An Open Letter to the Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter
Dear Alicia Garza,
I thank you for initially accepting the award the World Values Network offered you to salute your efforts in fighting racial injustice and prejudice. The event, which took place on February 18 in celebration of Black History Month and African-American and Jewish brotherhood, turned out to be one of the most moving of my life. That truly beautiful celebration responded to President Biden’s call for renewed national unity.
It was an evening that you especially would have enjoyed, Alicia, given your singular accomplishments in having co-founded Black Lives Matter while being the step-daughter of a Jewish father who identifies as Jewish. But you withdrew two weeks before the event with a public tweet to which I now wish to respond.
African American and Jewish brotherhood has been the passion of my life, ever since my mother worked alongside an African American woman at a Los Angeles bank when I was a small child. By the time I arrived as Rabbi at Oxford University in 1988, I had set a goal of establishing an organization that celebrated the unity of the two communities. In 1993, I appointed Cory Booker president of the Oxford University L’Chaim Society; over the course of nearly 25 years, we studied hundreds of hours of Torah together and gave countless public speeches together celebrating African American and Jewish identity.
Right after the tragic attacks of 9/11, I called Rev. Al Sharpton — whom I had debated at a New York church a few months earlier and took to a kosher steak house immediately after — and told him that the mass murder of our fellow citizens called for a moment of unity. “Come with me on a solidarity mission in support of victims of terror to Israel.” He immediately agreed, and his visit to Israel was co-hosted by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
I was criticized by members of my own community for hosting Rev. Sharpton in Israel, just as I was sharply attacked in several publications for giving you an award at this year’s gala. Financial funders withdrew support. In both instances, the complaint was about alleged support for anti-Semitism, with Rev. Sharpton over the events in Crown Heights in 1991 and with you and BLM’s stance on Israel and BDS.
But I didn’t care. I am dedicated to my mission of re-creating the bonds of brotherhood that united Martin Luther King, Jr., the greatest American of the twentieth century, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the twentieth century’s most eloquent voice for Jewish spirituality in the English language. That commitment has led to, among other things, my becoming the first white morning radio host on the legacy African American radio station, 1600 AM WWRL in NYC, as well as using my platform on a giant Utah radio station in September 2005 to passionately advocate for African American families displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina (which led, unbelievably, to the cancellation of the show).
I AM DEDICATED TO RE-CREATING THE BONDS OF BROTHERHOOD THAT UNITED MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. AND RABBI ABRAHAM JOSHUA HESCHEL.
Yet on February 9, you tweeted that you were no longer a part of our event after you were “made aware” of the “political positions of this group.” It seems that it may have been Linda Sarsour who played a role, as she publicly thanked you on the same day for withdrawing.
The organizer of our gala was my friend and colleague Gabrielle Bell. Like yourself, Gabe is African-American, Jewish, and openly gay. I remember how happy he was when you accepted and how disappointed he was when you succumbed to pressure and withdrew. He saw me weather condemnation for inviting you. But I held fast. I was thrilled to recognize your efforts at protesting moral abominations like the shooting of Trayvon Martin, when you launched the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.
At the time, I wrote in the Huffington Post, “a young African-American teenager, wearing a hoodie against the rain, died, seemingly, for carrying a can of iced tea and a bag of skittles. If that isn’t a tragedy, then the word has no meaning.” It’s one of the reasons that after the murder of George Floyd, I wanted the Jewish community to join you to protest that despicable abomination.
You and I could have worked well together, Alicia, even as we would have likely disagreed sharply on Israel, which is no doubt the “political positions” you are referring to. Such disagreement would have been fine with me. One of the things I love about Israel is that it is an open democracy that tolerates dissent. At our 2014 gala, we honored Sean Penn, who gave a memorable address in which he referred to the West Bank as “undeclared territories.” He argued that the ranks of those unjustly imprisoned around the world include Palestinians in Israel and repeated that the label of anti-Semitism is “too often used to discredit dialogue.” He was never censored for expressing his opinion, just as you would not have been. We know that brotherhood does not mean agreement. It means love despite disagreement.
As for Linda Sarsour, here’s the weird thing about her unprovoked attacks against me. In 2016, I met her on the Steve Harvey Show, where I had a warm and extremely civilized dialogue about Jewish and Islamic relations with her on national TV. I praised her for her pride in wearing the hijab. I try to do the same by wearing my yarmulke and tzitzis.
I could, therefore, hardly believe how she had no issue becoming quickly radicalized against the Jewish community. In April 2017, Linda spoke alongside Rasmea Odeh at a dinner and told the audience that she was “honored to be on this stage with Rasmea,” a member of the PFLP convicted in 1969 for her involvement in the bombing of an Israeli supermarket, an event that took the lives of two young students and maimed nine more. You have a big heart, Alicia, and I know you will appreciate that the Jewish community was pained to hear Linda praising a terrorist with the blood of two innocents on her hands. Like the African American community, we Jews know all too well what it’s like to be murdered and have no one care.
That day Linda also extended her gratitude to her “favorite person in this room, Imam Siraj Wahhaj,” a man known for hateful views toward the LGBTQ community, what he calls “a disease of this society.” In 1992, Imam Wahhaj expressed his desire to burn down a gay-friendly mosque in Toronto, if only he could. His admonition of “woe to the Muslims who pick kafirs [non-Muslims] for friends” implies that Wahhaj is no fan of peaceful coexistence either, a fact I find surprising considering that Linda holds “radical love” to be a tenet of her faith, which most certainly is in normative Islam.
It’s no wonder that in August 2020, President Biden condemned Linda Sarsour in the strongest terms. His campaign said, “Joe Biden has been a strong supporter of Israel and a vehement opponent of anti-Semitism his entire life, and he obviously condemns [Sarsour’s] views and opposes BDS, as does the Democratic platform. She has no role in the Biden campaign whatsoever.”
Alicia, my advice would be to take President Biden’s advice on both counts. Let’s engage in a moment of unity, bringing together the Black and Jewish communities. And let’s listen to President Biden and reject the hatred of people like Linda Sarsour who seek to separate us.
I look forward, God willing, to speaking and meeting.
God bless you.