As protests and looting roiled the Philadelphia area for several days, the Jewish community responded in both word and deed.
Almost every major national Jewish organization issued a statement expressing support for the African American community in the fight against racism, as did a number of local agencies.
Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia released a statement denouncing the killing of George Floyd in police custody. It extended condolences to Floyd’s family and to all Americans pained by the tragedy.
“To our Black fellow Philadelphians: We see you. We hear you. We are ready to raise our voices in peaceful protest and to partner with you in building a just society that honors our shared ideals. Now is the time for our city to come together to fight racism and bigotry in all of its forms, and we deplore all violence and vandalism that detracts from the struggle for meaningful change,” the statement read.
The Black-Jewish Alliance of the Anti-Defamation League in Philadelphia called for inclusive policy-making processes and anti-racist police practices.
“We all are horrified, but not surprised by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Although the four officers involved have been fired and the FBI is supporting the investigation, we call on leadership to ensure the investigation be immediate, thorough, fair and transparent,” the statement read.
Shira Goodman, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in Philadelphia, said the organization was pleased to see the immediate response of the police department in firing and arresting the officer responsible, but that more action was needed.
“We also understand the anger and the frustration of African American communities and communities of color,” she said, “the longstanding anger over the way they are treated by the police, the lack of funding for education and health care, all issues that are being brought to the front by COVID-19. We strongly support the rights of people to protest and use their First Amendment rights.”
She said the ADL condemned the violence that erupted during the protests and that the Center on Extremism would be conducting research to identify who was responsible.
She also pointed out the disparities in the ways white and black Americans are treated by police and media.
“We have been watching for weeks armed, mostly white and male protesters trying to force their way into state capitols with no police action, no injuries, no tear gas. Again, we condemn any violence, and what started off in peaceful protests (in Philadelphia) were met by force, tear gas — why is there a different treatment here? Why is there a different expectation about what is going to happen?”
While organizations condemned the impact of looting on local businesses and city property, many black Jews and protesters expressed frustration that the outrage over the destruction of property was not extended to the destruction of human lives.
“I don’t care whether or not the protest is peaceful. I care that the people who need to hear the protest are actually listening,” said Koach Baruch Frazier, an African American student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote who was recently named an LGBTQ Jewish Hero by Keshet. “In terms of people damaging property, that’s not violence. Violence is putting your knee on somebody’s neck. We have the right, given to us by Hashem, to be treated with dignity. A building does not have that right.”
He witnessed police shooting rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd during protests on May 31.
“They’re using stuff for the military. It’s not only despicable, it would be unimaginable unless I had seen it myself,” he said.
He noted that tear gas is especially dangerous during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I felt very upset that the state continues to use chemical weapons against its people, particularly during a pandemic that is already causing such harm to people’s respiratory systems,” he said.
Aliyah Rochel Shaw of Overbrook Park, who is black and Jewish, was still reeling from the Feb. 23 killing of jogger Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia when she heard that Floyd had been killed.
“My dad is African American. He’s a marathon runner, he runs regularly, we live in a predominantly white neighborhood. [My mother] doesn’t rest until he’s back home. That’s the reality of tons of black people I know — we just don’t rest,” she said.
She did not attend a protest, but said she believed that anarchist groups had taken over the event and distracted from the main cause.
“I personally don’t feel like looting is the answer,” she said. “Protesting is the way to go if you want to get your point across. But are we just supposed to let these murders happen and not do anything? Are we just supposed to sit home and not protest because it looks bad? No matter how I look at it, I just get the message not to protest.”
Kevin M. Moseby, a black Jewish professor of sociology at Drexel University, did not attend a protest but supports them.
“When we say, ‘How dare they go violent and destroy this?’ we lean into thinking that the property and stuff is more important than the life and the policy,” he said.
He has experienced the trauma of systemic racism in policing firsthand.
“I grew up in Arkansas. I’ve had police officers stop me and question why I’m on campuses, why I’m in a car with white people, particularly white females. I’ve had guns pointed at me by police officers because I’m in a certain neighborhood,” he said.
Wilbur Bryant II, a black Jewish resident of West Philadelphia, also supports the protests. He was horrified, but not surprised, by the footage of Floyd’s death.
“I think white people have always known that this was happening, but I don’t know if white people always believed it. But now they see. We all saw the video and no one can say, well, maybe he did something that the officer was reacting to. We saw outright murder, not only by him, but by his fellow officers, who were complicit,” he said. He emphasized the need for white people to support the black community by taking action to dismantle systemic racism.
“It is time for white people to hit the streets, hit the legislatures, and have these conversations among themselves,” he said. “If we are going to say, ‘Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof,’” we need to do it constantly, endlessly, tirelessly. This is our job. We need to pursue justice and it needs to start now.”
Brett Schmuckler, of Warminster, attended a protest in Doylestown on May 31.
“As someone who is Jewish through and through for as far back as my family can trace, it kind of sunk in that this is something that needs to be seen and heard by everybody,” said Schmuckler, who is white. “I thought to myself, this is important, because as someone who is Jewish, I’m not far down the list of people to be hated.”
Glenn Katz of Queen Village attended a protest at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on May 29.
“It was a really great experience at that time. It was a lot of solidarity, a lot of energy, you could feel it. It was great, it was peaceful, the police were on the side,” said Katz, who is white. “As a Jewish person, given the amount of injustice we have seen these past thousands of years, we must stand in solidarity with the African American community. It’s our duty.”