This piece was written jointly by Lonnie Kleinman and Lex Rofes.
An article about the soon-to-be-released film Selma recently appeared in the Jewish Daily Forward, a publication we both read regularly and respect immensely. The article, written by Leida Snow, is entitled “Selma Distorts History by Airbrushing Out Jewish Contributions to Civil Rights.” The assertion that Selma under-represents Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movie and “distorts” history is a claim with which we strongly disagree.
Full disclosure: We have not yet seen ‘Selma,’ which opens January 9. What we have seen is Ms. Snow’s article. Therefore, we are not responding to any alleged inaccuracies in the film– only the inaccuracies in Ms. Snow’s own piece.
Before articulating any philosophical disagreement, we believe it is important to first mention a few factual inaccuracies. We point out these inaccuracies not to demean the author, but because the historical events referenced are so crucial to our country’s history, and should be presented thoughtfully and accurately.
Snow refers to “thousands” of Freedom Riders “riding into Mississippi” in 1964. In fact, the Freedom Riders rode in 1961, and there were only 436 total riders. She also incorrectly implies that James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were freedom riders. The murder of those three civil rights workers was a tragedy that, as Snow states, provoked national outrage, but they were not involved with the Freedom Rides. We believe that, when stating “Freedom Riders,” Ms. Snow means to refer to the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, which was indeed characterized by “well over a thousand volunteers, mostly white,” risking their lives to come to Mississippi.
Factual inaccuracies aside, the broader message of her piece is deeply troubling. As the title suggests, Ms. Snow believes that the film’s failure to include Jews undermines its credibility. She states that by “excluding” Jews, the movie misses a “great teaching moment.”
We see things differently.
As Jews, we are certainly inspired by Jewish veterans of the Civil Rights movement. That said, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and the story of Selma specifically, was not “our” story. The story of Selma was about fighting to achieve justice for African-Americans, living in an unjust society.
To be sure, this movie could have mentioned Jews. It could have featured inspirational Freedom Summer veterans, as Snow asserts—and just as easily, while we may not like to admit it, it could have featured Jews like Sol Tepper, who wrote dozens of articles for the Selma Times Journal advocating for segregation and was quite hostile towards Civil Rights advocates. Good or bad, Jews could have been included more—but that’s not the focus of this film. This omission is not a “distortion.”
Selma’s producers include several people of color. Its director, Ava DuVernay, was the first ever black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe—a great milestone in film history. It is all too common for the stories of African-Americans to be told by people who are not African-American, and we all have the right to tell our own stories.
Let’s think about what Snow’s criticism would look like if directed at a movie written by Jews about Jewish oppression.
There are many movies about the Holocaust, and some of them speak only to the experiences of Jews, without including righteous Gentiles (may their memories be for a blessing). These movies have not “distorted” history. They have chosen to focus specifically on the lives of Jews who were the subject of incredible discrimination and hatred, and that editorial decision is a reasonable one. Just as we would expect Catholics to watch a Holocaust film without criticizing the editorial choice not to includecourageous acts by Catholics, we should be able to watch a film about others’ struggles without demanding that we share the spotlight.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that a core aspect of being a Jew is “the ability to experience the suffering of others.” As many of us head to theaters to watch Selma, let’s seek to hone that skill. Let’s seek to better understand the story of African-Americans – their history, their struggles, and their suffering. Doing so might not teach us much about any particular Jews. But it could teach us something about what it means to be Jewish.
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I’ll admit, sometimes I browse Buzzfeed. In particular, since I’m a bit of an adrenaline junky, I often look at bucket lists for inspiration.
I recently opened a “Bucket List for Girls” post, which posed the question: “What do you want to do before you die?” On this Buzzfeed list, one of the to-do-before-you-die items was “volunteer in a foreign country.” Accompanying this statement was an image that appears to be what the list-makers imagine an unspecific African country might look like: black women dressed in bright, patterned clothing, lugging buckets of water on their heads. Among the black women is one white girl, dressed in safari-style camo wear, holding a similar bucket atop her head, with a look of great accomplishment.
I had a visceral reaction to this image. Shaking my head, I wondered – what is she doing? Why is she there? Where is she? Is she actually helping, or just volunteering for her own sake? That is the risk of “voluntourism.”
What is “voluntourism?” It’s pretty much what it sounds like: vacation travel, with volunteer opportunities awaiting at the travel destination. Search the web and you’ll find dozens of organizations, nonprofits and travel businesses alike, deeply involved in organizing volunteering vacations.This is a recent trend among my generation. A quick Google search for “Humanitarians of Tinder” will pull up a site devoted to Tinder [a matchmaking/dating site] images, of mostly white people posing with mostly black children.
This makes me uncomfortable. Apparently, it’s now cool to travel and volunteer to any unidentified country that needs us to save them. Photographs of us participating in these activities will even attract potential mates- after all, they show that we’re good people, the sort of people who devoted our whole winter break to needy children in Guatemala!
On one level, I find it exciting and inspiring that caring about others and trying to make a difference are qualities that have become “cool.” If this is the direction society is moving, I’m all for it. But I want to challenge this culture a bit. I wrote on this topic before, how images can stereotype people and erase cultural, historic, and geographic complexities. While looking through the Tinder images, I felt a great pit at the bottom of my stomach. These photos exploit others by defining them ultimately as “poor, helpless individuals, in need of saving.” What of their strengths?
The Talmud teaches in Brachot 19B: “Come and learn: Human dignity is so important that it supersedes even a biblical prohibition.”
Where is the human dignity in this trend of being a voluntourist?
I’m not trying to discount this idea altogether, but I think the missing piece with voluntourism is making space for dignity of both sides. So here are some tips that can challenge this phenomenon, since as we know from our friends at Buzzfeed, making suggestions into a list is helpful!
1) Learn about the history, culture and current political standing of country you’re interested in before you go.
2) Study the root causes of issues you’re interested in.
3) Speak with people on the ground before you volunteer- what are they doing, and how can you help them?
4) Take a strengths-based approach- focus on the strengths of the community you want to serve and think about how you can bring things back home that they can teach you.
5) Take some time to learn about issues in your own community, and find out what you can do to serve those closer to home.
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This piece was jointly authored by Malkie Schwartz and Rabbi Jeremy Simons, reflecting on last night’s grand jury ruling in Ferguson, Missouri and sharing their insights and responses.
In light of the grand jury findings released last night, we may never know what actually happened on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014. Some believe Michael Brown was shot without cause, while others—including the grand jury—believe the available evidence demonstrates Officer Darren Wilson felt his life was in danger and acted accordingly. We cannot know what happened in those 90 seconds, but we know what happened next:
Michael Brown’s body lay exposed on the pavement for more than four hours in full view of the public, including his family. We also know that later that night, a Ferguson police officer allowed his dog to urinate on the very spot. Lesley McSpadden, Michael’s mother, watched as police cars intentionally ran over the flowers she placed at the spot where her son was killed.
We also know residents of Ferguson began gathering and demanding justice. Had they not gathered, none of us would today know the name Michael Brown or be able to locate the town of Ferguson. Since August 9, hardly a week has gone by without news of another instance of police brutality. This is not because police brutality has increased dramatically these past five months; it’s because we’re finally being exposed to it.
Exodus teaches that we should not oppress the stranger, for we were strangers in Egypt. According to the Talmud, the Torah repeats this commandment in various forms 36 times. Commandments involving the stranger often include mention of the widow and the orphan. These three categories represent those who are most vulnerable in society; those most likely to be abused. We can add to this list the impoverished and the historically oppressed. The town of Ferguson, where more than two-thirds of residents are African American and more than one in four children live below the poverty line, falls into this category.
The incredible repetition of this commandment signals more than just emphasis. The Torah is telling us something here: it’s acknowledging that our own inclination may be to ignore those who we do not know. It’s also telling us—thirty six times—that we cannot ignore them. It’s screaming for our attention because it knows our nature. Our Jewish tradition demands we join those across this country advocating for greater transparency and reform in our law enforcement communities. Just as our tradition recognized our own inclination may be to stand on the sidelines, it also warns of the consequence: the Mishnah teaches that the sword enters our world on account of justice delayed, and justice denied.
Justice is too often delayed, but it cannot be denied.
Yesterday, President Obama honored the lives of James Chaney, Michael Henry Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, three civil rights workers who were killed in Mississippi during Freedom Summer in 1964. The three men were honored along with 15 civilians who, the President said, “made the world stronger, wiser, more beautiful, and more humane.” It felt strange to see the families of people who lost their lives in pursuit of civil rights being honored alongside, well, Meryl Streep. But in his introduction of Ms. Streep, the President said “She inhabits her characters so fully and compassionately… It is the greatest gift of human beings that we have this power of empathy.”
Empathy. Empathy is what motivated civil rights workers to risk their lives and volunteer in Mississippi during Freedom Summer. After all, they weren’t going to sit by and feel badly for voters who were denied their right to vote. They felt connected to the reality faced by African American citizens in Mississippi and, together, they worked toward justice for all.
Only hours after the award ceremony, we learned that the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri found that there was no probable cause to indict Officer Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. Regardless of what we think about the outcome, this is a time to exercise that power of empathy. To try and imagine the anguish being felt by Michael Brown’s mother, his father, his family, friends and neighbors. To try and imagine what it must feel like to be a young African American living in one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country, and in a city where 63% of the residents are African American and only approximately 5% of the police force is African American. To be a young African American, and know your demographic makes up more than 85% of people stopped and more than 90% of the people searched in 2013 in your hometown. To be African American and keeping hearing about young, unarmed African Americans killed—by the people committed to “serve and protect.”
We are two white Jews, authoring this post; we know we cannot truly understand what it feels like to be Black in Ferguson, or America. But our power of empathy can help us try to do our part to make things better. Let us send an alternative message to all young people, particularly young African Americans, in our communities: We know that there is work to be done and we are willing to follow the lead of those who have historically been most disenfranchised, to do what it takes to make sure that all members of our community are cherished and respected. Justice may be delayed, but it cannot be denied.
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