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Finding Leaders We Can Work With in the BLM Era

Even in these uncertain times, many potential friends and allies are waiting to work together with us for the common good

A sense of crisis, gloom, and even panic has gripped American Jews as they grapple with the Black Lives Matter tsunami that has upended the political, cultural, and social norms of our nation.

How far do we go to maintain shalom bayit with our neighbors as politicians join activists in dramatically reducing funding for police, and as some, egged on by anti-Israel fanatics, luridly and perniciously try to link George Floyd’s murder to Israel’s training of US police?

Some have already made their choice by embracing the BLM organization, even though it has labeled Israel an apartheid state and as BLM protests in London and Paris are punctuated by anti-Jewish chants. We don’t.

Others have publicly allied with Rev. Al “No Justice No Peace” Sharpton, who has never properly repented for his demagoguery that ignited the 1991 Crown Heights riot, leading to the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum. We won’t.

Where do you draw the line?

On the one hand, we all have the right to say we will sit down, work, and ally with anyone of any color or race who is prepared to accept us for who we are: in my case, a (religious) American Jew and proud Zionist. That means I embrace the clarion call that black lives matter, but reject an organization whose credo includes slander against Israel.

On the other hand, we should not be trapped by assumptions about our neighbors that are based more on stereotypes and media hype than reality.

That lesson was taught to me by a Nazi and an African American pastor.

In 2018, Arthur Jones, a lifelong, avowed Nazi, became the Republican nominee for a congressional seat in the Chicago area. He won that nomination because the Illinois Republican leadership was asleep at the wheel.

The Wiesenthal Center wanted to alert and energize potential voters to the threat that an Arthur Jones posed to all Americans. But my assumption was that building a coalition with African Americans would be complicated by the fact that the two main black voices in Chicago were Louis Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson.

What I discovered, however, was that Chicago is blessed with many black leaders who are too busy to talk the talk because they too committed to walking the walk. They are on the front lines of combating poverty, racism, and hate every day and don’t take their marching orders from others.

I connected with some of those leaders through a dynamic faith leader I had met with at our Museum of Tolerance, Chicago’s Rev. Mitchell Johnson. Together, we were able to convene a press conference with seven African American clergymen and Democratic and Republican leaders to expose and denounce racist, anti-Semite Arthur Jones, who would ultimately be defeated in the general election and who was defeated in the 2020 Republican primary.

The bottom line is that I (re)learned a crucial lesson that day on the South Side of Chicago: There are critical issues that impact us Jews that can only be effectively addressed if we can find allies with whom to work. We can only demand that we be respected if we show respect and concern for others – and not only in times of crisis.

The great Jewish sage Hillel bestowed this timely insight 2,000 years ago in Ethics of the Fathers: “Do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place.”

In recent weeks, since the murder of George Floyd, I hosted two Zoom conversations with African American veterans in law enforcement, faith leaders and elected officials, all of whom taught me that two of the most important ingredients to (re)building relationships and coalitions are:

  1. Get past slogans and take time to listen to someone else’s reality.
  2. Show people respect and empathy and they will respond accordingly.

We are right to be challenged by our neighbors and yes, our children, with demands to do more to help fight discrimination, expand economic opportunity for the disadvantaged, and challenge racism wherever it rears its ugly head. We, however, are under no obligation to legitimize any leader, group, or politician who disrespects us as Jews or hates Israel.

Here’s the good news: Even in these uncertain times, many potential friends and allies are waiting to work together with us for the common good. It’s a task too important to leave exclusively to Jewish defense agencies. Each of us, armed with our core Jewish values, needs to seek out and make common cause with others for the betterment of all.