Earlier this week, in Oxford, Mississippi, two unidentified perpetrators placed a noose around the neck of the James Meredith statue at the University of Mississippi. There was also an old Georgia state flag (which incorporated the confederate flag) draped around his shoulders.
James Meredith was the first African American student at the University of Mississippi, or “Ole Miss”
as it is still most commonly called. The campus has had several negative incidents of intolerance in the past few years – riots and racial slurs after President Obama’s re-election, heckling and homophobic remarks during a performance of The Laramie Project.
As a current undergraduate student at another college here in Mississippi, the first question that came to my mind when first hearing of this incident was: Where do we go from here?
I know this is not representative of that entire campus and community, but the fact remains that it happened (as did the heckling at the play, as did the racial slurs after the presidential election). It’s not enough to just not he perpetrators; we cannot just be bystanders. I grew up in the South and am certainly not a stranger to racial tension, but this is something much, much more deeply rooted and severe. It is something from which we cannot look away. I can’t escape it even if I wanted to – purely out of coincidence, I am going to Oxford this weekend to visit an old friend, now a student up there at Ole Miss, who happens to be African-American.
While I still look forward to the company of my friend, I will also feel a certain sense of dread sitting on the bus that will steadily edge closer to Oxford. In a way, this bus will be a time machine, taking me back to a Southern past I had assumed I would never experience firsthand.
Which brings me to my next question: As a white person with many close black friends, what is my own responsibility in improving race relations in our country?
In many ways living in the Deep South mirrors the experiences I had studying conflict resolution in Northern Ireland. In Belfast a peace agreement was signed in 1998, officially putting an end to The Troubles. The key word here is officially. While the violence dramatically decreased, much of the cross community tensions remained and were still present when I traveled there in 2013. However, because there is infrastructure for cross-community dialogue in Belfast this sentiment has been changed in some of these most hard lined members of the conflict.
Perhaps we in the US can take a lesson from the Northern Irish in thinking about our own civil rights movement. Although the campaigning days of Dr. Martin Luther King are gone, agreements have been signed, and laws have been made, we still desperately need cross-community dialogue.
This is, in part, why the work we do in the community engagement department is so important. Engaging the community in dialogue and discussing these horrible incidents of racism when they occur is one of the most important steps toward a better future. It helps this white Southern college student be part of answering that first question: Where do we go from here?
It’s something I’ll be thinking about while riding that bus, just as others did in the past, and I’m glad to continue working with a team to encounter difficult truths and come up with shared solutions.
As I mentioned in my last blog post, I grew up knowing very little about Judaism or Jewish culture. In an effort to become more familiar with the religion, partially because of interning at the ISJL, but mostly just out of genuine curiosity, I’ve been taking advantage of the educational literature on MyJewishLearning.
I began seeing unexpected parallels between Jewish texts and traditions and other religions I’ve studied, even Asian religions (around topics like reincarnation!). With all of this on my mind, when I was chatting with Rabbi Marshal Klaven last week, I mentioned that a major aspect of my education has been studying and understanding how Asian traditions, particularly Buddhism, have understood peace and been used in peace-building efforts.
He insightfully replied: “That’s interesting, because we all think we are talking about and working towards the same thing when we talk about peace, but maybe we’re not” – implying that different religions not only have different understandings of how peace might be achieved, but also may well have different definitions of what peace actually is, as well.
I had never thought of this before, but it makes sense. The teachings of Jesus advocate a more active role in nonviolence, whereas Siddhartha Gautama (The Shakyamuni, or Historical, Buddha) advocates detachment from suffering and withdrawal from the earthly world. Of course, different types Buddhism eventually developed concepts that called for more active involvement in the world, such as practicing loving-kindness. But still the roots of the way these two religious traditions understand peace are radically different—does this difference affect their understandings of peace?
Recently for a class I was asked to read an article by Allan Solomonow that discussed the Jewish perspective on peace. Solomonow explained that, from the Jewish perspective, peace cannot be separated from truth and justice—that to have one of the three you must have them all. In order to understand this more solid definition of these three rather vague terms is in order. In my mind justice has always been, I think probably subconsciously, equated with violent retribution. To me, justice has always meant equal suffering on two sides of a conflict, rather than equal healing. For example, growing up I always thought of justice as a murderer receiving the death penalty. The word still holds similar connotations to me. As a result I often think of peace, which I often equate with mercy, as the opposite of justice. However, Solomonow explains the Jewish (religious) perspective as one that rarely advocates the necessity of violence. If this is the case, then I require a different definition of justice to understand the Jewish perspective on peace.
I’d love to hear how from all of you on this topic and how you understand the concept of peace in Judaism. Let’s keep learning together!
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The only Jewish person I knew of growing up was Jesus, and to be honest I had never thought much about this aspect of his identity until college when a professor described Jesus as a rabbi during a lecture.
I had developed an affinity for Jewish culture as a teenager, much the same way a teenager develops a curious interest in anything their parents haven’t told them much about. When I told my mother of my newfound interest, she bought me a small menorah, sent me a Rosh Hashanah e-card at the appropriate time of year, and told me that it was at least moderately likely that my grandmother’s German ancestors had been Jewish, but left that part of their culture behind when moving to the wild, lawless trapper’s country of South Louisiana.
(It seems that my ancestry is diverse enough to accommodate any passing cultural fancy I’ve had growing up. When I went abroad for a semester in Northern Ireland, my grandfather informed me that his grandfather had been Irish. I found it odd that this had never been mentioned before I brought up the subject.)
The point of these perhaps too-indulgent anecdotes is that any knowledge I’ve had of Jewish culture prior to interning here at the Institute for Southern Jewish Life has been superficial at best. The menorah my mother gave me is tucked away, forgotten in a drawer somewhere (and it uses candles that look suspiciously similar to those found on birthday cakes). I was nineteen years old before I really met and had a conversation with a Jewish person, at least to my knowledge.
At last week’s staff meeting, my first at the ISJL, we had a program on inclusion in honor of MLK Day. It was discussed that the ISJL is in the unique position of being the first Jewish organization that many people in the area will come in contact with. It certainly has been that for me. I couldn’t be more grateful to everyone for how welcoming they’ve been and am so appreciative of everyone’s willingness to explain any term or aspect of Jewish culture that I don’t understand.
My uncle has always said of New Orleans, a place he lived for 11 years, that you “never stop peeling back the onion.” My past week at the institute has taught me the same of the South in general. I’ve lived in the South my entire life and have yet to be involved, or even be in conversation with, the Jewish community here. A community that thrives, perhaps shamefully forgotten by those not a part of it, right in our midst.
I could not be more grateful for the opportunity to peel back and better understand this particular layer of my home.
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