“In the Nazi concentration camps of Germany people had seen the end results of racism.”- Lee Lorch to New York Times interviewer William Kelly
As a recently returned WWII veteran, Lee Lorch was in need of a place to live. Like many other veterans, Lorch and his family moved into Stuyvesant Town, a housing development in Manhattan.
Lorch was lucky enough to be a prime housing candidate for this development, as he was recently quoted as saying in a New York Times tribute, “A steady job, college teacher and all that. And, not black.”
Lorch, who identified as Jewish, joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the American Jewish Congress, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in many efforts, and even one failed lawsuit, to rectify the wrongs wrought by housing discrimination.
Because of his role as a civil rights activist and his suspected involvement with the Communist party, Lorch was forced to leave three teaching positions at three different academic institutions, two of which were historically black colleges in the South (one in Tennessee and one in Arkansas).
Lorch died recently at ninety-eight, professing his unfaltering belief that he had done the right thing, only wishing he could have done more, until the very end. You can read his obituary in the New York Times here.
As a non-Jew, I find the role his Jewish identity and the role of the American Jewish Congress in fighting housing discrimination based on race fascinating and captivating, particularly because the white Christian community was not particularly involved with this struggle at the time. In fact, many Christian organizations (the Ku Klux Klan comes to mind) actively fought, often times violently, for oppression.
As a person who grew up a white Christian and still ascribes to a particular type of Christian spirituality, I consider it of utmost importance to examine the dark parts of the religion, not only in its history, but also in modern times. As LexRofes mentioned in his most recent blog post, Senate Bill 2681 is being fought for in Mississippi. This bill legalizes discrimination under the guise of religious freedom. As Lex reflects upon how his Jewish identity calls for him to reject this bill due, in particular, to the negative implications it might have for the LGBT community, I would like to call upon how my Christian identity also calls me to do so.
Fundamentalist Christians are notorious for preaching discrimination and oppression for and against people groups they consider different from themselves. Citing ancient and out of context passages from the Bible, they conjure images of fire and brimstone and promise that homosexuality is abhorred by god. The infamous Westboro Baptist Church is almost entirely built upon their motto: “God hates fags.”
I find it incredibly embarrassing that I even in name share a religious identity with this church. My understanding of the teachings of Jesus are so deeply steeped in love that it is completely impossible for me to understand how people can call themselves Christians and yet act so hateful, so un-Christ-like. Coming from a Christian perspective, I beg the leaders in Mississippi government, most of whom identify as Christian, to consider Christianity’s in part discriminatory past and not allow history to repeat itself.
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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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