The Time Is Now for a Jewish Civil Rights Movement | Opinion

The Jewish community has a long and proud tradition of mobilizing for positive change. When Rabbi Abraham Joseph Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr. marched hand-in-hand for racial equality, they made cross-cultural support for civil rights a hallmark of liberal doctrine. "Intersectionality" comes naturally for the Jewish people, the oldest and most persecuted minority community in the world. These days, our signs say "Black Lives Matter" (BLM) and "Love is Love" and a litany of other slogans designed to bring attention to just causes that are important, but are not exclusive to our tribe. Yet we cannot seem to gin up even a small fraction of this enthusiasm and support when members of our own community come under attack.

A few months ago, my client Lihi Aharon was brutally attacked while riding on the New York City subway, leaving with a scar on her face for life simply because she is a Jew. No one demanded that we "say her name." When Josef Neumann's skull was hacked to pieces by a machete-wielding racist at a Chanukah party in Monsey, Jews didn't occupy the streets and demand justice as he laid unconscious in the hospital. When four Jews were gunned down in a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, we didn't blackout our Instagram accounts. It's open season against Jews in this country, yet only a few of my Jewish friends even bothered to share these stories on social media.

Instead, the Jewish Left is organizing for LGBTQ rights, Black lives, women's rights and against President Trump. They write op-eds demanding we march behind BLM, a movement plagued with Jew-hatred, afraid they will "cede the space" if they don't "show up" but failing to demand the same loyalty when a Jewish cause arises. The just cause of Jewish rights has been abandoned by the Left and replaced with a reform agenda that includes gender-neutral Mattel dolls, protesting ICE and asexual pronouns. Traditional liberal values that Jews have championed for decades, like free speech, self-sovereignty and criticism of religion have been replaced with safe spaces, open borders and criticism of Islamophobia. With appropriate irony, these new values are used as a weapon, especially on campus, against Jewish students and the Jewish state.

On the other hand, millions of philanthropic dollars, dozens of think tanks and a ton of effort have been put into "pro-Israel advocacy." It has barely moved the needle. Students are sent into the campus arena with a shield, not a sword. They are told to memorize 15-page pamphlets on why Israel isn't an apartheid state so that they might be able to regurgitate the facts when attacked. So-called pro-Israel advocacy is never as sexy as posing for a selfie with your fist up in the air. The Jewish community made a strategic mistake by allowing arguments about a complex foreign conflict to define Jewish advocacy.

If a Jewish student is harassed on campus and told she must answer for the alleged crimes of a foreign country, our answer to-date has been, "let's debate the points." Instead, our response should be, "you're targeting me with a political litmus test because of my cultural and ethnic identity as a Jew, and that's racist." Muslim students are not required to reject Iran's nuclear ambitions as a necessary precondition to joining student clubs. Why are we teaching Jewish children that they must debate Israel? Why have we focused our efforts on pro-Israel advocacy, instead of launching a great civil rights movement?

BLM and the New Women's Movement (NWM) have become masters at strategic mobilization in the civil rights space. They operate at a level the Jewish community has yet been able to achieve. Their broad appeal is a result of key tactics, which our community must adopt and mold to fit our cause.

These movements have affected a seismic shift in the national dialogue because they impose real consequences for bad behavior. The NWM zeroes in on specific targets, men who have a history of sexual abuse, and makes sure they face dire consequences for their behavior. BLM uses direct action tactics to gain publicity, such as shutting down highways, chaining their leaders to trains and other methods to disrupt everyday life. Multinational corporations have aligned themselves with both movements because they understand the long-term economic and social costs if they do not do so.

Israeli flag in Jerusalem
Israeli flag in Jerusalem Michael Jacobs/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images

There is almost no price to pay for those who discriminate against Jews. This double standard exists for one reason: The Jewish community is not properly organized. We have storied, well-meaning and well-funded institutions led by an old guard utterly unfamiliar with the 21st-century tools and tactics required to effectuate positive change on a national level. They run hierarchical legacy organizations that lack the flexibility and drive to respond rapidly to changing events. There is no appetite to take risks and innovate in any meaningful way, lest they upset a few large donors or make things awkward for long-standing partners.

BLM and the NWM are more spontaneous movements with creativity, passion and drive. They are networks of decentralized, chapter-based protest organizations, which provide training and logistical support for grassroots mass mobilization. The central organization sets the tone and principles under which different groups operate. A solid training infrastructure produces a steady supply of skilled organizers who can be deployed to local areas and train local leaders to effectively fight for change.

This anarchist model of decentralized leadership makes member-led organizing and direct action possible. It empowers people through civil engagement and encourages cross-communal partnership, lending support to and from various causes. The Jewish community has organized itself from the top down, focusing on building organizations, not training grassroots leaders in civil rights advocacy.

Successful civil rights movements present cohesive and compelling narratives. Divisiveness, partisanship and our lack of a clear message have crippled us tremendously. A sizable number of Jewish intellectuals have spoken out against the application of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to protect Jewish students on campus. We are unable to differentiate between protecting free speech and punishing targeted harassment that singles out Jews due to their ethnic and religious identity. We degraded ourselves when, as a community, we failed to unequivocally support the American embassy relocation to Jerusalem, a city so central to the Jewish culture and religion that we pledge our limbs lest we forget it. To what end were Jewish values compromised to placate our detractors and further partisan politics?

Perhaps our greatest failure has been the absence of significant civil rights advocacy through the courts, or impact litigation. One of the best things about American democracy is the citizenry's ability to effectuate societal change through the legal system. Roe v. Wade codified women's right to choose. Brown v. Board of Education judicially mandated desegregation. Most recently, Obergefell v. Hodges guaranteed marriage equality. You would be hard-pressed to name a seminal Jewish civil rights case, despite the disproportionate number of lawyers in our community.

Until I founded The Lawfare Project, there was not a single entity dedicated to impact litigation on behalf of Jews. The NAACP's Legal Defense Fund has spent nearly a century filing cases to advance the civil and human rights of the Black community. Lambda Legal has played a similar role for the LGBT community since 1971. There is a Muslim Legal Fund of America, and even a Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund. We have only just begun, as a minority community, to take advantage of our rights to equal protection under the law by strategically using the legal system to fight Jew-hatred.

Jews have been subjected to every kind of abuse and persecution for centuries, to say nothing of multiple attempted genocides. Jew-hatred is structural and systemic, and it has been a fixture of Western society. It's time to end it. Ending Jew-hatred requires a seismic rewiring of the human psyche, but it can be achieved. It also requires a change of focus internally. No more printing handbooks for Jews about how to organize for BLM and how to advocate for Israel in anti-Semitic spaces. Our handbooks should be teaching Jewish youth how to organize and advocate for policies that enhance our status as a minority community. Our training infrastructure should teach how to introduce social consequences for those who are caught on the wrong side of our issues.

Now is the time to seize the opportunity and launch a movement that ensures Jewish liberation and justice through peaceful direct action. We must impose social, legal and financial consequences for Jew-haters. The Jewish community must no longer tolerate antiquated stereotypes and casual exclusion. It must resist entanglement in Middle Eastern politics and mobilize against the colonization of the campus space. Jew-hatred can no longer be acceptable in our society. The time for a Jewish civil rights movement is now.

Brooke Goldstein is founder and executive director of The Lawfare Project. Follow her on Twitter: @GoldsteinBrooke.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.