How we treat others matters. Today, banks and schools and government organizations are shut down for Columbus Day—a national holiday that has grown controversial. After all, Christopher Columbus was an important figure in history, but did not treat others well. Today, many are instead encouraging the celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day rather than Columbus Day.
Whether you are observing Indigenous Peoples Day, Columbus Day, a day off, or another Monday, today is different. We mark this day in the middle of an Ebola scare here in the United States, and an Ebola epidemic in Africa.
Ebola is testing our country. It is testing our medical capabilities and the confidence we have in our healthcare system to contain the spread of a deadly and contagious disease. But, it is also testing our values—our compassion and our concern for the dignity of all. It is testing how we treat others.
Dallas, Texas, is where this country’s first Ebola patient, Thomas Duncan, was hospitalized. Dallas County Judge Clay Lewis Jenkins was determined to respect the dignity and well-being of Mr. Duncan’s family, when Mr. Duncan was diagnosed, when he was treated, and when he died.
While many of us watched with concern and fear for what Mr. Duncan’s diagnosis meant for the health of all Americans, Judge Jenkins made it a priority to show Mr. Duncan’s family that their dignity mattered. On NBC last week, he said that he intends to see to it that Mr. Duncan’s family is treated just like he would want his family to be treated if he were the one in the hospital. He made it clear that he is not throwing caution to the wind, but acknowledging that even while a family is sequestered, they should be treated well and with humanity.
Judge Jenkins is a mensch. He is striving to do right by the public but is finding every possible way to ensure that it doesn’t come at the expense of others.
When I consider how I would react in a situation where in order to address the needs of many I may have to cut the liberties of few, I can’t say that I would be as determined to consider the dignity of a few. I could only hope that I would, because though it took us some time to get there and though the process is ongoing, ultimately that is what our country was founded upon: the belief that everyone’s rights are important and that the rights of a few need to be protected from being trampled over by the majority.
It is also a Jewish value—recognizing that even when it is difficult, it is important to treat everyone the way we would seek to be treated. Perhaps it is these values that have led me to imagine immigration officials taking the temperatures of any person from Africa and being subjected to an intense screening process before entering our country. As I picture this, I remember the many stories of Jewish immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island during the time of a Cholera scare. After traveling hundreds of miles in a crowded steamship, they had to have a “clean bill of health” before being allowed into this country. They could be scrutinized by one doctor after another, subjected to police intimidation, and unfairly treated. As the MyJewishLearning.com article states: “Currency exchange rates and prices of railroad tickets and food were inflated; bribes were demanded; rudeness and cruelty were rampant,” until in 1902, when “a new commissioner of immigration instituted drastic reforms, heralded by signs everywhere demanding ‘kindness and consideration’.”
Now, at JFK we are incorporating Ebola screenings for passengers arriving from West Africa. There is the risk of ostracizing and marginalizing people. While I continue to hope for the safety of everyone in our country, and the world who is faced with the threat of this awful disease, I also hope for dignity. I admire the efforts of people like Judge Jenkins. I hope that screenings and examinations that take place are done in a way that honors the dignity of all people and reflects the highest standards of “kindness and consideration.”
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Years ago, one of my high school teachers gave us a hint to help us spell the word “privilege” correctly. She said that it was a privilege, to have two eyes and a leg and the word itself has two “I”s and the word “leg” contained within it. That’s a simple definition of the word, as well as a spelling reminder: not everyone has a whole and healthy body and therefore not everyone has the benefits associated with health. Privilege can seem basic, but it still shouldn’t be taken for granted.
This weekend, there was a lot of discussion about Tal Fortgang’s article, “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege,” in The Princeton Tory.
Tal, a freshman at Princeton University, shared his legacy—a legacy shared by many Jews—of anti-Semitism, persecution and survival.
His point: while he is privileged to have benefited from the support of his ancestors, he is not going to apologize for this privilege because it was the outcome of the sacrifices made by them and on the basis of their “formidable character.”
There is so much that is problematic in his article, which has been both praised and heavily criticized. Not all privilege can be earned simply on the basis of “formidable character.” Reflecting on the spelling lesson, for instance – having the privilege of health is not correlated with formidable character. Similarly, for those Jews who are White, the color of their skin is not a reflection of their hard work. Yet, it is undeniable that sadly, at this point in time, there are benefits that are associated with Whiteness that have nothing to do with character and at the same time, there are White people and people of all races who work very hard and have great character.
But it is the last line of his piece that is particularly striking. “I have checked my privilege. And, I apologize for nothing.”
My response: “Who asked you to apologize?”
Asking someone to check their privilege doesn’t necessitate that the person apologize for having privilege. Instead, it is asking one to be aware that not everyone shares that privilege and therefore it might be worthwhile to find ways in which people who don’t share that same privilege can experience some of the benefits associated with the privilege. In other words, recognize that you have something others do not have.
Why is that so much to ask? The consequences of reflecting upon your privilege only helps a person appreciate the challenges others face to achieve similar benefits and find opportunities to minimize some of the barriers that make these benefits less accessible to people who do not share some of the privileges we have.
I believe that Judaism, the legacy Tal and I share, teaches empathy. We can learn empathy from Jewish liturgy, from Jewish history and from present day Jewish experiences. The Jewish story teaches us what happens when people don’t “check their privilege.” For many of those who persecuted Jews, they were privileged in the sense that they were a part of a majority and the Jews were a less privileged minority. Would persecution have been impacted if these majorities “checked their privilege?” I don’t have the answer to that question. But, I would argue that it is critical to empathize with people who do not share the privileges we have. As people who have seen the consequences of a privileged majority and oppressed minorities, I will posit that part of our legacy is to constantly check our privilege, to ensure that we handle it responsibly.
Maybe it could even be thought of as a modern mitzvah. Not simply a good deed, but literally an obligation.
In conclusion, may I suggest an alternative ending to an opinion piece on this topic?
I am thankful for the many privileges I have, among them, good health and a legacy of empathy and survival. I wish that everyone could say the same and I hope that I continue to check my privilege.
What do you think?
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
Below, Michele Schipper explains why she lets her kids trick-or-treat. To hear from another Jewish mom with a different perspective, check out “Why I Don’t Let My Kids Trick-or-Treat.”
What happens when we post a photo, in October, of an Education Fellow reading some students a book about witches, while wearing a witch hat? An immediate assumption by many that the religious school students are celebrating Halloween – followed by a lot of strong opinions shared on Facebook!
First, to explain the picture: The Education Fellow was reading a story from Yiddish folklore, The Rabbi and the 29 Witches by Marilyn Hirsh. It’s a wonderful children’s story, and as the synopsis describes: “Once a month, when the moon is full, twenty-nine of the meanest, scariest, ugliest, wickedest witches that ever lived come out of their cave to terrify the villagers . . . until one day the wise rabbi invents a plan to rid his village of those wicked witches forever. The rabbi’s clever plan works–with hilarious results!”
The book has nothing to do with Halloween – and had we posted this photo of the Education Fellow reading this book in January (which we easily could have, as they share this story on the road throughout the year!), I don’t think anyone would have had Halloween on their mind. But even still, the wide range of reactions to the photo was surprising; especially how many negative responses were shared. Several of us began thinking about Judaism, the celebration of Halloween and our own personal practices.
Despite Halloween’s religious origins, most Americans consider Halloween to be a national tradition, without the attachment of any real religious meaning. Many American Jews have adopted this tradition as their own with the understanding that the holiday has become wholly secular. Although I know that Purim is indeed the Jewish holiday where you get to “dress up,” I grew up and experienced both Halloween and Purim, and my children have gotten that same experience. My sister, whose birthday is October 30, had at least 1 Halloween themed birthday party.
I also remember when I was about 8 years old, I was sick during Halloween and couldn’t go trick or treating with my friends and family, so my Southern Jewish mother let me “trick or treat” in the house, knocking on all of my family member’s bedroom doors, so they would give me candy and I wouldn’t feel that I had missed out…
That important feeling of being included, of not missing out and being part of the larger community, is important to us. My husband and I have enjoyed “fall festival” activities with our kids; going to the pumpkin patch, carving pumpkins, deciding on costumes– and of course, my husband is famous (infamous) for laying claim to his favorite candy from the trick or treating “loot”. I don’t worry that my kids are confused. They are now almost all teenagers, and do not seem to have suffered any adverse effects, and neither have I. Halloween did no damage to our Jewish identity.
So I say, enjoy Halloween – and make sure you’re the house that gives out the good candy.