During my childhood, I never understood why I found myself needing to adapt differently depending on which parent I was walking with: my black mother, or my white father. But then the stares grew longer, the presumptuous comments and questions never seemed to fall-short of an insult, and well, as a family we learned to know when to guard, deflect or just turn around and walk out the door.
It’s one thing when an individual discriminates against you, but it’s whole other thing when it’s a group or community. When a community, organization or country perpetuate distant values of discrimination, it sticks, and becomes a part of who you are, your DNA.
“And He (Pharoah) said to his nation: ‘behold the nation of the Children of Israel they are larger and stronger than us, come let us devise a plan to outsmart them with trickery and deception.’ (Exodus 1:9)”
This verse always reminds me of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous words: “We should never forget that everything that Adolf Hitler did in Germany was legal.” King’s letter, written from the Birmingham jail cell during the 1960’s challenges the reader to not only speak up against the individual who displays hateful behavior, but to note that just because an institution does something “legally,” it doesn’t make it right.
When we go to the big picture it is not just Joseph and the sibling strife that led to a cry which still murmurs today. When we shift from the individual to the big picture the power and damage is amplified. That is what happen when a new Pharaoh rose us in Egypt, just 3300 years ago.
It’s the pain of collective estrangement that causes collective enslavement. It is society’s of silence that do not condemn their citizens behavior that cause the breakdown of moral justice and civil liberties. Pharoah tells his entire nation and no one speaks up. Freedom was lost…until someone spoke up.
According to Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman (12th Century-Girona, Spain) “he went out to his brothers,” meaning he realized what his household (the home of Pharoah in which Moses grew up) had done, and to which ancestry (Abraham) he truly belonged to. Moses takes stage in the public sphere once it becomes known to him that his home was the center of institutionalized discrimination, and that he was a member of both parties: the oppressors and the oppressed! It was then that the Exodus began. Though this week’s Torah portion shows us reinstilled leadership directed by the elders and the heads of tribes, it was Moses’s simple action to leave his home that brought about physical, spiritual and moral freedom.
Could I have said something when I was a little boy and my ancestry was called into question? Sure, but you could have also. But each of the individual Jews in my community could have been the Moses for us, and you still can be. Learn from Moses. Learn from Dr. Martin Luther King. Speak up, for once you begin to speak, you create the opportunity for even a sea to split.
This week I had the privilege of viewing an early showing of Selma, a movie about the historical events that took place in Alabama during the summer of 1965. The bombing of the 16th St. Church, in which 4 young girls were killed in 1963 and the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were not far from the public consciousness then. And the battle between hate and rights that unfolded that summer in Selma changed the course of American history in profound and essential ways.
There are those who will and have already begun to quibble with the historicity of “Selma” but as a white rabbi who trained as a historian and has devoted the last five years to civil right in the Jewish community through my work at Be’chol Lashon, it is my hope that ALL Americans, no matter race or religion go to see the film.
Telling the story of a movement set in the context of 200 years of history, in 127 minutes means that inevitably some of the lines between history and myth will be blurred. But do not underestimate the power in the cinemagraphic telling of history. Color returns dimensionality to images that we know only in shades of black and white. Camera angles bring out the intimacies and tensions that go into the small moments that make up epic events. In the rabbinic tradition we call filling in of the official narrative, midrash, or interpretation. And midrash is one of most powerful tools we have to teach us about the past, remind us of our values and focus our actions for the future.
Copyright limitations, for example, mean that the words spoken by the fictional Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are not direct quotations. Nonetheless, the power with which David Oyelowo delivers his portrayal of Dr. King provide us not only with the inspirational Moses figure to whom a monument stands in Washington DC but also the flesh and blood man who struggled with frailty and doubt even as he rose to the challenges of leadership. These nuances encourage us to reach beyond our failing and to see the possibilities of action.
Watching, it was hard at times for me to engage with Oprah Winfrey’s portrayal Annie Lee Cooper. In contrast to the real life powerhouse and billionaire Winfrey, Cooper was a middle school dropout and worked in an old age home. Cooper came to fame after her repeated attempts to register to vote led to a confrontation with the county Sheriff and her punching him. On the one hand I was too aware of Winfrey’s sophisticated real world persona to fully embrace the portrayal. But on the other hand, I saw the casting as a tribute to the extraordinary power of the everyday African Americans who, in standing up to Jim Crow white power, were no less regal than the real life Ms. Winfrey.
Within the Jewish community I hope that white Jews will look beyond the desire to have Jewish contributions to the historic Civil Rights movement recognized. Past involvement is no free pass for present day obligations. This movie should inspire white Jews to take a look within our synagogues, schools, picture books, and organization and to consider how to engage with African Americans and other Jews of Color not as the “other” but as members of our own communities. Are white Jews able to say that we do not question their membership? Their right to vote? Or legitimacy? There are many tools and approaches that we can incorporate into daily Jewish life that can and will make a profound difference, now, today and for the future for how Jews think and act around race and ethnicity.
Our sage Hillel, one taught that the entire Torah can be summed up in the maxim, we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. The rest he assured is commentary, but it is commentary that we are obligated to learn. If the movie Selma does not fulfill all the historical details faithfully, or speak to all of our needs, it does present us with a strong case for the importance how we treat our neighbors. If we walk away inspired to aim higher in creating a more fair and inclusive world, to learn and do more, then we have achieve something momentous.
Black Lives Matter, on the first night of Hanukkah and also on the second night, the third night and every other night and day of the year.
On the first light of Hanukkah, some in the Jewish community are taking the opportunity to express the sentiment that “Black Lives Matter.” We at Be’chol Lashon could not agree more. We dedicate ourselves to making the Jewish commitment to racial equality part of the everyday fabric of American Jewish life.
We believe strongly in society’s potential for transformation, but simultaneously know that protests alone are not enough. Real change requires long-term day-to-day work in the streets as well as in our synagogues, schools, camps and organizations.
First and foremost, as Jews we need to recognize that when we talk about Black lives, we are not talking about “them.” Studies show that 20% of the Jewish community identifies as something other than white or Askenazi. Unfortunately, our organizations, our narrative and the boundaries of our community do not always reflect this reality.
In order to affect change at the American societal level, we must begin at home. Be’chol Lashon has identified sustainable options to help the Jewish community be the change they wish to see in America.
First person stories and exposure are essential to helping people understand unfamiliar points of view. It is important to open ourselves to the plurality of voices and experiences that exist in the Jewish community. Jews of color, like all Jews, have a range of experiences and points of view. Be’chol Lashon’s media and speakers, such as recent documentary Little White Lie, are powerful tools to engage in discussions about race, identity and family. Get to know these stories, bring them to your communities to encourage proactive, positive conversations about race with Americans of all backgrounds.
Combating prejudice and racism starts with teaching children to
connect across differences, navigating diverse cultures with curiosity, sensitivity and confidence. Our curriculum—Passport to Peoplehood—expands children’s awareness of themselves in relation to the racial diversity of Jews and others around the world. Partnering with camps, JCCs, and schools we foster an understanding of the historic and contemporary reality of the Jewish people. Youth readily internalize new patterns of thinking and race and diversity must play a core part of Jewish education at every level.
Most people struggle when it comes to talking about race but true progress lies in our ability to broaden discussions beyond events such as Ferguson. The Race Project provides trainings to actively engage in crucial conversations and unravel race as a social construct. Just as we have come to realize that conversations about Israel are more productive when people are trained to listen or have facilitators assist the process, so too when it comes to race.
Outrage is understandable, but it is not a solution. Sustainable change needs time, work and commitment. Be’chol Lashon is devoted to bringing these kinds of opportunities to the Jewish community, because black lives matter both within and beyond the Jewish community.
When I think about Ferguson, Missouri I think about the Star Wars Trilogy. I spent every summer between the ages of 10 and 25 in Ferguson; and, I also spent a few weeks over the winter holiday there as well. So, I always waited with baited breath for summer, and the next movie in the trilogy. Every Saturday during those times, we ate Faraci’s pizza. When the riots first happened, I remember thinking, “I hope they leave Faraci’s alone because I really want some when I go back”…and I was grateful to see Faraci’s still standing when I went back to Ferguson for my mother’s 85 birthday party.
I also remember trudging to Schnucks grocery store during the “great blizzard” and I got my very first job bagging groceries at that same store. The summer I turned 24, I spent jogging the streets of Ferguson as I prepared for the physical agility part of the police application process.
Having grown up spending time in Ferguson, served as a police officer in Columbia, Missouri, and a career as a criminal defense attorney, I had lots of personal reactions to the death of Michael Brown. After the news broke about his death the inevitable media rush to the bottom began to occur. Everything about Ferguson, the citizens, the population, the police was fodder for debate and commentary. I began to wonder if I lived in a Ferguson vacuum. I never, ever heard my family talk about racism, racists cops anything that suggested things were as bad and one sided as the media suggested. None of my family ever told me, “hey be careful, you know the cops will harass you if they see you jogging down the street”; no one ever said, “hey be careful while you’re driving”. They alerted me to speed traps but nothing about bad cops. But then I realized…that was literally 25 years ago. My, how things have apparently changed.
One week before Michael Brown was killed, I was stopped for speeding in Calverton Park, Missouri, just around the corner from Ferguson. I was stopped by a young, white cop. I was driving a 2014 SUV with Florida license plates (a rental) and I was speeding. The cop was young, but professional and friendly. He did not approach with his hands on his gun and did not approach with an attitude of fear. I believe it is because I go through the same ritual when stopped by the police for any reason: I turn the car off, put it in park, roll down my window, and stick my hand out the window. If it is night time, I turn on my dome light to illuminate the interior. It is these “Hey, I’m not armed” rituals that dictate how the cop approaches me. It is these little things people of color have to do that Anglos do not have to do in order to survive police encounters.
Racial profiling does exist. It can be very dangerous. And so much went horribly wrong in the case of Michael Brown.
With my personal and professional experience both of the St. Louis area and the criminal justice system, I could write volumes about the specifics of this case and that Eric Garner. Every piece is complex and worthy of analysis, from the way Michael Brown’s body lay uncovered for hours in the street, to the media sympathy for Darren Wilson, to intricacies of the Grand Jury system. In the both the Brown and Garner cases, the Grand Juries decided after all they heard there was not enough to charge the officer(s) with a crime. But what were they told? Did they have the information to do their job? The tools—or lack thereof—they were given to arrive at that answer is the real injustice.
But let me leave you with a few thoughts, while black men are killed by cops disproportionately, people fail to realize and remember police also kill white men without punishment. The fact is that they can apparently kill anyone regardless of race and/or color makes this a misuse of power and authority issue, not necessarily a racial issue. I think this is why many people of all races should be concerned: the police can kill their children too and not be held accountable.
Here are 3 facts I want you to remember about these incidents and the rest of the incidents that will follow:
Just because something is unjust, does not mean it was illegal or against the law; secondly, just because a death event has been labeled a homicide, does not mean it was murder. Lastly, the purpose of a grand jury is to answer one question, and one question only: Is there enough evidence to charge this person with a crime. Period. Guilt/Innocence is not the question or the issue.
Over the last few weeks, as America waited for the Grand Jury decisions in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, we have been touring with our documentary, Little White Lie, encouraging proactive, positive conversations about race and identity with Americans of all backgrounds. The outrage expressed at the grand jury decisions tells us two things. One, race remains a volatile and potentially dangerous third rail in American society and two, so long as we continue to wait for moments of crisis to talk about race, it will remain so. It is difficult for us as Americans to talk about race, and even harder to do so when we do not have to. As the mother of a Black teenager, I know that in the current racial climate, no matter how much my son individualizes, he will be forced to deal with the harsh reality of toxic racial dynamics.
When I adopted my son Jonah in 1997, one of my primary concerns was that he would not see himself reflected in the American Jewish community—that his Jewish identity and his Black identity would be in conflict. I am gratified that after attending Jewish day school and growing up participating in Be’chol Lashon programs, he knows many other racially diverse Jews and takes his Jewish identity for granted. Now that Jonah is 17, I am aware that my concern has shifted and that in everyday life, the unique identity Jonah has developed will often be disregarded in favor of assumptions about his skin color.
Recently, Jonah came home and announced, “Mom, the supermarket security guy just asked for my receipt and took all the things out of my bag. I was racially profiled.” I realize that I must have conversations that I did not have with his white siblings—like making sure his hands are visible at all times if he happens to be stopped by the police. It is unsettling to instill distrust in my son for police officers. While it may be a necessary defensive measure, it reinforces how important it is to proactively work to reduce racial tension.
The racial dynamics on display recently present more than a physical danger—they threaten to derail the identity development of millions of young people of color. In middle school, Jonah was encouraged to write about himself in anticipation of applying to high school. In a particularly poignant poem he wrote, “I am not Jordan or Malik, I am Jonah. Why don’t people ‘see‘ that I am part of my family? Why do they only see ‘difference’?” Good question and one being asked by the growing population from mixed racial, religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds who identify beyond the boundaries of America’s racial divide. Teaching our children to keep their hands visible around police does little to answer this question. The safety of our children, both physical and emotional, lies in our ability as a society to broaden the discussion abut race beyond events such as Ferguson.
Jeff Chang insightfully articulates in his latest book, Who We Be, (http://whowebe.net/) that, “We can all agree that race is not a question of biology. Instead it is a question of culture and it begins as a visual problem, one of vision and visuality.” Race was created as a social construct and as such it can only be unraveled through social engagement and discussion. Who We Be chronicles racial progress through cultural commentary. In one example from the early 60s, cartoonist Morrie Turner drew kids having profound discussions about race and community. In Wee Pals, Oliver, a white kid, introduced the neighborhood kids to each other—Peter “the Mexican-American,” George “the Oriental,” 11 Rocky “the full- blooded American Indian,” and Randy, who, Oliver paused to note, was “a Afro- American, Negro, Black, Colored, Soul Brother.” “And what are you?” Peter asked Oliver. “Very careful!” Oliver replied.
A half-century later, even though Americans have elected their first Black president and are in the midst of dramatic demographic and cultural shifts, works similar to Turner’s groundbreaking cartoons are no less important. Fortunately, the torch is being carried and with the revolution in social media, the opportunity to impact Americans through pointed social commentary is greater than ever.
Notable contemporary efforts include Kenya Barris’ new sit-com Black-ish and Justin Simien’s film Dear White People which, although rife with stereotypes, manage to be humorous while authentic and compelling, putting questions about race front and center. Journalist and NYU professor Liel Leibovitz comments, “We laugh because…the conversation about race is one enough of us are eager to have honestly and openly.” He suggests that these conversations are not just about race, but are about self, community, traditions, and history.
As an organization that celebrates multicultural traditions and history of Jewish communities around the world, we executive produced Lacey Schwartz’s touching tour de force documentary about her family hiding a Little White Lie and her journey to come to terms with her mixed black and Jewish heritage. It offers a unique and compelling personal narrative that speaks directly to the changes in American demographics and Jewish identity. Little White Lie is a powerful and timely educational tool to engage in necessary conversations about race, a crucial step in an effort to make sure our children will be “seen” as who they are.
The tragedy highlighted by both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases is that we still live in a world where Black men are seen as in fundamental conflict with law enforcement. This is a dangerous juxtaposition that underlines the fact that racial tension in America remains volatile and potentially violent. It pushes back directly against my desire to raise my son with a sense of agency over his own life. I will do my best to teach Jonah how to manage the perceptions of others and how to stay safe in a dangerous world. And I will continue to work daily to change the way the Jewish community talks and thinks about race. But Jonah’s safety, like that of many others, depends upon our collective ability as Americans and as Jews to push the conversation about race forward, even when there are no grand jury decisions to spur us on.
As a Jew, do I respond to the needs of the stranger as I am repeatedly commanded to do so? As a Jew, have I fought to recruit a jury and politicians that stands for equality and justice? As Jew, should my voice be raised high, discontented and repetitive until justice is met?
For me, as I recall the anti-Semitic struggle of my European ancestors, and as I seek to understand how my grandfather’s grandmother, Lucille Mcgruder, was born enslaved in West Virginia during a segment of America’s darkest times, these questions burn in my mind. But as we learn from the story of how Jacob became Israel, these questions are fundamental to all Jews.
In Genesis 32: 25-29 we read:
“And Jacob was left alone, and a man (some say angel) wrestled with him until morning…and he (man/angel) said ‘let me go because it is the morning, and he (Jacob) said I will not let you go unless you bless me, and he (angel/man) said to him ‘what is your name?’ he said ‘Jacob.’ And he (angel/man) said, ‘no longer shall your name be Jacob, but rather Israel, because you struggled with God (for the sake of the Divine), and with men (for the sake of man) and were triumphant.’”
Later in the Bible, in his final message to our nation, Moses reminds the people of Israel as they get ready to enter the land of Israel, that the Israelites are who they are because they seek justice from below and above. Fundamental to being Jews was the agreement with God to make the physical world free of spiritual and moral blemish. We were “chosen” to elevate the stranger the orphan and the widow, and to build a world of moral courage and freedoms for all. We were “chosen” to be Israel, to struggle with the Divine and with Men, to fight for the Divine when Men fall low, and to Fight with God, when men cant “pull it together.” As we learn about Jacob in the Torah, we were not “chosen,” to stay in the walls of our synagogue (tent), because the plight of the world is too great to stay concealed in the warmth of the soul.
We are called Israel, because we made a decision to scream out when corruption is rampant. (Numbers 25:11)
We are called Israel, because we are not afraid to say that truth should reign in the place of folly. (Joseph the Righteous, 41:42)
We are called Israel, because of people like Louis Isaac Jaffe who condemned American whites for lynching American Blacks.
We are called Israel, because of people like Gili Rosenberg who reasoned “because they are our brothers” when asked why she joined the Kurdish fighters against ISIS.
We are called Israel, because even when my twin brother plots evil schemes against me, I will still attempt to appease him (Genesis 33:3)
We are named Israel, because when she comes, we know her well, when the stranger is without refuge, we defend and embrace her without hesitation.
Jacob wrestled with the angel and the battle left him with a limp and a new name. Jews collectively embrace the name Israel, because we will wrestle, even when it means that we may leave limping.
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For more perspectives, check out “Why Jews Should Care About The Donald Sterling Controversy” and “Sterling NBA Ban: So It’s Finished?” on Rabbis Without Borders.
Donald Sterling’s conversation with his former girlfriend is a veritable cornucopia of dysfunction. Bubbling to the top is the obvious racism, no doubt bolstered by a long history of discrimination in his real estate holdings. But intermixed with his bigotry, Sterling displays a host of other character flaws, from elitism to vanity to hypocrisy. It takes a special type of racist to tell his half-Latino half-black, less-than-half-his-age girlfriend not to be photographed with black men. But what many overlook is the near crippling fear that Sterling is operating under.
For the purposes of National Basketball Association, or most of American society for that matter, it is not particularly important why Sterling holds the views he does, only that he be reprimanded. In the Jewish community, however, it matters a great deal. You see Sterling is not simply expressing hatred toward black people. He is doing that, undoubtedly. But what seems to be motivating him is his fear of what association with black people could mean for his girlfriend and by extension, himself. He is operating according to a worldview in which racial or ethnic identity is the determinant factor in whether one succeeds or fails in life, and it seems very much as if he is afraid of being ousted as a fraud.
Why would a man who arguably faces no barriers to entry in all walks of life, with enough money to do as he wishes, be afraid of what others think of him? Enter the complex dynamics of a once pitiful and oppressed minority operating within the racial construct of the United States. Jews came to America for opportunity, as did many. Jews were not alone in seeking legitimacy in America, but perhaps differently than other peoples who were differentiated by the color of their skin, Jews were able to attain acceptance, in part, by passing as, and eventually, becoming white.
American Jews owe no apologies for embracing their dominant European identity. The security to choose how we want to live our lives regardless of the social realities around us is a newly found luxury. However, this does not absolve us of recognizing the ways in which the transition to “whiteness” in America has impacts our community. Part of becoming white in America has meant becoming embroiled in the racial politics, and while Jews have often been on the right side of the fight against racism, pretending that racism hasn’t crept in would be folly. Racism is not dead yet, neither in general American society, nor within the Jewish community.
It is dying, however—at least in its current incarnation. The changing demographics of the American population make it all but a foregone conclusion that the America that Donald Sterling lives in will end as a more multicultural America takes its place. As people of color become the majority of the country’s population over the next few decades, a transition that’s already happened among the nation’s youngest residents, it is important for the Jewish community to understand what this means for us.
The Jewish community, tragically, risks irrelevancy if it remains stuck in a past where whiteness is perceived as necessary for survival. Tragic, because whiteness, or any form of mono-culturalism is foreign to the long history of Jewish identity. The American future portends a dramatic reversal, where groups stuck in a racialized past, unable to embrace multiculturalism in America, and more importantly, within their own communities, become relics. The good news is that multiculturalism is natural to Judaism. Jews represent perhaps the most culturally, ethnically, and racially mixed people on the planet. It is this narrative of the Jewish people that the American Jewish community must embrace while sloughing off the fear-based perspective clung to by the Donald Sterlings of the world.