Jews and Racial Justice: Making Amends or Avoiding Responsibility?

David Axelrod, a former top aide to President Barack Obama often credited with masterminding his two successful campaigns for the presidency, recently published a column in The Washington Post that hit me between the eyes and sat heavily on my heart.

Axelrod and I about the same age. He was too young to have been active in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, but he was deeply affected by the story and eager to believe the myth that the movement headed up by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., solved the problem of racial injustice in America.

 

This was a dvar torah delivered to Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation (Bethesda, MD) on June 27, 2020. A version of the talk was published in the Times of Israel on June 28, 2020.  

Axelrod was hardly naïve. He worked for Mayor Harold Washington, the first Black to be elected mayor in the city of Chicago. Axelrod helped open the city’s political process to communities of color, setting the stage for Washington’s electoral success. As a journalist in the early 1980s, Axelrod wrote about unequal justice and police brutality in America.

But he did not really have Black friends with whom he was close enough to ask and understand their life experience. The recent surge of public consciousness around racial justice got Axelrod to re-assess how he positioned himself on the issue during his very successful career. He wrote: “I thought I understood. Now I realize I did not. Not well enough. Not in the visceral way that comes when you truly imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes.” 

To which I say: “Me too”. I could easily trot out my activist resume and cite all the ways I have engaged in the issue of racial justice over the past 40+ years. But it falls far short of what the situation required and I am left feeling ashamed on two levels:

I am ashamed for the way that the richest country in the world has relegated Black and Brown people to a perpetual underclass status and refused to confront the systemic racism that makes a mockery of the belief that America is a land of equal opportunity.

And, more personally, I am ashamed of the fact that, like Axelrod, even as I was aware of how America has stacked the deck against Black Americans, putting into place what Michelle Alexander has called The New Jim Crow, it was not a high enough priority for me to demand action on it from my elected officials. Like many other Jews, I did it for Holocaust awareness. I did it for fighting anti-Semitism. I did it for Soviet Jewry. I did it for support of Israel. But I did not cash in my political capital for Black Americans. And of that, I am ashamed.

For the past couple of years, I was part of a Montgomery County Interfaith Task Force on Racism. We held forums throughout the county that brought together citizens of all backgrounds to speak about combatting bigotry and racism. Nobody came to these forums with White supremacist bumper stickers or Confederate flags. Everyone I met in these workshops seemed well intentioned and saw themselves as “the good guys” on this issue. Until, of course, the issue of White privilege came up. That is when all these, well-intentioned White folk, got very defensive.

When you read books like White Privilege, White Fragility or How to be an Anti-Racist, you realize that this is what allows our racist system to remain in place. Most White people are not prepared to realize how much they implicitly are part of a system that keeps them in a position of privilege at the expense of people of color.

Even more importantly, while saying all the right things in polite company and especially in carefully constructed multi-faith and multi-racial dialogue settings, most White people are not prepared to surrender any of the privileges that they enjoy in order to remedy centuries of discrimination against people of color. Many Jews fall into this very same pattern of behavior (and below, when I use the term “we,” I am speaking as a “White-presenting Jew”, which I am).   

  • We say we want to end racism, but we don’t want a Black family to move into our neighborhood;
  • We say we want to end racism but we won’t support busing to desegregate our schools;
  • We say we want to end racism but we won’t support affirmative action if it denies our son/daughter a slot at a prestigious college or professional school;
  • We say we want to end racism, but we are not prepared to be true allies until Black organizations pass every ideological test we create on support for Israel;
  • We say we want to end racism but we can’t bring ourselves to sign-on to critiques of over-policing because the police are protecting our synagogues and rarely, if ever, do police harass and/or kill Jews (as long as they look “White”). Police harassment and, all too often, even killings, happens to Black Americans every day, in every region of our country, including here.

Let’s be honest. Even if we don’t identify as “White”, most Jews do pass as White and enjoy the privileges of being White in America. Jews, like most White people, have a host of reasons to deflect responsibility for America’s original sin of racism. I have heard dozens of arguments from White people denying that the privileges that they enjoy contributes to the oppression of Black and Brown people.  

But, in the end, I can boil all the arguments from a shelf-full of books on White privilege down to a poster that I saw at a Black Lives Matter rally I recently attended. It read: “Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because it is not a problem for you.”

Spend some time talking to Black people about the obstacles they face daily to access good schools, adequate housing, healthy food, proper health care, access to mass transit, equal treatment in our criminal justice system, and it is likely you will feel ashamed of the privileges that you enjoy and that are not available to people of color.

Contemplate the statistic that in the year 2020, the net wealth of an average Black family is only 10% of the wealth of an average White family in America.  Read the history of red-lining and how Blacks were denied the benefits of the GI Bill after WWII and you will understand how Black poverty is a consequence of state-sanctioned policy.

Or put yourself in the shoes of a Black child who is more likely to see police as someone who will harm them than as someone who is there to protect them—and for good reason.  “I can’t breathe” said George Floyd. “I can’t breathe” said Eric Garner. Blacks are telling us that the over-policing of their neighborhoods for decades does not allow them to breathe the air of freedom that should be possible for all Americans.  

Abraham Joshua Heschel said, famously, “Some are guilty; all are responsible.”

In this week’s parsha, Chukat, we read about the ritual of the Red Heifer. The purification rite prescribed using the blood of an unblemished cow to atone for coming into contact with a dead body. A midrash says that the purification rite is to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf. Interestingly, the requirement is not just for the generation that engaged in that idolatry. The rabbis believe that later generations bore some responsibility for the transgressions committed by previous generations. The Jewish tradition has an expansive understanding of culpability. That is what it means to be Jewish.

Reading the parsha this week, juxtaposed to an America that is finally getting woke to the transgression of racism for which we are all partly responsible, the meaning of the Red Heifer ritual hit me like a ton of bricks. Just because we have averted our eyes to the suffering of Black Americans for generations, does not exempt us from responsibility to remedy an injustice that has been allowed to exist for far too long.

And, yes, it may impact our privilege because freedom is never free.