Jewish Community Relations Councilof San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin, Sonoma, Alameda and Contra Costa Counties

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5778: Advocating Justice

September 13, 2017
Posted by: Jeremy Russell, Director of Marketing and Communications

When I was about seven my mom and I were listening to the radio and the Byrds came on singing “Turn! Turn! Turn!” Already a budding music aficionado, I listened intently to the lyrics and quizzed her about the song. She steered away from the source material and focused instead on a non-theological interpretation that incorporated concepts of life stages, historical moments and the past repeating itself. I won’t attempt to revisit the whole conversation, but suffice to say I had a ton of questions and walked away more confused than ever. Now that I’m older, and have seen the turning of a few “seasons,” the wisdom of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) chapter three is clear and present. Not only does everything have its season, but there is power in naming them.

Right now we’re in a season of racial reckoning. I don’t know if it’s a fall or a spring, but you have to have your eyes shut and your ears plugged not to see and hear it. Issues of race are perennial, but what we’re experiencing is still in some ways novel. From 2012 when Alicia Garcia’s simple reminder that “Black lives matter” burst into an inflammatory touchpoint to 2014 when #blacklivesmatter was voted Word of the Year to 2016 when the presidential election begat a troubling degeneration of civil discourse, including the drammatic rise in anti-Semitic hate online, to this year's resurgence in white nationalism, which shattered Charlottesville and theatens to further metastasize, change is erupting. And either we’re going to unite to make glorious summer or it’s soon to be a seriously discontented winter.

Recognizing the unmistakable road signs of what was to come, JCRC embarked over a year ago on a consensus process on racial justice. We launched our “Learning for Change” campaign to gather noted policy experts, advocates and social service providers and to learn from them about the national and local issues of racial equality. We held five town halls on topics related to race and the law, race and education, and race and voting rights. At all of those events we were live polling to better understand how our community, hardly monolithic on the topic, envisioned change. From those sessions our Public Policy Committee was able to develop a JCRC Consensus Policy Statement on Racial Justice, which the JCRC Assembly made official in June. The new statement will allow us to speak with the assured voice of consensus, which in turn will inform our positions and advocacy work.

It bears repeating that American Jews were not always thought of as white and at least 20 percent of the current U.S. Jewish population is Black, Latino, Asian, Native American, Sephardic, Mizrahi or mixed-race. Nevertheless, the fact that the majority of Jews are perceived and/or self-identify as white deeply informs both how our community understands these issues and how JCRC can best engage. The consensus statement outlines detailed policy responses to issues of racial inequity in wealth, health, education, voting rights and criminal justice. However, the first focus of the document, even prior to its policy proclamations, is an inward reflection on racial justice in our own Jewish community. Addressing the marginalization of Jews of color is an essential prerequisite.

JCRC’s history of taking on issues related to racial justice dates back at least as far as 1948, when (as the Jewish Survey Committee) it was a lead organizer in the coalition that successfully pushed for a “Council for Civic Unity” to battle race-based housing discrimination. However, we cannot and will not rest on our racial-justice laurels or assume that everyone accepts them as bonafides.

Now, at this turning of the years, from 5777 to 5778 (happy Rosh Hashanah everyone), we are initiating a new campaign, “Advocating for Change.” Next week we start a blog series to highlight organizations doing powerful work in the racial justice field. We will be promoting actions in line with our consensus statement that can raise the profile of these organizations. We will also continue our efforts to educate ourselves and our community about the importance of supporting racial justice. Look for the hashtag #AdvocatingJustice on social media.

We have made a new commitment to equality and equity, and in doing so have relied on Jewish tradition and concepts to guide us: All humans beings are created in the image of G_d, all human lives are of equal dignity, and justice (tzedek) is our raison d’etre. So, whatever else this season may bring, it has brought us to the struggle…again.