Avi Dresner: Son of a civil rights rabbi reflects on Powell's remarks

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Dear Dennis:

I'm sorry to send this to you publicly, however, your unfortunate public remarks left me no choice. Damage done publicly must be undone publicly, and you have damaged — albeit unintentionally — a cause you and I have devoted our lives to.

At the recent Great Barrington rally protesting the murder of George Floyd — and, more broadly, the racist policing of African Americans — you suggested that a program of a Jewish organization, the Anti-Defamation League, which sends American police to Israel to learn anti-terrorist techniques from their Israeli counterparts, bore some responsibility for George Floyd's murder by teaching chokeholds, and you called on your Jewish brothers and sisters to pressure the ADL to discontinue it.

I have no idea if your allegations are true. If they are, then I condemn this practice in the strongest possible terms and will let the ADL know that. Perhaps it will carry extra weight as I am a veteran of the Israeli army. As such, I can tell you that I was never taught a chokehold in my training. Instead, I was taught that, if a commanding officer ever gave an order I thought was immoral, it was my right and responsibility to refuse to carry it out. There is no "just" in just following orders, whether it's soldiers or police.

Unfortunately, the line between the two has been blurred in America and Israel, in large part because so many former soldiers serve in the police forces of both. However, the Great Barrington rally was about police violence in America, not Israel and, by inserting Israel and Jews into the conversation, you unfortunately — and, again, unintentionally — blurred and crossed several other lines.

Let me say unequivocally that one can be against the policies of the Israeli government toward the Palestinians and not be an anti-semite. In fact, if that makes someone an anti-semite, then I am one. Let me also say loud and clear that I do not believe you are an anti-semite. Your work in the community proves otherwise. I have only met you once, when you introduced my Freedom Riding father, Rabbi Israel Dresner, at an MLK Day event in Lee several years ago, and I found you to be an exceedingly polite and thoughtful man, which is why your remarks caught me so off guard.

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As you know, my dad was the most arrested rabbi during the Civil Rights Movement and one of Dr. King's most trusted allies in the Jewish community. When I told him about your remarks, it pained him for the damage they did not only to the cause of social justice, but also to the Black-Jewish alliance he helped build during the Civil Rights Movement and that had been forged long before that.

As head of the local branch of the NAACP — an organization which my father has been a lifelong member of and which has honored him many times — you are no doubt well aware that Jews helped found it along with Great Barrington native son W.E.B. Du Bois.

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The NAACP has had Jewish presidents for nearly half of its 111 years in existence, including its president during much of the Civil Rights Movement, my dad's friend of blessed memory, Kivie Kaplan. You also undoubtedly know that the NAACP's highest honor, the Spingarn Medal, is named for Joel Spingarn, a Jewish former president.

As you may also know, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and The Voting Rights Act of 1965 were both drafted in the conference room of the Reform Jewish movement's Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C.

So, if you know all of this, why did you say what you said when, where and how you said it? Why did you ignore all of this — choosing to focus instead on an ADL program that I'm sure isn't even in the top ten list of reasons for racist policing in America — and single out the Jewish community publicly for special responsibility in contributing to the murder of black men and women at the hands of the police and, therefore, special responsibility for ending it?

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Just imagine if I, as a white Jewish man, were addressing a predominantly black crowd asking for their help in combating anti-semitism and said "to my Muslim brothers and sisters let us not forget the contributions of Black Muslims to anti-semitism in America. I ask you to write the Nation of Islam and tell them to knock it off." How do you think that would go over?

Would there be more African American Muslims in that crowd than there were Jews at the protest in Great Barrington, and would they bear special responsibility for anti-semitism, or for ending it? Of course not. This is a job for all of us to do together, and it will take all of us to do it.

Now, it's still a free country and anybody can publicly say just about anything they want to. But, just because you have the freedom to say something, doesn't mean you should, and especially when you can use all the friends you can get and when your people have been friends for so long.

You should still have my phone number and email address. If not, you know people who do. I'll be waiting.

Yours in solidarity and friendship, Avi.

Avi Dresner is an occasional Eagle contributor.


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