Bridge, someone wearing a yarmulke [a skullcap worn by some Jewish males], was beaten up and the police had to be called. Here was a conference devoted to Gay liberation—and its agenda was completely derailed by anti-Semitism.

We need to understand the specifics of this divide-and-conquer mechanism. My colleague, Aurora Levins Morales, a Latina Jew, says it well:

“The oppression of Jews is like a pressure valve redirecting the steaming rage of working people away from the one percent who own the wealth. For us Jews to be blamed for oppression, some of us must be seen to prosper—must be well paid and highly visible, positioned as the public faces of an inequality we might help to administer but usually do not own.

“The purpose of oppressing Jews is not to crush us day by day. It’s to have us available for crushing, to be the bone they throw. Nobody sees the owners. They hire us to be their faces. They send us to collect taxes. They appoint us as judges. Long before they let us live in their neighborhoods, they let us manage some of their inner-city buildings. Most of the people who manage the buildings are not Jews, but there are just enough Jewish names to keep everyone confused. Then they keep telling stories of how all Jews are greedy, and how we control everything. When the New York (USA) Senate recently cut five hundred million [dollars] from the budget of the City University of New York, they told the working-class people of color who studied there that the reason they now couldn’t afford to go to college wasn’t because the board overseeing City University didn’t want to continue funding public universities but because the Jews were upset by things taking place on campus.

“We can’t fight against this lie, against the ways our peoples get set up against each other, unless we see it in broad daylight—right in front of our faces. So let’s not just blame the messengers who are making the mistakes, for they are also shedding a light on the places we all need to work. Anti-Semitism, and the intersection of anti-Semitism and racism, is not new. What is new is that it’s now out there, being talked about, being written about. So now we can do something about it.”

Because so many people of color and Jews are out there in the trenches, fighting every day for social justice, our struggles show. Black and Latino/a people’s anti-Semitism and white Ashkenazi Jews’ racism often get pointed out, while white Gentiles’ anti-Semitism and racism stay hidden and unexposed. When the Klan marched around a synagogue in Charlottesville (Virginia, USA) on Shabbat, terrifying Jews and shouting out, “Jews will not replace us!” not nearly enough mainstream press attention was given to this anti-Semitism.

So yes, we need to correct our mistakes. We need to hold each other to a high level of accountability. We need to require each other to speak out against anti-Semitism, racism, and all oppressions. But let’s not forget that powerful forces are trying to pit us against and keep us confused about each other. We cannot let that continue.

May tonight be a night we commit ourselves to stay in the room, no matter how unbearable it gets; teach each other about our pain; hold firm as allies without taking sides; and fight with all we’ve got against those forces that would pit us against each other.

Cherie Brown

International Liberation Reference Person for Jews

Silver Spring, Maryland, USA

(Present Time 192, July 2018)

Last modified: 2018-07-29 12:16:14+00