Meryl Feldblum offers a beautiful, heartfelt explanation (“Rabbi Lamm, BLM and the Jewish Conscience,” June 18, 2020) on why Jews must join with the broader community to protest discrimination. Drawing on experiences in the course of helping her brother, Micah (may he have a full and speedy recovery), she directly relates and empathizes with the frustrations of the black community in the face of ongoing hatred and racism. She points to a sermon given by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, z”l, in 1966, where he cautioned his community not to let “side issues” get in the way of lending our voices and support. The implication, of course, is that Rabbi Lamm would say today that we must not use the anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments that pervade the BLM movement as an excuse to refrain from joining BLM protests.
I’m not so sure. As we know, Rabbi Lamm was a brilliant and complex thinker. He returned to the topic of anti-racism on numerous occasions and there can be no doubt that he considered it one of the most serious and righteous causes of our generation. However, it is presumptuous to believe that we understand a great intellect’s ideas based on a single quote. In a 1970 sermon entitled, “Confessions of a Confused Rabbi,” he again turned to the problem of racism. Here he cautioned against full-throated support for the activists of the day, in part because:
“I question the priorities and consistency of many Jewish students when they make of the Black Panthers a cause celebre of their moralistic movement. Yes, I agree that they are, in this country, entitled to a fair trial and to be protected from police brutality and vindictiveness. I believe we should see to it that the police who were brutal are punished, and that even Black Panthers receive their rights as American citizens. But they are not our friends! They are anti-Semites and they are anti-Israel. I would like to see young Jews who seek justice for the Black Panthers—and more power to them in their passion for justice—oppose these pernicious anti-Semites with equal zeal.”
Commenting on this, his grandson Rabbi Ari Lamm recently wrote:
“Although my grandfather considered the anti-racist cause for which the Black Panthers, the most influential black militant political organization of the late 1960s, fought a righteous one, he could not and would not ignore their blatant anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Citing the early rabbinic sage Hillel’s famous dictum, ‘If I am not for myself, who will be?’ he exclaimed, ‘I have nothing but contempt for the so-called universal Jew who makes every people’s concern his own, save that of his own people.’”
That my grandfather believed with all his heart that black lives mattered and, in light of American history, require special care and protection, I have no doubt. He said as much, and more, over the course of decades’ worth of preaching and teaching. What, however, would my grandfather have thought of the Movement for Black Lives, an umbrella organization that, to this day, proudly proclaims on its website that Israel is an apartheid state (in its “Cut Military Expenditures Brief”)? We cannot know, of course. What I do know is that he insisted that everything we do, we do not because we are “allies,” but because we are Jews. That means that we are morally bound—whether by God, as he believed, or at least by the force of history or self-respect—to exhibit no tolerance for those who would demonize our people. As my grandfather stressed, “We have no right merely to dismiss offhand the interests of Klal Yisrael.” The students of The Frisch School are fortunate to have an eloquent and passionate teacher like Ms. Feldblum. Clearly she cares deeply and thinks clearly. However, I would caution against too quickly indicting large swaths of our Orthodox community for not opening our eyes, ears and hearts. Many, I daresay most, do indeed care and see the murder of George Floyd for what it is. We are not blind to injustice in our society. We do engage with our friends and neighbors in civilized discussions and express outrage at blatant acts of racism and hatred against marginalized groups. We instruct our children on the dangers of racism and make sure our educational institutions reinforce these messages forcefully and repeatedly.
Our Torah imparts timeless values that enable Jews everywhere to recognize injustice, and we are no strangers to protest and civil disobedience, when necessary. But we must take great care when deciding with whom to stand shoulder to shoulder, assuring that not only is the cause moral, but also that the means of protest and the friends we lock arms with are honorable and righteous as well.Robert Friedman