Skip to main content

The Palestinian cause has revived a partnership forged in the civil rights era — and also created new tensions.

By Daniel Bergner, The New York Times —

Eva Borgwardt first embraced the Palestinian cause the summer after she graduated from high school. It happened because of Michael Brown. It was August 2014, and in Ferguson, Mo., not far from her family’s well-off St. Louis neighborhood, protests were erupting after Brown was killed by a police officer. At home, Borgwardt had often wondered who she would have been during the civil rights movement. Would she have really stood up for what was right? Now, as the demonstrations for racial justice and against police brutality dominated the news, her mother, a history professor and scholar of human rights law, told her, “This is a ‘Where were you in history?’ moment.”

Borgwardt went to the protests wheeling a large cooler and handed out bottled water from the sidelines. “I was an 18-year-old white girl,” she said, “trying to be useful.” When the protesters marched, she tugged her ungainly cooler alongside them.

In Ferguson, day after day, Borgwardt underwent “a deep reckoning with systemic racism for the first time,” she said. “I was having to realize that in these protests, on the streets, the police are not the good guys. That structures, like the police, that have served me my entire life are literally deadly and designed to oppress people who live in my city. It was nothing I had been exposed to before.”

At the demonstrations, she was confronted by something else: the connection between the fight for racial justice in this country and the movement for Palestinian liberation. There were Palestinians at the rallies, their banners proclaiming, “Palestine Stands With Ferguson” and “Palestinian Lives Matter.” On Twitter, Borgwardt saw that Palestinians were tweeting support from 6,000 miles away, along with advice on how to cope with tear gas fired by the police. That summer, a deadly Palestinian attack and retaliation by the Israeli military in the West Bank led to weeks of warfare between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. “Suddenly,” Borgwardt recalled, “the parallels were so obvious to me. Black Americans facing a militarized police force and Palestinians in the West Bank facing a military charged with policing.”

Borgwardt, who is Jewish, started to process language she heard at the protests in a new way. “I was socialized to hear phrases like ‘From the river to the sea’ and ‘Free Palestine’ as threatening, as meaning ‘Wipe the Jews off the map,’ instead of being about freedom and equality.”

But while she was beginning to think differently, “most of my Jewish community, even the Jews from my congregation who went to the demonstrations,” she said, “were freaking out about the Palestine solidarity at the protests.” About a “Free Palestine” banner, she remembered a fellow Jew commenting, “It’s a shame that has to be there.”

Two years later, while she was a student at Stanford, this tension soared. The Movement for Black Lives, the consortium of racial-justice groups that includes Black Lives Matter, published a platform declaring Israel “an apartheid state” and the United States complicit “in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.” Angry denunciations and charges of antisemitism came from throughout the Jewish world. Stalwart American Jewish allegiance to Israel, Borgwardt feared, could easily sever Jews from racial-justice work.

So, during and after college, she set about persuading young Jews to truly see “the oppression of the occupation,” bringing them into closer alignment with the way Black activists tend to view Israel and the Palestinians. In college meeting rooms and at community centers, she led informal discussions of articles about Palestinian villages razed by Israeli forces. Despite institutional Jewish uneasiness with the Movement for Black Lives and Black Lives Matter, Jews around her age, she found, were “more likely to sympathize with the Palestinian cause because of racial-justice politics at home.” She marshaled young Jews to lobby the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund of San Francisco to stop funding groups that, according to news reports, fostered the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. (The federation denies this.)

Today she is all the more impassioned. Borgwardt, who is petite and has ringlets of dark hair, is the national spokesperson for IfNotNow, an organization mainly of young Jews at the forefront of activism for Palestinian liberation. In mid-October, after many thousands of civilians were killed in Israel’s bombing of Gaza in response to Hamas’s rampage in southern Israel on Oct. 7 that left roughly 1,200 people dead, an unknown number raped and mutilated and more than 240 taken hostage, IfNotNow took action. The organization, along with Jewish Voice for Peace, a like-minded group of Jewish progressives, led thousands of people in pro-Palestinian rallies, blocking the White House gates and taking over the Capitol Rotunda, resulting in hundreds of arrests. Throughout the fall, in the Bay Area, Boston, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, IfNotNow blocked bridges, staged rush-hour sit-ins on highways and occupied government buildings.

I met Borgwardt in Washington in early November, at one of the largest pro-Palestinian demonstrations ever on American soil. Mock coffins, covered in Palestinian flags, lined the foot of a stage. Above the coffins, a long red-and-black banner demanded: “End the U.S.-Funded Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.” The crowd, growing to somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000, chanted, “Five, six, seven, eight, Israel is a terrorist state.”

This protest wasn’t spearheaded by IfNotNow, but Borgwardt’s group brought a sizable contingent. Their signs mixed with the homemade placards prodding the air: “Genocide Joe,” read one, referring to President Biden’s backing of Israel with billions of dollars’ worth of military aid. “Ceasefire Now.” “No Peace on Stolen Land.” “Jews Say No to Genocide!” “Intifada Revolution!”

“Almost 40 percent of American Jews under 40 consider Israel an apartheid state,” Borgwardt told me with pride about helping to pull young Jews toward this conclusion. The statistic was from a 2021 poll by the Jewish Electorate Institute; she assumed the number was climbing.

While we talked, Borgwardt texted with members of the Movement for Black Lives, who were joining the protest. In addition to her position with IfNotNow, she belongs to Jews for Racial … Economic Justice, which draws “from our Jewish values,” as the organization frames it, to “dismantle the systems” of inequity. She told me about IfNotNow’s involvement with the recent winning campaigns of Black members of Congress: Jamaal Bowman in the northern Bronx and the suburbs north of New York City, Summer Lee in western Pennsylvania, Cori Bush in St. Louis and Ferguson. All are politically progressive — Bush entered electoral politics after leading the St. Louis chapter of Black Lives Matter — and all are strongly tied to the Palestinian cause. IfNotNow also backed the election of Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, a Palestinian-American. Within days of the protest in Washington, she would be censured by the House for posting a video on X featuring pro-Palestinian marchers in Michigan chanting, “From the river to the sea,” words that many hear the way Borgwardt once did, as a violent antisemitic vow to eradicate Jews between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

Listening to Borgwardt, I thought about the complex relationship that currently exists between Black and Jewish activism. A long history lies behind this, dating to the era of slavery, when Harriet Tubman, whose Christian faith drew deeply from the Exodus story, sang the spiritual “Go Down Moses” as a signal to enslaved people who had run away and whom she was guiding toward freedom. The Black-Jewish connection was resonant, too, for early-20th-century Black leaders. Marcus Garvey, a Black nationalist and champion of the Back to Africa Movement, said his people were “taken into slavery like the Jews in Egypt,” and Black intellectual contemporaries compared his cause to Zionism. There were strong paradoxical strains of antisemitism in his rhetoric, but his dream of the Black diaspora’s return to Africa was “as serious,” he declared, “as the movement of the Irish today to have a free Ireland, as the determination of the Jew to recover Palestine.”

In recent times, the devotion of Black activists in the United States to the Palestinian cause has helped create what members of Jewish Voice for Peace call “the braid.” Stefanie Fox, the organization’s executive director, recounted a journey similar to Borgwardt’s, from engagement on racial-justice issues in the United States to pro-Palestinian activism. The two causes, Fox said, are morally “knitted together.” Borgwardt interlocked her fingers to show how young Jewish commitment on civil rights is, these days, interwoven tightly with steadfast Palestinian solidarity.

As we walked amid the protesters, Borgwardt introduced me to a longtime ally, Nicole Carty, who is Black and took part in guiding some of the past decade’s major rallies against racial injustice and police brutality. In late 2014, after a grand jury declined to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown, and after another grand jury decided less than two weeks later against indicting the New York police officer who put Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold, Carty had a hand in organizing a march of tens of thousands through the streets of Manhattan, with protesters crying out Garner’s last words: “I can’t breathe.” Then, with a group called Momentum, Carty trained IfNotNow members in activist strategies. She mourned with IfNotNow leaders after the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where a white nationalist killed 11 congregants. In Washington, as the demonstrators marched by and signs floated past — “Decolonize,” “Gaza Is a Concentration Camp” — she told me she had hopeful but troubled feelings about the bond between Black and Jewish activists.

Nicole Carty at a rally in Manhattan in December to demand that Gov. Kathy Hochul sign legislation creating a commission to study slavery reparations.

Nicole Carty at a rally in Manhattan in December to demand that Gov. Kathy Hochul sign legislation creating a commission to study slavery reparations. (Jessica Dimmock for The New York Times)

“My people were brought to America in chains,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told a conference of the American Jewish Congress in 1958. “Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.” King was blessing, as he did repeatedly in the years to come, the Black-Jewish alliance within the civil rights movement. Jews had played a crucial role in founding and financing organizations like the N.A.A.C.P., as they did in arguing many of the 20th century’s groundbreaking civil rights cases.

At the March on Washington in 1963, Rabbi Joachim Prinz was given the slot directly before King took the podium to deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. “Our ancient history began with slavery and the yearning for freedom,” Prinz, who was expelled from Germany as Hitler laid the groundwork for the Holocaust, told the crowd of more than 200,000. “During the Middle Ages, my people lived for a thousand years in the ghettos of Europe.” There was, Prinz announced, between Jewish and Black Americans, a bond forged by “a sense of complete identification and solidarity.”

The next year, three young civil rights activists, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, two Jewish and one Black, were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan as they traveled together to register Black voters in Mississippi. In 1965, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, whose mother and three sisters were killed by the Nazis, walked alongside King on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, leading marchers from Selma to Montgomery to demand an end to the disenfranchisement of Alabama’s Black citizens.

But fissures in the alliance were about to crack wide. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a mainstream civil rights group in the early 1960s, became a key part of the Black Power Movement. In the process, in 1966, S.N.C.C., led by Stokely Carmichael, voted to expel its white staff and volunteers, many of them Jewish, because their involvement diluted Black self-empowerment and stirred distrust. “I was devastated,” Dorothy Zellner, a Jewish activist who contributed artwork for a Black Panther logo, told me. “S.N.C.C. was my life.” Zellner, who is 86, has been a “den mother,” as she puts it, in Jewish Voice for Peace for the past five years.

James Baldwin captured another aspect of the Black-Jewish schism in his April 1967 essay in The Times, “Negroes Are Antisemitic Because They’re Anti-White.” “The Jew does not realize,” Baldwin wrote, “that the credential he offers, the fact that he has been despised and slaughtered, does not increase the Negro’s understanding. It increases the Negro’s rage. For it is not here, and not now, that the Jew is slaughtered.” He went on, “The Jewish travail occurred across the sea and America rescued him from the house of bondage. But America is the house of bondage for the Negro, and no country can rescue him.”

Then, with Israel’s swift victory in the Arab-Israeli war in June 1967 — a conflict that began with acts of Egyptian aggression and led to Israel fighting Egypt, Jordan and Syria and ultimately taking territory, including Gaza and the West Bank — oppressive and exploitative Jewish dominance became a prevalent theme for the Black Power Movement. S.N.C.C. declared Zionism an imperialist venture bolstered by “white Western colonial governments.” It laid out this lesson at length in its newsletter, with a climactic, all-caps point linking Jewish money to the plundering of Africa. “Did you know,” readers were asked, that “the famous European Jews, the Rothschilds, who have long controlled the wealth of many European nations, were involved in the original conspiracy with the British to create the ‘State of Israel’ and are still among Israel’s chief supporters? THAT THE ROTHSCHILDS ALSO CONTROL MUCH OF AFRICA’S MINERAL WEALTH?”

The cover of that edition of S.N.C.C.’s newsletter called attention to police killings of Black men, with the headline: “Cops Run Wild. Where Will They Strike Next?” Black and Palestinian resistance to repression were bound together. It was the same for the Black Panther Party, whose leader, Huey P. Newton, announced in 1970, “We support the Palestinians’ just struggle for liberation 100 percent.” As the Black Power Movement gained momentum, the Black-Jewish alliance came apart.

Over the next several decades, the further disintegration was marked by the sermons of the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who inveighs against “the synagogue of Satan” and emphasizes Jewish power and manipulation. “We have been deceived,” he said on a Washington radio station in 2010, “into thinking that the Jews have been our allies” in the civil rights struggle. “Anybody a rapper in the house?” he has asked his flock. “You can rap, ain’t nothing wrong with that, but at the top of that are those that control the industry.”

In the fall of 2022, seeming to draw from a long line of Black indictments of Jewish power, the rapper and fashion designer Ye (formerly Kanye West) told his 31 million Twitter followers, “I’m going death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE,” and added, “You guys have toyed with me and tried to black ball anyone whoever opposes your agenda.” Also that fall, the N.B.A. star Kyrie Irving recommended to his 4.5 million followers the film “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America,” which purports to prove the theology of the Black Hebrew Israelites or, as some in the religious movement prefer, simply the Hebrew Israelites. The theology claims that an immense fraud has been perpetrated by Jews upon Black people. It argues that Black people are the true children of Jacob and thus God’s true chosen race. The film quotes The International Jew, a series of pamphlets published by the antisemitic industrialist Henry Ford in the early 1920s about what he describes as an insidious, all-pervasive Jewish influence. The theology seems to have inspired a 2019 shooting in a Jersey City kosher grocery by a Black couple, who murdered four before dying in a shootout with the police.

Yet in recent years, a new bond between Black and Jewish activists has emerged, catalyzed, in part, by the confluence of civil rights protests and attention to the Palestinian plight. The alliance is “growing and exciting,” Nyle Fort, a Black activist and assistant professor of African American and African diaspora studies at Columbia, told me. Fort’s activism began in 2011 with the controversial case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is serving a life sentence for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer, though he maintains his innocence. It continued in Ferguson, which in turn led to a trip to the West Bank. The trip was organized by Dream Defenders, a group whose causes span from mass incarceration in the United States to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. In the West Bank, Fort met a Palestinian father, newly released after three years in an Israeli prison, who reminded Fort of his nephew, who is currently incarcerated. Rather than discuss his nephew’s charge, Fort emphasized that his “10-year sentence reflects hundreds of years of racial bondage” and that the common theme between his nephew and the Palestinian father was subjugation. The Palestinian was locked up for resisting Israeli occupation, Fort’s nephew “for essentially,” Fort said when we spoke by Zoom, “being young, Black and poor.” Fort told me about the partnership between groups in the Movement for Black Lives and IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace on progressive domestic issues and on Israel and the Palestinians. They are in “constant communication,” strategizing about political races, planning campaigns to shape public opinion and mobilizing people to attend one another’s actions.

Beyond collaboration, there is a convergence and mutual amplification of outrage. Three days before the November protest in Washington, the author Ta-Nehisi Coates appeared at a kind of teach-in in front of a packed chapel at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, with hundreds more watching in overflow rooms and an additional 2,200 by livestream. (The next morning, he delivered his message again on the progressive news show “Democracy Now!” which has 1.9 million YouTube subscribers.) Coates spoke about a recent trip to Israel, his first, with visits to the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and to the West Bank city of Hebron. Both places have sacred histories running back to Abraham; the competing claims of Muslims and Jews have spurred riots and massacres perpetrated by zealots on each side. But Coates told his audience that he was surprised by the lack of moral complexity in what he encountered. Israeli soldiers carried “the biggest guns I’d ever seen,” and “our tax dollars are effectively subsidizing,” he said, “a Jim Crow regime.” Later, Morgan Bassichis, an organizer for Jewish Voice for Peace, took the lectern and identified themself as “one of so many Jews around the country and around the world who, with our whole beings, reject Zionism as the racist, colonial ideology that it is.”

Two weeks earlier, the Movement for Black Lives decreed that as Israel “deploys the violence and velocity of settler colonialism to devastating effect, we must all do more than pledge solidarity with Palestine — we must demonstrate it in the streets, in the halls of power, on every platform, in every way.” Borgwardt and IfNotNow thronged the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington in mid-November, a demonstration that ended in a clash with the Capitol Police.

After Borgwardt introduced us, I sat with Carty on a sidewalk, talking over the protesters’ drums. Carty, who is in her mid-30s, learned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during college at Brown, partly through a play, “My Name Is Rachel Corrie.” Its plot is based on the story of an American activist who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza in 2003 while trying to protect the home of a Palestinian family from being destroyed by the Israeli military. After college, Carty was a facilitator at Occupy Wall Street and then applied organizing methods she had learned to years of work with Momentum, which fosters social-justice groups like Dream Defenders and IfNotNow. She taught IfNotNow ways to sustain attention on issues and build the organization’s membership. She now leads Get Free, a group focused, she said, on “realizing equality by advancing comprehensive reparations,” ranging from compensation to “reckoning with our country’s original sins and the legacy of Black enslavement and Native genocide.”

Carty spoke with both belief and doubt about the Black-Jewish solidarity that she sees developing. She points to her history of collaborating with Jewish organizers. She believes in the alliance’s influence on the direction of young progressivism, believes that the bond can have increasing political impact. But she’s wary. She worries about the depth of white Jewish commitment, whether the cause is Palestinian liberation or domestic racial justice.

“The question for white Jews,” she said, “is to what degree the assimilation into whiteness means that you do not disrupt white supremacy and oppression for all of us.” Her words were, in a way, an echo of Baldwin’s. Jewish assimilation — the generational path taken by many American Jews after arriving as immigrants, mostly from Europe in the first half of the 20th century, from marginalized, impoverished and culturally distinct lives to mainstream success and the shedding of cultural difference — is, in Carty’s mind, a continuing force that Jews need to fully confront. The need remains even as she acknowledges that many Jews of European ancestry consider themselves something other than fully white and feel vulnerable to antisemitic attacks. She posits a theory that white supremacy holds out to Jews a deceptive promise of inclusion in order to keep Jewish and Black people at odds. “White Jews,” she said, “have to make a decision about what they’re going to do with the power they have, how they’re going to target it.”

Carty compares Israel’s repression of Palestinians to the racial caste system she perceives here. For her, the Black-Palestinian tie is personal, visceral. She, like Coates, equates what’s happening between Israel and the Palestinians to the Jim Crow-era South, where her father grew up. “The Palestinian experience activates Black trauma,” she said. Jewish response to Palestinian subjection sounded almost like a litmus test of authentic allyship. She faulted the action taken by IfNotNow in the first days after Oct. 7. The group organized gatherings to light candles and recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, a Jewish prayer for the dead, in parks from Portland, Ore., to Chicago to New York. “My Jewish friends wanted to mourn,” Carty said. “That felt right to them. But that didn’t feel right to me. I didn’t go to that action. It didn’t meet the moment. I tried to be compassionate, but we lost time in really speaking out in a politically targeted way against the slaughter of Palestinians that we could all see happening.”

Though the prayers were spoken not only in honor of the Israelis killed by Hamas but also of the Palestinians killed by Israel’s bombing, Carty noted what she views as a Jewish propensity for “trauma myopia.” As part of solving the dilemma of assimilated whiteness, accumulated power and how to put both to positive use, white Jews, in Carty’s thinking, should recognize that “Jewish history and relation to trauma and dehumanization has been exceptionalized.” There have been, she said, “so many similar genocides.”

“I’ve been to a lot of Passover celebrations,” she added, “and it’s so weird that the story is only of Jewish subjugation, even though subjugation is still so present for other people.” She went on: “Black people still haven’t had their histories honored. We are still gaslit about the impact of slavery and the continued impacts of white supremacy.”

At the demonstration, marchers spilled from the street onto the sidewalk where we sat, and drumbeats and chants drowned out some of Carty’s words, but she didn’t want to find a quieter spot. She said she liked the energy engulfing us. The chants cycled from “Ceasefire now!” to “Long live the intifada!” to “There is only one solution. Intifada, revolution!” That word, “intifada,” reverberated with a pair of references. There was the first intifada, or uprising, from 1987 to 1993, when Palestinians took part in boycotts and hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers. And there was the second, in the early 2000s, when members of Hamas but also Islamic Jihad and Fatah detonated explosives or carried out suicide bombings in Israeli shopping malls, train stations, buses, restaurants, a university, a disco and during a large Passover Seder at a hotel.

I asked Carty about something that surprised me, and that I’d also seen at an earlier demonstration: There were few Black faces among the protesters. This seemed odd, given the engagement of Black activists and academics, starting with the pro-Palestinian messaging of Black Lives Matter chapters right after Oct. 7. I mentioned explanations I heard during a series of interviews, some while I was reporting on Black-Jewish relations in and around Cleveland. Frank Whitfield, a young Black former mayor of Elyria, Ohio, and Linda Lanier, a Black community-college professor, are both devoted Christians invested in social-justice issues. They suggested that spiritually conservative Black churches lean toward loyalty to Israel and, Lanier said, retain influence even among the young. Lanier and others brought up another factor. “For African American communities where there is routine interaction with Arab corner-store owners who people say are predatory, there is an animus, which leads some African Americans to feel, We don’t have a dog in this fight.”

Carty had other explanations for the scarcity of Black faces. She said it was more about the risk of punishment for taking pro-Palestinian stances, about people losing their jobs or job offers, about the risk being greatest for the least powerful — Black people. And “they’re living under racism,” she said. “They don’t have time to look up.”

Though the protesters were mostly white or Arab, Black activists took turns amid the Palestinian speakers on the stage above the coffins. Asantewaa Nkrumah-Ture from the Black Alliance for Peace cried out, “We stand firm with the Palestinian people and all of their resistance forces!” Marte White, a young Black activist from Community Movement Builders, which, White said, is “fighting for self-determination for Black people here in so-called America,” announced, “Palestinians have a right to free their land from the river to the sea by any means necessary — and I do mean by any means necessary!”

By evening, demonstrators gathered at the White House gates. “Biden, Biden, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide!” When Borgwardt spoke to me about Biden, anger leaped into her voice. She was a field organizer for Biden in Arizona in the run-up to the 2020 general election, but in the coming election, she predicted, his unconditional support for Israel would make it extremely hard to get young progressives out to vote in the numbers needed to keep Donald Trump or another Republican out of the White House.

During the week after the protest in Washington, I asked Carty and Borgwardt about a recent interview in The Times with Taher El-Nounou, a Hamas media adviser: “I hope that the state of war with Israel will become permanent on all the borders, and that the Arab world will stand with us,” he said. His words were much like those spoken by Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas official, on Lebanese TV. Hamad promised “a second, a third, a fourth” attack like the one on Oct. 7, because “Israel is a country that has no place on our land. We must remove that country.” He clarified, “I am talking about all the Palestinian lands.”

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators in the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building in Washington in mid-October

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators in the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building in Washington in mid-October (Matt McClain/The Washington Post, via Getty Images)

“Hamas is a right-wing fundamentalist organization,” Carty said. “But we have to understand that it is a consequence of the occupation, of generations of people who’ve been radicalized by oppression, by an apartheid system, by erasure. Bring it back to the root cause. Violence begets violence.”

Borgwardt shared Carty’s position. “Desperation creates support for Hamas,” she said. “And the years of unrelenting siege and brutal repression by successive Israeli governments has created an environment in the Gaza Strip that is desperate.” Then she noted Israel’s accords with four Arab countries in 2020 and its fast-improving relationship with Saudi Arabia in the months before Oct. 7. “The most right-wing government in Israeli history was normalizing relations with Arab countries and cementing a violent apartheid status quo over the Palestinian people.”

Among Jews of older generations, there is acute discomfort about the way many younger Jews have taken up the Palestinian cause. Susan Talve is the founding rabbi of the Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, where Borgwardt sometimes worshiped as a teenager. Talve grew up in a New York suburb, and her rabbi, Michael Robinson, joined up with Martin Luther King and was jailed while protesting segregation in Florida in 1964. “I must have paid attention to that,” said Talve, who is 71. When she started Central Reform in the mid-1980s, it was with a sense of mission “to stand with people who were being marginalized, because if Torah is about anything, it is about rejecting models of masters and slaves, of hierarchies, of us and them.” This meant welcoming gay Jews during the H.I.V./AIDS crisis, becoming a religious home for Jews of color and focusing on racial-justice issues. One of her partners in founding the synagogue was a law professor and crusader for police reform. “It was begun by people who wanted to walk the walk,” she said.

From the day of Michael Brown’s death in 2014, Talve was a constant part of the Ferguson protests, and one night, alongside other clergy members, she knelt on the street before a phalanx of police officers to protect the demonstrators. It wasn’t her first or her last battle against racial injustice. Yet in Ferguson, apprehension muddled her ardor, because of the Palestinian agenda that was mixed in with the Black Lives Matter banners and cries. “I felt very uncomfortable,” she told me, though she pushed this feeling aside for the sake of her antiracism stance and “to not let Mike Brown die in vain.”

Her uneasiness, she explained, “was feeling that there was no nuance” in the pro-Palestinian position, “no acknowledgment of the experience of my people.” The perception was that “we were, that Israel was, just a colonialist entity destroying Indigenous people’s autonomy.” Indigenous Jewish history in the Holy Land seemed irrelevant, and the refuge Jews took in that land after the Holocaust or after expulsion by Arab nations seemed unrecognized. Nor did there appear to be any awareness of the terror of the second intifada. Talve visited Israel more than once with her children during that time, “when,” she said, “you couldn’t ride public transportation; you were afraid to go to a pizza parlor; you felt it in your bones.” Her voice softened. “I cared and care deeply about the injustice that’s been done to the Palestinians, but it’s not either-or.”

In 2015, Talve was chosen to give a Hanukkah blessing at the White House in front of the Obamas and Reuven Rivlin, then the president of Israel. Days before, the St. Louis chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, in a public letter, criticized her for her support for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the largest pro-Israel political organization in the United States. “We have struggled to reconcile your righteous stand on challenging U.S. domestic racism with your stated commitment to Zionism and defense of Israel,” the chapter wrote. The letter cited an AIPAC-sponsored trip that Talve took to Israel while “Israel mercilessly rained bombs down on Gaza.” It called AIPAC a “racist, right-wing, hawkish organization behind the U.S. sending billions in military aid — fighter jets, missiles, bullets, tear gas — to Israel to use against the Palestinian people.” (A spokesperson for AIPAC said that these charges are false, adding “We are a bipartisan organization, and our membership spans the ideological spectrum.”) The Jewish Voice for Peace letter also quoted Talve’s letters to her congregants saying that it was “impossible and dangerous to take sides.”

When Talve reflects on all this now, she thinks in generational terms, and she dwells on a mistake that she feels she and other Jewish leaders of her age made as they educated Jewish youths. She faults herself for not imbuing her young congregants with the capacity to think with painful complexity about Israel and the Palestinians — and about Israel’s terrible failings. She sees this inability as pervasive throughout young American Jewry and believes that its consequences are becoming more and more dire.

The Zionism her generation presented to them, she said, was all too positive. “They were raised in a time when we were afraid to say bad things about Israel in public. We didn’t expose our kids to the whole picture of the occupation. We didn’t prepare them for the complexity of the situation. And all the while, we raised them to believe that every person has infinite worth,” that “the Torah is about demanding freedom for everyone.”

Then, as they grew older, “the veil was lifted,” she said. They learned for themselves about Palestinian reality, and their elders’ lack of candor felt like duplicity, a profound betrayal. The result, in Talve’s view, was a clinging to moral purity instead of a grappling with moral confusion. It was a blindness to the necessities of self-preservation while existing next door to severely hostile nations and people.

Talve doesn’t remember Borgwardt; Borgwardt’s family moved to St. Louis after her bat mitzvah, and she was away at boarding school for her high school years. Borgwardt’s attendance at Central Reform was sporadic, but she recalls feeling undereducated about Israel’s brutality by the liberal-minded synagogue in the Bay Area that she went to until she was 14. It is Jews of roughly Borgwardt’s generation whom Talve has in mind when she considers her own failure.

These days, Borgwardt is sharply critical of Talve. She reproaches Talve for expressing public dismay about Representative Cori Bush’s pro-Palestinian comments and for backing Bush’s challenger in the coming Democratic primary. Like Talve, Bush was an unflagging presence at the Ferguson demonstrations. There, Bush has said, she learned about the Palestinian struggle and about Black Americans and Palestinians having “had such similar situations of oppression happening.” In the aftermath of Oct. 7, Bush defined Israel’s response as “ethnic cleansing,” called for an end to “U.S. support for Israeli military occupation and apartheid” and rebuked Biden and her congressional colleagues for sending “blank checks to Israel for weapons.”

Talve despairs over this, just as she does over the fervent certainty of young people like Borgwardt. “It’s hard to know if Israel would be able to defend itself without American support, and I care about the survival of Israel,” she said. “This war in Gaza is crossing so many lines. I don’t want to see another Palestinian die. To understand the two sides has to break your heart. But existentially, I’m afraid for Israel.” Her voice fell to a near whisper, full of urgency. “Israel has a right to exist and transform, to find a way to make itself better.”

“What I wish for is a multiracial democracy, a state where all people have equal rights and all religions are respected,” Carty said by phone in December, laying out her hope for the future of Israelis and Palestinians. She envisions this in part by applying American history to the Middle East. “It might take some time, but I’m suspicious of people who say that it’s impossible; people said that equality was impossible in the American South. And even though white supremacy is certainly not fixed in the South or throughout the United States, it’s better than it was.”

Borgwardt’s vision mirrored Carty’s idealism. It didn’t center on a two-state solution; such a notion, she said, has become little more than a distraction, a cover for Israeli expansionism in the West Bank. She spoke passionately about the imperative of “freedom and safety and equality and justice” for both Palestinians and Jews. She recited an IfNotNow precept that the Jews of Israel will be safe only when Palestinians are safe, that Israeli dominance will never amount to Jewish protection. I asked whether her thinking about the future included the existence of a Jewish state.

“That’s a big question,” she answered. She elaborated that it was hard to imagine “a state of Israel that defines itself as Jewish, and therefore requires a Jewish demographic majority,” while also granting full citizenship with equal rights to all Palestinians and allowing the return of all from the Palestinian diaspora. Full citizenship and the right of return are IfNotNow principles, and though the organization does not declare it outright, the paired tenets preclude a Jewish nation. “I have never known an Israel that does not require the oppression of Palestinians,” she said.

I brought up “the braid,” a kind of triad of activism. Black and Palestinian allegiance is easy enough to understand, I said, and Jewish and Black solidarity has long roots in the past. But many Jews, like Talve, who place Israel near the core of modern Jewish experience, feel troubled by the third leg of the triangle and might see something verging on self-destructive.

Borgwardt replied with a memory. “A couple of years ago, I saw ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ for the first time since I was 10, and all I could think about was the Nakba.” She used the Arabic word meaning “catastrophe,” which is the way Palestinians refer to having fled or been driven from their homes during the founding of Israel. This followed a United Nations resolution that apportioned territory between Palestinians and Jews in late 1947; Palestinians, soon joined by Arab states, fought to hold onto all of their homeland.

“In the play,” she said, “this Jewish family is being expelled by pogroms from their homes — and I was sobbing, sobbing for the Nakba.”

She had traveled a long way from her awakening to racial injustice in Ferguson. She had been borne a long way with the help of the new Black-Jewish alliance. Her tears seemed to be not simply for the Nakba; she seemed, in a sense, to be crying over the Jewish nation. She seemed ready to renounce it.

Source: The New York Times
Featured image: Eva Borgwardt in Manhattan in December at an event calling for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. (photo: Jessica Dimmock/The New York Times)


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.