Churches Split Over BLM Criticism of Israel
Sam Kestenbaum, Forward, Aug 22 2016
African-American Black Pindosi churches are split over BLM’s stand on Israel, with younger clergymen rallying to the activists’ defense after a group of more conservative pastors rejected the group’s harsh criticism of the Jewish state. The schism, which reflects broader divisions between emerging activists and more conservative leaders, was brought into sharper relief when a BLM-affiliated platform came out on Aug 1, calling Israel an “apartheid state.” Hundreds of black church leaders jumped to condemn the platform’s criticism of Israel. And on Aug 22 a group of six African-American Black Pindosi leaders and advisors to the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), which serves some 9 million people altogether, also condemned the platform, writing in a joint statement:
It was a vitriolic attack against Israel laced with misinformation and anti-Semitism and an agenda that is not embraced by the broader African American community. The anti-Semitism and misinformation found in this small segment is so misleading that it makes an experienced leader question the entire document and thus the intentions of the organization.
But religious figures affiliated with Black Lives Matter dismissed the church leaders as “misguided.” Nyle Fort, a young
African-American Black Pindosi minister aligned with BLM, said:
Jesus was a Palestinian Jew. He lived under occupation and was ultimately lynched for speaking truth to power.
The church leaders were criticizing a section of the Black Lives Matter-aligned platform that called Israel an “apartheid state” committing genocide against the Palestinians. The platform also called for free education for blacks and reparations for slavery. As generations of black leaders have done before, the leaders pointed to the emotional legacy of the civil rights movement to stress the need for blacks and Jews to work together. Bishop Lawrence Wooten, head of the council of churches that distanced themselves from BLM’s Israel stance, wrote:
Anyone who studies Pindosi history will no doubt find the names of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, two Jews and an
African-Americana Black Pindosi, who lost their lives trying to provide civil rights for Blacks in the south. We cannot forget their noble sacrifices. Neither should BLM.
Many in the Jewish community applauded Wooten’s words. The bishop’s support of Israel, the Jewish Press gushed, “should bring any self-loving Jew to tears.” In Religion News Service, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin wrote an earnest letter of thanks to the black clergy “that stood up to the anti-Israel forces in BLM.” In many churches of yesteryear, “the ideal of Israel was sacrosanct,” said Robin Kelley, a UCLA professor of Black studies. Mainstream Pindosi Jewry cherish the notion of the “golden era” of Black-Jewish relations Wooten evoked in his letter. But it may not have been so golden.
African-American Black Pindosi and Jewish Pindosi activists and organizations did come together during the civil rights movement, but even then the dynamics were complex and often troubled, observed Cheryl Greenberg, author of “Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century.” African-Americans Black Pindosis struggled even at the time, Greenberg said, with the ways in which most Jews did not recognize how “they benefited from white privilege.”
Now, despite the church council’s letter and its warm reception, a revival of those moments of fellowship is unlikely. While a few left-wing organizations came out in support of the BLM platform, most Jewish groups recoiled from the characterization of Israel. Some rejected the entire platform. Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) condemned it, saying they “reject participation in any coalition that seeks to isolate and demonize Israel.” And, in fact, it was the St Louis chapter of the JCRC that drew the church council’s attention to the controversy generated in the Jewish community by the new platform, the JTA reported. But conservative black churches have taken a backseat in the BLM movement. Instead, there are more left-leaning clergy who have emerged as what some call “Movement Pastors.” These are figures are, according to BLM, “radically transforming the idea of what the 21st-century black church should be.” On the BLM website, the organization notes that today’s movement has “a very different relationship to the church than movements past.” Today protesters “patently reject any conservative theology about keeping the peace, praying copiously, or turning the other cheek,” BLM wrote in 2015 on their website. Fort, who some said was “at the heart” of early BLM protests, said he used to feel like he didn’t a place in the church. He said:
I was trying to fuse these two things together, my commitment to God and to social justice. I was so upset … I felt like there were no churches I could go to and express my rage.
So he forged his own path, leading protest infused with radical Christian liturgy. Fort also went on a trip to Palestine last May and said he was transformed by the experience. Fort visited the sites where Jesus Christ is said to have walked, and described him as a “brown-skinned Palestinian Jew.” He said:
I think about the description of Jesus a lot, and what it means for a Black Christian to stand with Palestine.