Jewish Community Stands Up For Racial Justice

Phyllis Braun
June 12, 2020

Click here to read this article as published in Arizona Jewish Post.

The Southern Arizona Jewish community has joined communities across the globe in expressing outrage at the murder of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. And it is grappling with how best to support the struggle for racial justice.

On June 4, the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and Jewish Community Foundation issued a community statement headlined “We Stand Together against Racism, Hatred, and Bigotry and Remember George Floyd.”

It read, in part, “We join all who mourn Floyd’s death and the deaths of countless others killed because of racism, hate, and bigotry.

“We stand in solidarity with our Black family members within and beyond the Jewish community to fight for racial equity and the rights of all people to live without fear.

“We must take bold action to uphold the most sacred Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, the sanctity of life. Our tradition prizes the preservation of life over all other values and obligations — and recent events call upon us and all communities of conscience to mobilize and demand justice. The ethics of our ancestors remind us that, ‘it is not our duty to complete the work; but neither may we neglect it.’”

Expressing support for peaceful protest, the statement decried “violence and wanton destruction” and offered support for local residents and businesses that suffered damage during protests against police brutality May 29. “While we pray for a more just, racially equitable, and peaceful world — we also recognize the critical role each of us must play in making it so,” the statement concluded.

Co-signers included Congregation Anshei Israel, Congregation M’kor Hayim, Institute for Jewish Services and Study of SaddleBrooke, Jewish Family & Children’s Services, Temple Emanu-El, Tucson Hebrew Academy, Tucson Jewish Community Center, and The University of Arizona Hillel Foundation.

Floyd’s death was the latest in a string of a dozen infamous deaths of black men and women at the hands of police in the United States in recent years, with Floyd’s pleas for air, captured on video, echoing Eric Garner’s cries of “I can’t breathe” in New York in 2014. The most recent deaths include Ahmaud Arbery, shot by a retired police officer and his son while out for a jog near Brunswick, Georgia, in February, and Breonna Taylor, shot in her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, in March.

The statement from JFSA/JCF included information about a June 6 Celebration of Black Lives on the University of Arizona campus organized by the Black Student Union, but stopped short of encouraging attendance because it was scheduled for Shabbat, as well as the potential risk of COVID-19 exposure.

On June 5, the Jewish History Museum/Holocaust History Center issued a statement from its staff and board, saying, “As a Jewish institution that exists to honor the lives lost to state sponsored and citizen condoned murders during the Shoah, we stand against the abusive state force that we witnessed in the horrific murder of George Floyd. The shock of the murder is made worse still by complicit officer bystanders allowing the killing of a human being they have a duty to protect. There are no words strong enough to condemn the pervasive violence against Black people.” The statement from the museum spoke of Black Jews being made “invisible within the American Jewish experience,” and called on all “to work toward a deeper understanding of the ways this destructive ideology [of white supremacy] operates in American society, how so many of us benefit” from the white privilege that grows out of it, and “how we can dismantle it.”

The museum statement said it would pause operations for a one-week shiva period to grieve and reflect, and provided links to ways community members could begin to deepen their commitment “to listening to Black voices and honoring Black life in our country and community.”

The local statements followed a June 2 letter signed by 130 Jewish organizations nationwide, calling for government and law enforcement to investigate all the officers involved in Floyd’s death and to institute sweeping law enforcement and criminal justice reforms. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body that sets consensus on issues for American Jewish public policy, organized the letter.

Derek Chauvin, the officer who pinned Floyd down with his knee on Floyd’s neck, was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter with culpable negligence on May 29. The charge was upgraded to second-degree murder on June 3, allowing the Minnesota attorney general to charge the other three officers on the scene, who offered no assistance to Floyd, with aiding and abetting murder. All four were fired from the Minneapolis Police Department after Floyd’s death. The Minneapolis City Council has since voted to disband its police department and replace it with “a transformative new model of public safety,” according to Lisa Bender, council president.

Sol [formerly Bryan] Davis, JHM executive director, notes that in fall 2019 the museum launched a “Compelling Futures” membership group, inviting people who were interested in the museum’s social justice work to “join us in creating a more just, equitable and liberatory future.” Now, he says, the museum will create “a particular strand of that collective focused on racial justice, solidarity, and allyship.”

A large part of that focus, he notes, will be on what the Jewish community is doing internally. “It’s often a sort of reflexive, outward looking thing, what’s the Jewish community doing for the black community, but what is the Jewish community doing to create more inclusive spaces for Black Jews and other Jews of Color? What about the racism that happens within Jewish communities and Jewish institutions?”

Indeed, a national Jewish community virtual rally scheduled for June 4 was postponed after organizers realized they had not invited organizations that are led by and serve Jews of Color.

Michelle Blumenberg, UA Hillel executive director, says she and her staff have meetings scheduled with student leaders via Zoom, and programming to address racial justice will be on the agenda. “Within the Hillel world, among staff, there’s lots of discussion about how do we show up in this moment,” she says, with the situation compounded by COVID-19. Blumenberg also noted that MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger was matching donations to Campaign Zero, which aims to end police violence in America.

Tony Zinman, a co-founder of Tucson Jews for Justice, attended both a candlelight vigil downtown on Monday, June 1, and the UA rally June 6, and spotted a few other members of his group at the events. After the Monday evening vigil, where he said the main message was that the way to make change is to vote and get involved, he commented that all seemed to welcome his Tucson Jews for Justice sign. The June 6 rally drew thousands of people and the performances and speeches, he says, were inspiring.

Steve Zupcic, a Jewish community volunteer, spread the word to people in the Jewish community about a Black Lives Matter Car Caravan on June 6 for those who needed a “COVID-safe and senior friendly” alternative to the UA rally.

State Rep. Alma Hernandez, a former JFSA Jewish Community Relations Council coordinator, also responded to the outcry for racial justice, and to other people’s responses in return. At age 14, Hernandez had an encounter with a police officer at her high school — the officer pushed her down with a knee on her back — which left her with spinal damage and inspired her to work with Gov. Doug Ducey to secure better training for police working in schools (see
training-for-school-cops). On May 28, she vented frustration with racial insensitivity on Facebook, posting, “Stop telling #POC how to feel about failed leadership and responses to the murders of black men and women. Stop telling those of us who have been brutally attacked or unjustly arrested by police how to feel.”

Rabbis who spoke about racial justice to their congregations after George Floyd’s death include Batsheva Appel of Temple Emanu-El, Helen Cohn of Congregation M’kor Hayim, and Sam Cohon of Congregation Beit Simcha.

M’kor Hayim is launching a new racial justice task force, with at least one-fourth of its members involved. Many joined the car caravan on June 6, some with signs on their cars that read “Jews for Justice” and “Jews Against Anti-Semitism and Racism.”

“It’s important for this to be not just the black community that’s standing together around these issues,” says Graham Hoffman, JFSA and JCF president and CEO. In the coming weeks, he says, the Jewish community must make sure “that we don’t lose sight of this issue or become fatigued by it,” but instead begin to tackle the systemic societal issues that perpetuate racial injustice. “It shouldn’t be the responsibility of the black community alone to advocate for that.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated 6.12 to add Congregation M’kor Hayim to the list of signers of the June 4 community statement, and to correct the name of M’kor Hayim’s new task force, which is the racial justice task force. M’kor Hayim has had a social action committee for many years.