By Ben Sales
NEW YORK (JTA) — The co-author of the Black Lives Matter platform passage accusing Israel of “genocide” defended the term, saying Israel’s actions fit in its wider definition. Ben Ndugga-Kabuye co-authored the statement along with Rachel Gilmer, the former board member of a Zionist youth group.
Ndugga-Kabuye told JTA he understood why Jewish groups disagree with the statement, but was perplexed that it has received so much attention..
“The way we look at it is, we take strong stances,” Ndugga-Kabuye, a New York City organizer for the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, told JTA. “The demand we’re making is we’re against the U.S. continuing funding and military aid to the government of Israel. These are all things that are going to be in debate.”
The platform, released August 2 by The Movement for Black Lives coalition, is largely a statement of the goals of a movement that coalesced around police violence directed against black people in the United States, but it also calls for ending U.S. military aid to Israel and accuses Israel of being an apartheid state. The platform includes a link to a website promoting the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel called BDS.
“The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people” reads the “Invest/Divest” section of “A Vision for Black Lives.”
A string of Jewish organizations, from the Anti-Defamation League to the Reform movement and National Council of Jewish Women, has condemned the genocide and apartheid language as well as the BDS endorsement. T’ruah, a rabbis’ human rights group that opposes Israel’s West Bank occupation, also criticized the document. Most of the organizations note that they are sympathetic to other parts of the platform, many of which jibe with liberal Jewish positions on the criminal justice system, economic justice and immigration. Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports BDS, was the rare Jewish group that endorsed the platform in its entirety.
Ndugga-Kabuye said state actions don’t need to rise to the level of the Holocaust or other historical genocides to deserve the term, which he said could connote unjust state killing of a disadvantaged group. “We’re talking about a structure of violent deaths that are state sanctioned, that are without accountability, and that are ongoing,” he told JTA.
The vast majority of the platform addresses issues unrelated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Among its list of demands is an end to capital punishment, free universal education and a universal basic income for black Americans, the demilitarization of police, a broad reform of the prison system and reparations for black Americans. In addition to demanding an end to foreign aid for Israel and Egypt, the platform calls for divesting from the fossil fuel industry and reducing the U.S. defense budget.
Gilmer, the co-author of the Invest/Divest section, told Haaretz her father is African-American and her mother is Jewish. She is a former board member of Young Judaea, a Zionist youth group, although she no longer identifies as Jewish, according to Haaretz, and has become an anti-Israel activist. Now she is the chief of strategy for Dream Defenders, a black community organizing group based in Florida. (Gilmer did not respond to email and Facebook messages from JTA seeking comment.)
Dream Defenders released a statement accusing pro-Israel critics of being “wolves in sheep’s clothing” for supporting the Black Lives Matter movement only as long as it supports Israel. It asserted that Israel committed genocide during its 1948 War of Independence, as some 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from Israel or fled and were prevented from returning. Fighting Israeli “apartheid,” the statement said, is inseparable from fighting racism in America. It called on its allies to join the BDS campaign.
“As Black people fighting for our freedom, we are not thugs and our Palestinian brothers and sisters are not terrorists,” the statement said. “For the children who are met with tear gas and rubber bullets as they walk home from school, for the families of those we have lost to police violence, for the communities devastated by economic violence and apartheid walls, we fight.”
On August 5, Jewish Voice for Peace released a statement from a group called the Jews of Color Caucus backing the platform’s section on Israel. “We call on the U.S. Jewish community to end its legitimization of anti-Black racism through its combined attacks on the Black Lives Matter Platform and U.S. Palestine solidarity,” the statement said. “We call on the U.S. Jewish groups that have engaged in this anti-Black violence to retract their racist and harmful statements.”
Mainstream Jewish groups noted how difficult, if not impossible, it is for them to work with members of Black Lives Matter on common causes when the Israel language signals they are not welcome.
“JCRC cannot and will not align ourselves with organizations that falsely and maliciously assert that Israel is committing ‘genocide,’” wrote Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council in a statement on the platform. “As we dissociate ourselves from the Black Lives Matter platform and those BLM organizations that embrace it, we recommit ourselves unequivocally to the pursuit of justice for all Americans, and to working together with our friends and neighbors in the African-American community, whose experience of the criminal justice system is, far too often, determined by race.”
Ndugga-Kabuye rejected the idea that accusing Israel of genocide makes the movement antisemitic.