Category Archives: Current Events

“Profit is a Great Motivator for Tolerance”: Mississippi Jewish History Has Something to Say

Have you seen this image yet?

Eddie Outlaw

If not, can you guess which state it may be from? Believe it or not, this is a Mississippi initiative.

This glorious logo has been flooding my Facebook feed for weeks and is now getting the great press coverage it deserves – from local news outlets like the Jackson Free Press, and also from the likes of Time Magazine and some Posts—Washington and Huffington.

After the Mississippi House and Senate passed SB 2681—the controversial “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” Mitchell Moore, owner of Campbell’s Bakery and a self-proclaimed “white, heterosexual, conservative Christian male,” decided to take a stand.

“The examples people always use (when talking about how businesses could discriminate) always involve weddings and a florist or a baker (refusing service to a gay or lesbian couple), since those are the ones that have probably happened somewhere,” Moore said to the Jackson Free Press. “I thought it was ridiculous, and I wanted to get the message out that we are not discriminatory, and that I want to sell my product to as many people as will buy it.”

Since then, hundreds of stickers have been printed and put up in storefront windows across the state. The campaign is getting so much attention that the American Family Association, a conservative evangelical organization, is fighting back. This article from the Huffington Post quotes the AFA saying  this is “not really a buying campaign, but it’s a bully campaign… carried out by radical homosexual activists who intend to trample the freedom of Christians to live according to the dictates of scripture.”

In counterpoint, the Huffington Post author points out that those who agree with the AFA might want to consider this: “…bigots in Mississippi are still free to discriminate, but they do at a disadvantage to competitors who don’t… Profit is a great motivator for tolerance.”

It’s this last line that got me thinking historically about tolerance among merchants. As I’ve written in the past, many Jewish immigrants to Mississippi at the turn of the century worked their way up from peddlers to become merchants in towns across the state. A majority of these merchants differentiated themselves from other businesses through their relationships with the black community. Jewish merchants across the South, especially the ones that owned lower-end dry goods stores (of whom there were many) relied heavily on black customers.

And in this relationship, there was a definite distinction between Jews and other whites. Jewish store owners had the reputation of treating their black customers far better than other white merchants. Jews were more willing to extend credit to blacks, and to use terms of respect when speaking to them. Certainly, there was an economic incentive to treat their customers well, but as one civil rights leader in Mississippi noted, Jewish merchants were considered “the better of the white element that you had dealings with.” In her memoir The Jew Store, Stella Suberman recalls how her father hired the first black store clerk in their small Tennessee town in the 1930s. In the store owned by Edward Cohen’s family in Jackson, clerks called their blacks customers “Mr.” or “Mrs,” which was unusual at the time. As Cohen notes: “We observed blacks’ humanity, if not their equality.”

But years later during the Civil Right Movement of the 1960s, the pressure to conform to segregation laws was more intense. When city leaders were not willing to integrate, Jewish merchants could be caught in the middle between movement sit-ins and white resistance. While they may have held progressive ideals, Jewish merchants were worried about the impact joining the movement would have on their businesses, and how speaking up could potentially endanger them and their families.

Only after integration became inevitable, or the cost of continued segregation became too high, did they change their practices—but they did often take the lead in this process. In Memphis in the 1960s, a handful of Jewish department store owners organized meetings with other merchants to discuss the peaceful integration of their stores. Jack Goldsmith, owner of Goldsmith’s, and Mel Grinspan of the Shainberg’s store chain, led this effort, which was designed to have all the stores integrate together so none of them could be singled out for retribution.

In both instances, profit was a main motivator,  but at different points in history a merchant’s practice of discrimination could either be bad or good for business. It’s why I find this “Religious Freedom” bill so dangerous. We’ve seen what happens when discrimination becomes acceptable and profitable, and the situation that it puts merchants in. Taking a look back helps frame the fight we are fighting today as social change threatens the sacred status quo.

The “If You’re Buying, We’re Selling”  campaign is trying to point out that in Mississippi, in 2014, discrimination is bad for business. This law is bad for the people in the state and those thinking of doing business in the state. And twisting the logic behind something as important as “religious freedom” of the majority to enforce discrimination against a minority is just another level of how disturbing it is.

Having lived in this state for six years, I’ve learned that the loudest voices are often assumed to be the majority. It was some loud voices who got the “Religious Freedom Bill” passed—but now, some other loud voices are taking the megaphone—loud, proud business owners who will sell to anyone who’s buying, and are taking a bright-stickered-sign against discrimination.

For more information, visit the website If You’re Buying website and follow the news of this growing movement on their Facebook page.

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Posted on April 30, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Is Mardi Gras More Jewish Than You Think?

The parades of Mardi Gras are a communal event. It isn’t unusual for folks to begin gathering in their favorite spot a couple of hours before the parades begin. There are two highly identifiable sides that one stands on: the neutral ground side (otherwise known as the median) and the sidewalk side. Each swells with people as the natural socialization begins and it is a sweet time for everyone.

kientzes

Ann, her husband, and just a few Mardi Gras beads…

It doesn’t matter who you are, what color or religion you are, what you drive or what you do for a living, or where you went to school, or any of the normal social barriers that keep us apart.  We are all there for the same joyous reason, to celebrate and enjoy.

It is near impossible to talk on a cell phone and hear because of the noise. The internet is painfully slow, with thousands of people in a small, dense area. And anyway, if you look down to text, you are going to miss something. So, miracle of miracles – most of us put it all away and live in that moment, which is a rare privilege these days!

I could say that the “sacred time” notion, away from phones and fully present, is enough of a Jewish moment at Mardi Gras. But there’s so much more. In fact, Mardi Gras makes me think each year of my favorite Torah portion, Nitzavim, and these words in particular:

“ You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God — your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer — to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; to the end that He may establish you this day as His people and be your God, as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day….”

I imagine each year, that this is the closest that I will get to feeling that kind of diversity, all standing together for a common gift!  No, the gift itself isn’t as formally holy as the gift in Nitzavim. Of course not. But what could be more holy than brothers and sisters standing together as equals in peace, love and joy?

By the way, yes, we all know that the roots of Mardi Gras are Catholic, with this celebration emerging as the last hurrah after Lent before the Easter holiday. But culturally, as a New Orleanian, I know well that contemporary Mardi Gras celebrations are truly for everyone to enjoy. Did you know that the first King of Rex (King of Mardi Gras), Louis Soloman, was Jewish? And that there’s a full-blown Jewish Mardi Gras Krewe?

So maybe your Mardi Gras experience could be a bit more Jewish than you think. Mine certainly is, year after year.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on February 28, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Noose Around James Meredith’s Neck: Where Do We Go From Here?

James_Meredith_sculpture_OleMissEarlier 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.

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Posted on February 21, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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