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After more than ten years of creating and sharing music videos, we’ve grown accustomed to a fair share of public scrutiny. And as seasoned veterans of the online world, we’ve long known that social media and YouTube comment sections don’t lend themselves to thoughtful discussion and critical analysis.
But our most recent offering, “Say Your Name,” written in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, seems to have touched a nerve. Several nerves, in fact. The censures of our song fell into four – sometimes overlapping – categories:
Many questioned why we wrote a song for George Floyd, despite having never dedicated songs to any other victims. Commenters suggested a wide range of substitutions, including Israeli victims of terror, American victims of antisemitism, white victims of police brutality, and victims of the violence associated with the recent protests.
Others suggested that we shouldn’t have dedicated a song to someone with a criminal past.
A third group complained that our song implies alignment with – or worse, pandering to – a group or organization that they viewed as unsavory, such as Black Lives Matter, the Black American community, or progressivism at large.
Finally, a small but vocal group suggested that our song emphasized ourselves over George Floyd and the causes he inspired.
With regards to that last point (the subject of a recent article in Kveller), we don’t have much to add other than to point out the irony of a mostly – if not entirely – white group asserting that our project somehow took away the voices of the victims.
Regarding the third objection noted above, that of joining the “wrong” cause: As to whether or not we believe that there are deep-seated, fundamental issues which require serious thought and action, we follow not just the armies of social scientists and thinkers who have shown this to be the case, but the example of our community’s teachers and leaders:
Yeshiva University: “Our hearts are heavy with sorrow and we understand the anger and fear being felt across the country, especially by Black Americans at this time. We join in the national outcry for justice and reforms that seek to prevent these tragic violent acts from continuing to occur.”
British Chief Rabbinate: “That ‘Black Lives Matter’ needs affirming at all is utterly shameful. There is no doubt that this is an essential wake up call for each and every one of us.”
Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations (the OU): “Yet, we are again witnessing that too many communities around this country feel their voices are not being heard, their complaints about racist treatment are unheeded, and we are not doing enough to point out that this brutal and unjust treatment is antithetical to basic American values.”
Yes, the antisemitism that we publicly protested with 25,000 of our brothers and sisters earlier this year is real. And yes, that antisemitism sometimes manifests more prominently in communities of color. But bringing that up at this moment is entirely besides the point. We don’t fight for the rights and dignity of marginalized communities for the sake of reciprocity, we do it because it’s the right thing to do.
To those who protest our mourning of Mr. Floyd due to his criminal past, we reply simply that this is an ugly, morally repugnant distraction. Neither Jewish nor American values teach that his life be treated as less than any other; his blood was no less red than ours or yours. As one of the bystanders desperately tried to remind the officers who killed Floyd, “he is human.” If one of the victims of the Tree of Life shooting were a convicted criminal, his or her death would be no less tragic.
Similarly, we shouldn’t need to explain the difference between the functional public execution of Mr. Floyd by uniformed government representatives and the tragic death of retired police captain David Dorn at the hands of criminal rioters during the subsequent unrest.
Finally, as to those who questioned whether we “have enough tears” for Jewish and Israeli victims as well, the answer, of course, is yes. The Jewish people exist in concentric circles, and it is only natural to grieve more at the loss of a family-member than at the death of a stranger. But assuming you were asking in good faith why George Floyd deserved a tribute, and not simply using those substitute names as a sideways disagreement based on one of the above critiques, allow us to explain why we felt the need to speak up at this time.
Hearing about the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in the final hours of Shabbat brought on an awful jumble of feelings in the pit of our stomachs. After the attack on our sacred space of gathering and prayer we felt, all at once, mourning, grief, violation, anger, and fear. The Jewish community – our primary audience – shared in this emotional whirlwind. They didn’t need us to remind them how to feel.
Furthermore, all the commentary and finger-pointing over the following days and weeks didn’t really make us feel any better. Security at synagogues and other Jewish institutions would need to be increased. Antisemitism was on the rise from both sides of the political spectrum. We live in a climate of extreme polarization and radicalization.
What did make us feel better was the comfort that came from outside of our community. Not just politicians at all levels denouncing the violence, not just newscasters reading the names and stories of the victims, but the “rings of peace” that some groups of non-Jews formed around their local synagogues. And yes, the presence of local law enforcement outside those synagogues.
So when Black Americans were hit in the face with yet another video of the needless death of someone who looks like them, we thought we should take a few beats to offer our empathy, and to remind the rest our community to do the same.