By Rachel Kohn and Lisa Woolfson
From organizational leaders to private individuals, members of the Washington-area Jewish community are condemning the death of George Floyd and police brutality against people of color.
Going into the third day of protests in the nation’s capital, however, there are differences of opinion regarding violence by protesters against people and property and whether mass protests during a pandemic are the best course of action.
“If there was no coronavirus I would tell people go [to the DC protest] — in fact, if there was no coronavirus, the JCRC would probably be involved in organizing events right now publicly,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. The fact that people across the country are taking to the streets despite the danger of not social distancing “says a lot” about the existential threat to their health they feel police brutality poses, he observed.
“There’s a pandemic going on, but at the same time there is more than one pandemic and they are both equally deadly to the black community,” said Joe Levin-Manning. A 30-year-old Jew of color living in Columbia Heights, Levin-Manning is not participating in protests because he is in the high-risk category for COVID-19. If he wasn’t, he would be taking to the streets, he said.
Levin-Manning said he would like to see the Jewish community come out with a plan for addressing racism internally, and for members to “put their own personal politics aside” and articulate support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Jocelyn and Danny Krifcher of Potomac, both 59, joined the protest in DC on Sunday. Jocelyn, who serves as co-vice president for financial resource development and chair of the Annual Campaign for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, said they arrived around 2 p.m., “definitely pre-curfew, pre-violence.”
In the interests of keeping to social distancing guidelines, the couple committed to staying at the margins of the gathering near Lafayette Square; but then “a whole other march came up the street,” Krifcher said, and they found themselves in the middle of two different crowds.
Still, after watching continuing news coverage of the protests she feels they made the right decision to go. “I feel that it was important to see a diversified group,” she said. “We went down because we felt compelled to answer the call of the black community for white people from the suburbs who have a privileged life to come join them in their spaces. We did this with the acknowledgement that there have been so many instances that we should have risen to the occasion and we didn’t.”
‘This has to stop now’
Halber thinks the video of the brutal death of George Floyd is something American Jews are reacting to at a gut level similar to the slaughter of Jewish worshipers in Pittsburgh. “While I recognize and most people in the Jewish community recognize that most police officers are serving their communities with respect and with honor, there’s still too many bad officers out there who are treating members of the African American community” this way, he said. “This has to stop now.”
That urgency was something protester Andy Anderson, 25, expressed during a phone interview Monday afternoon. A resident of the H-Street neighborhood of DC, Anderson (whose preferred pronouns are they/theirs) participated in protests Saturday and Sunday and planned to head out Tuesday as well.
“I believe that the time for slacktivism is absolutely over,” they said. Slacktivism is a catch-all term for showing support for a cause without taking direct action. “I would love to say that I don’t know how this situation has gone on so long, how in this year of 2020 people are being murdered by police, but I see the past of how this country was built and how unwilling our culture is to let go of the subjugation of some bodies, and I want to see it end.”
“I would feel that I was not living up to what it means to be a Jew, to the expectations that I have of myself, and the belief I have for the world to come if I didn’t go out,” they said.
The desired outcome of these protests for both Anderson and Levin-Manning include criminal justice reform, demilitarization of the police, and timely condemnation and conviction of those who abuse positions of power. Levin-Manning proposed the formation of an independent national task force, similar to the Federal Reserve Board, for the criminal justice system. “People are being criminalized for being black, given unjust sentences for lesser crimes than their white peers,” he said.
Who gets to say whether violence isn’t the answer?
Soon to retire after almost a quarter century of leading Congregation Adat Reyim in Springfield, Virginia, Rabbi Bruce Aft is president of the board of directors of Operation Understanding DC, a 26-year-old organization focused on dialogue and bridge-building between the black and Jewish communities. Rather than take to the streets, Aft said he and colleagues he is in touch with are “doing everything virtually” due to coronavirus concerns. Be it through Zoom speakers or other means, Aft thinks people have to get creative to raise awareness and mobilize across different sectors of the community while balancing public safety.
“Everybody is trying to be smart from a COVID point of view,” he said.
With Shavuot still on his mind, Aft likened the protests across the country to the thunder and lightning preceding the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. “It’s awakened people,” he said. “But if it ends with just the protesting, then we haven’t accomplished a whole lot. And if it ends with the violence, that’s messed up.”
Halber echoed former President Barack Obama’s injunction to protest peacefully and organize politically. “American democracy certainly offers plenty of avenues for peaceful protest and for dissent and that’s part of the American spirit and American tradition,” Halber said. “Where we draw the line is where violence takes place. That is unacceptable.”
“I think comments like that come from places of privilege and ignorance,” said Levin-Manning. “Almost all past movements have started with an uprising. Let’s be frank: this isn’t violence against people; this uprising is a protest against violence against black people.”
“The threat of violence toward people of color in this country is so pervasive, it is an act of violence,” said Anderson. “With that in mind, I believe that retaliation when attacked or provoked, even looting, are justified.”
However, “if there are white people coming in who are participating in destruction of property or looting, that is not where you are needed,” they continued. “You are needed at the front lines to protect people of color.”
“If you defend destruction of property and looting by saying that it’s fine because these stores have insurance, then you won’t mind getting coronavirus if you have health insurance,” wrote Foggy Bottom resident David Kravitz, 28, in a tongue-in-cheek Facebook post on Monday. Kravitz added in the comments that anarchists and Antifa are exploiting black protests against police brutality in order to cause mayhem, which is then mistakenly being attributed to the black community.
“I will say that if you aren’t black, and you *support* [ the protesters’] agenda, you should shut up and stay out of their way,” he wrote in an additional post. “If you disagree with them, be as critical as you want, it’s your right and your duty as a member of a shared society. But if you support them, shut up. The white voices condemning racism and apologizing for white privilege are drowning out the voices that *actually* need to be heard.”
Multiple means of direct action
Aft encouraged people to plug in to existing networks addressing structural inequality and discrimination. He echoed the call by OU DC Executive Director Yolanda Savage-Narva to check out the NAACP’s newly launched campaign “We Are Done Dying.”
“At this time, now more than ever, we are reminded of the wisdom of Hillel,” Savage-Narva wrote in a May 27 statement for the organization. “‘If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am not for others, what am I? If not now, when?’”
And there are local leaders following this precept. “My own contribution in the last few days has primarily been through giving tzedakah and through my work at JUFJ to support the Jewish community in processing and contextualizing events and taking action for a more just society,” said Rabbi Elizabeth Richman, deputy director and rabbi-in-residence for Jews United for Justice. There is a dedicated page on the JUFJ website with a list of resources for people interested in civic engagement opportunities and supporting black-led organizations, as well educational materials and pastoral resources for emotional and spiritual support.
At Adas Israel Congregation in Northwest DC, Rabbi Aaron Alexander said they are continuing their ongoing support for the Black Lives Matter movement through advocacy for a budget that “reflects the needs of Washingtonians east of the river as much as west of the river.”
“Most of our social justice work is filtered through the lens of racial justice in the city because of the widespread disparities,” he said.
“I am talking to my peers at Federation and to Federation leadership about what we can do as a Jewish community to use our leadership as a platform to engage with the black community,” said Krifcher. “We should engage with the black community on the challenge, be part of the solution, and turn the implementation over to them.”
Rachel Kohn is a senior writer and Lisa Woolfson is a freelance contributor for the Washington Jewish Week.