George Floyd’s name may be the best known, but police in the United States (and Canada and elsewhere) have assaulted and killed too many racialized individuals to recount here. While we might hope that the current focus on these needless and unlawful deaths will bring a sea-change in police training and behaviours, the truth is we have seen uprisings of outrage multiple times this century resulting in apparently minimal structural correction. Will this time be different? We can hope so – and act in ways that advance positive outcomes – but one trend is absolutely not helping.
Amid the weeks of protests and riots, the ceaseless attention on this issue has brought to light some factors that are less than encouraging. A backlash to the protests and their sometimes-violent flare-ups unsurprisingly take racist overtones. The mantra “all lives matter,” for example, is a tone deaf and offensive rejoinder to the Black Lives Matter movement. Acts of antisemitism – the spray-painting of a Los Angeles synagogue and a litany of other acts and statements from members of or those supporting a disparate movement – may give perceived consent to some Jews to turn away from the campaign for human equality. But BLM is not an organization; it is a movement. It is made up of scores or hundreds of independent groups and millions of supporters. Some of those individuals are Jews, Black and non-Black. We should be grown-up enough (and sufficiently world-weary) to know that, among any such agglomeration of people, some will express antisemitic ideas. If we are so troubled by this that we throw the baby of racial equality out with the bathwater of fringe extremism, we would be wise to look inward. If we refuse to stand with BLM because of a proportion of bigots in its ranks, take a good hard look at the company we keep by standing with its opponents.
The upshot is that BLM and the larger fight for equality – indeed, the fight to simply keep police from killing African-American and individuals from other identifiable minority communities – is too important to step away from even if we ourselves are targeted by some in the ranks. This should not be about Jews – though, while this should be a given, the world does not work this way. One element that has the potential to strain this alliance is those who have tried to make the relationship between police brutality and racial injustice about Jews: Israelis, specifically.
A tactic has been to focus on training that a comparatively small number of American law enforcement officials have received in Israel. Some voices have made direct parallels between these law enforcement exchanges and police violence in the United States. Some even falsely claim that the knee-on-the-neck move that killed George Floyd is an Israeli invention.
Steven L. Pomerantz, a former assistant director of the FBI and now director of the Homeland Security Program at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, is an architect of one of the earliest such exchanges, which emerged shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks.
“Despite suggestions to the contrary, there is no field training involved in either the conferences or trips, and no training on holds or arrest mechanics,” he wrote recently. “Participants learn how Israeli law enforcement deters, disrupts and responds to terrorist attacks. They explore the ideology of suicide bombers and other attackers, ways to de-escalate an ongoing incident, and the intelligence-gathering and -sharing process.… Trip participants have discussed efforts to build trust with minority communities, visited hospital trauma units and crime scenes, and spoken with terrorists serving life sentences for murder. One year, JINSA organized a specialized trip for American bomb squad commanders, which focused on topics such as post-blast forensics and the materials used in explosive devices.”
There is a probably no democratic country in the world more experienced in counterterrorism operations than Israel. In today’s world, it would be foolish not to learn from this tragically hard-earned understanding. Like Canada and the United States, Israeli police and military personnel operate with civilian oversight. As Pomerantz writes, it is deceptive to pin on Israel the actions of rogue bad cops in the United States. And, even Jewish Voice for Peace, in their campaign against these law enforcement exchanges, explicitly calls out those who would strip the American context of repressive policing and shift the blame to Israel, as that could be reasonably interpreted as antisemitism and, therefore, harm the movement for solidarity.
It may be that these law enforcement exchanges worldwide – not just those concerning Israel – contribute to the militarization of policing, a trend that is worrying, to say the least. As part of a larger network of exchanges of security forces across the world, it may be that they need to be reassessed. However, to misplace responsibility for police violence – and to choose that scapegoat of ages, Jews – undermines the credibility and the effectiveness of the anti-racist enterprise, and it is disadvantageous to the larger movement for equality.
Good people in the anti-racism movement have and must condemn the targeting of Israel and Jews. Likewise, Jewish people who care about human equality must not step away from this fight, but rather fight on two fronts: against racism and antisemitism. For a better future for ourselves and for other minorities and marginalized peoples, we cannot walk away.
There is no way to determine definitively why Canada failed to secure a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council last week.
Since the UN was created after the Second World War, Canada had generally been elected to one of the temporary seats once per decade. This ended in 2010, when Canada lost its bid, and last Wednesday’s vote represents the second decade of Canadian absence from the prestigious council.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau contended that the successful countries – Ireland and Norway – had been campaigning longer. Also significant may have been the fact that Canada’s contributions to foreign aid and UN peacekeeping efforts have declined in recent years. Not to be dismissed also is the perception of Canada as an ally of Israel.
Since 2006, under Conservative and Liberal governments, Canada has voted against or abstained from the annual litany of 16 recurring anti-Israel resolutions at the UN General Assembly. That trend was broken last winter, when Canada unexpectedly endorsed a resolution condemning Israel.
Jewish and other pro-Israel Canadians have viewed Canada’s pro-Israel UN votes since 2006 as a principled position in the face of a global dogpiling – the votes are routinely passed with numbers like 160 to six, with Israel, the United States and American-aligned South Pacific micro-nations in the minority. No other country is singled out with such multiple routine censures.
Canada’s abrupt reversal of this stand last year was seen by some as an effort to distance Canada from Israel in advance of last week’s vote, particularly among the nearly 60 Arab and Muslim countries in the General Assembly.
While Trudeau made the case that Canada’s principled voice was necessary for the world in this challenging time, Opposition voices, like Conservative (and former Liberal) MP Leona Alleslev, argued that the government had betrayed its principles and, as a result, undermined its own argument for putting a Canadian representative on the Security Council.
The point is fair. To base our country’s campaign for the seat (at least partly) on the idea that we are a principled voice on the world stage and then do a 180 puts the whole venture into a weird light. For those countries who dislike our history of pro-Israel votes, the last-minute reversal must have seemed too little too late. For those (admittedly few) who admired our chutzpah, the recent vote must have been a disappointment, if not a betrayal. It’s almost a wonder that we got as many votes as we did.
On June 4, New Brunswick resident Chantel Moore, originally from the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation near Tofino, B.C., was shot to death by a police officer sent to her home to check on her well-being. On May 27, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, an indigenous-black woman, fell 24 floors from her apartment during a police incident in Toronto.
In the United States, George Floyd died on May 25, after being pinned to the ground with a knee pressed into his neck for more than eight minutes by a police officer in Minneapolis. Breonna Taylor was killed March 13 in her bed in Louisville, Ky., in what amounts to a home invasion by police. Ahmaud Arbery was chased by three armed white neighbours and murdered on Feb. 23, while he was jogging in Georgia.
The challenge in compiling a list of names of black Americans and indigenous and racialized Canadians killed by police or lynched by vigilantes is choosing which from a horrifically long list of victims’ names to include. And the structural conditions that have led to this particular moment of upheaval are not new. Similar demonstrations have occurred after particularly egregious incidents, like the killing of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014; Trayvon Martin, who was murdered in 2012 by a cop-wannabe; and the beating of Rodney King by police in Los Angeles in 1991. Again, the list of just the most familiar incidents could fill pages. And they are not limited to the United States.
Could this time be different? One thing that some Black Lives Matter proponents are noting is the apparently unprecedented engagement of non-black allies in this moment. Is this because we all have more time on our hands right now? Or have we reached a tipping point, when the lofty language of equality has finally penetrated deep into the mainstream of North American society?
There are parallel streams happening, from the issue of police violence to the broader matter of societal behaviour toward racialized people. These are exacerbated by the unpardonable conduct of the U.S. president. When Trayvon Martin was killed, then-president Barack Obama noted that, if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon. The current president tweets threats of violence and has police forcibly clear peaceful demonstrators so he can have a photo taken in front of a church he has never entered. In a country aflame, the president’s comportment is incendiary and perilous.
This is a time for our community, the Jewish community, to consider our complacency and complicity in upholding racist systems. It is, as American historian and author Ibram X. Kendi implores, not enough to be not racist. We must be actively anti-racist. We must stand in solidarity with those who are suffering and recognize that the pain of racism is also the pain of antisemitism.
The solidarity and support we crave when we are threatened is the solidarity and support we must give other communities when they are in need. Give your time to an anti-racism organization. Donate your money to support black-owned businesses and organizations working to support the black community. Pray for the healing that is so badly needed in our society. March for equality and justice (in a safe manner). Stand up when you see injustice or hear a “casually” racist remark. Sign your name to a petition asking decision-makers to step up and rein in the militarization of policing and the funding that gets diverted from community into the over-policing of racialized communities.
Interrogate Canada’s colonial history and the lived realities of indigenous communities. Ask our educators to explore with their students global histories and the untold stories of millions, including richer views of Jewish history and the experiences and contributions of Jews who are not of European descent. Read a work of fiction by a black or indigenous author. Learn about how black culture forms the bedrock of North American culture and from where those art forms come. Explore the history of the black community here in Vancouver and how the early Jewish community, along with other minorities, together have called Strathcona home.
Absorb the teachings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who referenced the calls of the Hebrew prophets in the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s and who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for justice. If you’re already doing all of these things, share your knowledge and example with your family, your synagogue and the organizations and schools you support.
Some Jewish observers have expressed reservations about the Black Lives Matter movement, at least partly because the umbrella organization endorses the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. This is an unfortunate and misguided move on their part, especially since BDS harms Palestinians in addition to Israelis. But the issue of black people – and people of colour in Canada and elsewhere – being murdered by police or lynched by racists must take precedence now. We can argue over Israel and Palestine later.
If one feels the need to prioritize Jewish or Israeli concerns at this moment, then let’s prioritize the safety of black Jews and Jews of colour. The vast majority of Jews are morally affected by what is happening in our society and black Jews are immediately and personally impacted both by what is happening in the world and by what is happening in our community around this issue.
Let us not pretend that this is not a “Jewish issue.” Rather, let us live by what is referred to as one of the “eternal religious obligations” of Judaism: “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”
Normally, this special issue would be called Summer Celebration and have a multi-page pullout calendar of events. This summer, however, is unique and more sobering. The photograph is meant to reflect our current reality. We have no idea what lies ahead but remain hopeful for a brighter future.
British Columbians, like others in much of the world, are stepping gingerly into what may be a post-pandemic period – or an “inter-pandemic” phase, if the predicted second wave bears out. Our daily briefings from Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, and Health Minister Adrian Dix are cautiously optimistic, tempered with the reality that some people, given an inch, will take a mile. Confusion around, or contempt for, changing social distancing guidelines has meant numerous instances of inappropriate gatherings.
All in all, though, British Columbians have so far experienced among the lowest proportions of COVID-related illnesses and deaths than almost any jurisdiction in the developed world. Each death is a tragedy, yet we should be grateful for those who have recovered and the fact that so many of us have remained healthy so far. Thanks should go to all those who have helped others make it through, including first responders, healthcare professionals and also those irreplaceable workers we used to take for granted: retail and service employees and others who have allowed most of us to live through this with comparatively minimal disruptions.
In our Jewish community, so many individuals and institutions have done so much, from delivering challah to providing emergency financial and other supports for those affected by the economic impacts of the pandemic.
Canadians, in general, seem to be making it through this time as well as can be expected. Polls indicate that Canadians are overwhelmingly supportive of the actions our governments have taken during the coronavirus pandemic. How the federal and provincial governments manage the continuing economic repercussions and the potential resurgence of infections in coming months will determine long-term consequences both for us and for their popularity.
In signs that things are returning to something akin to pre-pandemic normal, Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s once-and-still-prime minister, is complaining about a “left-wing coup” and asserting that “the entire right” is on trial. In fact, it is not an entire wing of the Israeli political spectrum that is on trial, but Netanyahu himself, for bribery, breach of trust and fraud. He is accused of exchanging favours to friends and allies in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars in trinkets like cigars and champagne, and favourable coverage in media. Whatever strategy his team has for inside the courtroom, his PR strategy is pure deflection: blame the media, the court system, political opponents. He’s fighting two trials: the one in the justice system and the one in the court of public opinion. Netanyahu has managed to save his political hide thus far, through three successive elections and a year of coalition-building and horse trading. Predicting what might happen next is a popular but fruitless pastime.
More signs that things are not so different came from U.S. President Donald Trump on the weekend. As the death toll in the United States approached 100,000, Trump took time off from golfing to deliver Twitter rants, including retweets calling Hillary Clinton a “skank” and smearing other female Democrats for their appearance. Trump also insinuated that MSNBC TV host Joe Scarborough is a murderer.
Sitting (mostly) comfortably in our homes watching such things from afar, it’s no wonder Canadians are feeling good about the way our various governments – federal and provincial, of all political stripes – are behaving these days.