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Posts Tagged ‘racism in America’

It was the day after our last Jewish Food and Cultural Festival. I came into my office and saw I had a voicemail. I pressed the button to listen. Here was what I heard, “Heil Hitler! I am going to put you Jews into my concentration camps…” Some of the rest was garbled but it ended with this, “you Jews have to stop stealing our money.” A few weeks later we learned that a white supremacist group, The Republic of Florida Militia, had posted on FaceBook they were having a protest at Temple Israel. The incident turned out to be a big nothing, but was worrisome nonetheless.

But there is more. Our teens are experiencing anti-Semitic incidents in their middle schools and high schools at levels I have not witnessed in my 16+ years in Tallahassee. Shomrei Torah received 2 anti-Semitic letters. Now put this in the national context. The ADL reports that anti-Semitic incidents have surged in 2016 and 2017, as much as 86%. Most recently, white supremacist and neo-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville, VA, shouted “Jews will not replace us!” as they marched through the city. Interviews with participants were clear about their hatred of Jews, stating the often held racist view that Jews control the country.

We Jews are not the only people experiencing hatred. This past June a white man in a Chicago Starbucks was filmed calling a black man a slave. In May racist graffiti was sprayed on LeBron James’ home in Los Angeles. In College Park, MD an African American, Richard Collins III, a lieutenant in the US army, a senior at HBCU Bowie State University, who was only days away from graduating, was stabbed to death by Sean Urbanski, a white student at the University of Maryland who was a member of the Facebook group called “Alt-Reich: Nation.” Add to these more horrifying incidents like the murder of Philando Castile by a policeman in St. Paul, or the massacre of 9 members of the Mother Emanuel AME Church by Dylan Roof.

The existence of racisim and anti-Semitism is very real, and I see deep parallels. We Jews have an extensive history of suffering from anti-Semitism. The African American community has a sad and deeply disturbing history of being victims of racism in the United States; our country that prides itself on equality. It is time to face reality.

What is that reality? It is partly demonstrated by two events that occurred in Tallahassee schools last year. At SAIL High School a group of students laid down on the school grounds and created a human swastika. At Chiles High School for weeks a group of students displayed Confederate flags on their pickup trucks. It was only after a social media threat that the principle of Chiles banned their display. The reality is that we are failing to properly teach our youth about the history of bigotry, about how even symbols of hatred can be oppressive. We are failing to provide them with moral examples.

I am sure everyone here is appalled by the sight of a swastika. It is a horrible symbol of oppression, not just for Jews, but numerous others. I am not sure that everyone understands how, for many people, especially African Americans, the Confederate flag inspires the same emotions. Many folks are taught a version of Civil War history that excuses the leaders of the Confederacy; stating they revolted to protect state’s rights. Here is the fact. The state’s right they wished to protect was slavery. Further, the constitution does not give a state the right to secede from the Union. Ergo those who rebelled and formed the Confederacy were traitors to the United States: traitors who, knowingly or not, defended the right for whites to own black slaves.

How does the Confederate flag fit into this? It was a battle flag carried by Confederate armies. It symbolizes the actual war against the United States, and was adopted by racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, carried in their fight against attempts to create equality for African Americans. One of the most famous examples is the use of the Confederate battle flag by protestors supporting George Wallace, as he stood in the doorway of a schoolhouse to prevent the admission of blacks to the University of Alabama. Often when Wallace would speak, that flag would be displayed behind him, or on his podium. His speech in the doorway promised “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The Confederate flag is associated with the defense of segregation. To the black community, it has the same emotional effect as a Nazi flag does to Jews.

For the black community, the Confederate flag is a reminder of decades of the horrifying experiences they suffered. Recently Audrey and I had the chance to visit the Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, NC. It is in the old Woolworth’s store where demonstrations to end segregation at its lunch counter took place. On February 1, 1960, four African American college freshman sat down at the white section of the lunch counter. Over the next several months the protests grew, with whites and blacks coming together to try and end segregation. I must say that seeing the actual lunch counter, while hearing this history, was intensely moving. More important, the museum presents the brutality African Americans experienced for over a century after slavery ended.

First was the degradation of segregation: separate schools, using separate bathrooms than whites, drinking from separate water fountains than whites, to be forbidden from staying in the same hotel as whites. The list seems endless. The museum had a coke machine from the 1950’s which was 2 sided. One side faced a whites only waiting room in a train station, the other side faced a blacks only waiting room. The side for the whites was a nickel cheaper than the coke for blacks, and although the machine had on it the cokes were ice cold, that was only true for the white customers. Schools were supposedly separate but equal. Just take a look at pictures of white classrooms and black classrooms during that era. The facilities and learning materials provided to blacks in public schools were disgustingly inferior, based on the thought that blacks did not have the same learning capacity as whites. It was thought, for example, that blacks’ brains would become non-functional above a certain altitude. It took the formation and success of the Tuskegee Airmen to demonstrate how stupidly wrong that was.

The most horrifying aspects of black life in post Civil War America were the violent vigilante actions by the KKK and similar groups. Earlier this year was a reminder of one of the worst episodes, the murder of 14 year old Emmett Till in 1955. Till was accused of flirting and dog whistling Carolyn Bryant, a married white woman. Till, from Chicago, was visiting family in Money, MS. He was abducted by Bryant’s husband and a helper; tortured and killed. His body, so disfigured it was not recognizable except by a ring he was wearing, was found in a river. The murderers were found not guilty. A number of months ago, Carolyn Bryant admitted that Till did not flirt with or whistle at her.

Emmett Till was a famous case. Have you ever heard of Ben Chester White? He was a sharecropper who at 67 years old in March of 1966 was shot 17 times by a KKK group to attempt to lure Dr. Martin Luther King to their area of Mississippi in order to murder him.

These are only two of the unending terrorist attacks that African Americans suffered, in addition to the inequality of segregation and denial of access to the resources necessary to lift themselves to a better life. Having a history of over a century of being treated as second class citizens, is it any wonder that the killing of African Americans by police ignites protests by Black Lives Matter? The incidents open the wounds of recent African American history and the systemic racism that still exists.

We, as Jews, should understand that feeling. A few weeks ago a congregant here made me aware of a FaceBook site called “Jewish Ritual Murders.” This site claimed that incidents of Jews killing Christian children for ritual purposes, dating back to early medieval times were true. It criticized Jews for not acknowledging that these murders are part of our history, as well as condemning us for refusal to admit that we have rituals requiring murder to obtain blood. The site attempted to appear logical, and moderate, by saying many religions have rituals requiring murder, so why don’t we Jews own our past? How many of you know of any Jew who has practiced the tradition of killing a Christian child to obtain their blood to make Passover matzah? That’s because there is no such ritual. There is nothing in Jewish text, tradition or practice that even mentions this. This is known as blood libel and has been used against Jews, to justify the oppression of Jews, for centuries.

Blood libel is likely the invention of an English Benedictine monk in the 12th century. A young boy, William of Norwich, was found dead in 1144. The monk blamed his death on local Jews; but as there was no evidence, the authorities did not prosecute anyone. In 1190, however, the Jews of Norwich were massacred in revenge for the murder – 46 years later! Jews were expelled from England in 1290.

There are numerous other accusations of Jews committing blood libel. One of the most famous is from 1475 and the death of a 3 year old boy, Simon of Trent in Italy. Torture was used to force false confessions from the Jews of Trent and 8 were executed.

These events can be read about on line today in radical Catholic sites that try to affirm them as proven cases of Jewish guilt, and the existence of ritual murder as part of Judaism. Add to this another aspect of Jewish history from the early middle ages. Jews were forbidden to own land or to practice most professions. An exception was money lending. This is used to accuse Jews of being shady characters, out to steal Christian’s money. Our historic oppression is twisted against us even today, feeding the flames of anti-Semitism.

We all know how recent history affected Jews. In addition to the Holocaust there was also strong anti-Semitism right here in America. Father Charles A. Coughlin used his radio show to deride Jews, implying their depravity in phrases like “international bankers,” and criticizing Jewish financiers for their attempts to control the world. As the situation for Jews grew worse in Europe, the Roosevelt administration did little to increase immigration quotas to allow more Jews to escape the Nazis. A group of American athletes supported a boycott of the Berlin Olympics in 1936, but Avery Brundage, chair of the American Olympic committee, refused to acknowledge the mistreatment of Jews in Germany. Later, as head of the international Olympic committee during the 1972 Olympics, Brundage refused to end the Munich Olympics after the murder of 9 Israelis by terrorists. For decades Jews were subject to quotas at many universities. My own parents were prevented from joining a social club in Fairmont, W. VA because they were Jewish.

Can anyone really criticize us for being a bit hypersensitive when anti-Semitic incidents occur? Can anyone really criticize African Americans when incidents arouse their recent memories of an oppressed existence in America? The historical memories of blacks and Jews are why our reactions to the events in Charlottesville, VA are so strong. Seeing confederate flags and swastika flags carried side by side ignites the worst fears in both of our communal memories. The prejudice we hoped would die is clearly still alive.

But Charlottesville does not represent the full reality of racism and anti-Semitism. It represents the extreme. Most Americans are not neo Nazis or white supremacists. The reality of bigotry is far more subtle, yet pervasive. It is present in ways we don’t often acknowledge or even recognize.

For African Americans the reality of bigotry is present in every day life. Yes, the police shootings get a lot of media attention, but how often do you either feel or witness distrust of blacks? When I was 23 and living in Philadelphia I was a big brother to a 9 year old African American child. The Big Brother headquarters were located in a north Philadelphia neighborhood that was mostly African American. It was just after a major snowstorm, and I needed to pick up some paperwork at that office. When I came out, my car was stuck in the snow. Every time I pushed the gas pedal the wheels just spun. I looked up and saw 4 young black men coming towards me. My initial thought was “Oh boy, I am in big trouble.” They knocked on my window and asked if I needed help getting out. I said yes, and the 4 of them helped push the car out of the snow. I offered them $10 but they refused, saying they just wanted to help. I must ask, how would you feel now seeing 4 young black men coming towards you with your car stuck in the snow? If you say the feeling of distrust is natural then think about how you would feel if it was 4 young white men.

African Americans sense the institutionalization of racism. And they resent when facts are twisted to deny the truth of their feelings. For example, I have seen posts in FaceBook dismissing the existence of institutional racism based on a Harvard study comparing the experiences of whites and blacks with police. The study shows that more whites are killed by police than blacks, so the concerns of blacks are belittled. However, that one statistic does not properly represent what the study really shows. First of all, it is not a vetted study. Second, it examined not only shootings, but the overall handling of people stopped by police. Items such as, the ratio of people handcuffed, thrown to the ground and in other ways physically mishandled showed that blacks are treated very differently from whites. The outlier was deaths caused by shootings. However, the study did not cover to what degree whites are stopped compared to blacks.

There is more. Studies have been done in which resumes of equal qualifications are looked over by companies looking to hire. If the name on the resume is an ethnic black name, like Jamal, that person is less likely to be called for an interview than someone named James. There is still a subtle, pervasive sense that blacks are not as capable as whites.

Blacks are seen as the prime recipients of welfare, as being lazy, as being the source of most crime. The ratio of blacks serving in prison far exceeds that of whites and one must ask, is it because blacks commit more crimes or because the sentencing is so different for blacks than whites? According to a survey done by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 2005 to 2012 black men received 5% to 10% longer prison sentences for similar crimes. Other studies show the difference as much as 60%!

No, most Americans are not white supremacists. But these institutional, embedded prejudices are proven, and African Americans must live with them, feeling them constantly. To me this is intensely sad. Last spring I know most of you were at least aware of, if not attending, the Requiem of Resistance. A core of the choir was the student chorus from FAMU. For most of them, this was the first time they ever had the chance to sing with a symphony orchestra. When the concert was over, those of us who organized the event joined the FAMU student choir for dinner at Cabos. I went around to each table thanking them for their hard work and talent. Every student told me how honored they were to participate and what a great experience it was. While we were eating, they broke into song, passionately singing gospel music. It was beautiful, but then I felt sad. Here was a room full of talented, wonderful young people, who are going to face difficulty because of bigotry based on their skin color. It will likely not be the outright hatred of racists, but the subtle societal and institutional roadblocks. They do not deserve that.

We Jews can understand exactly how African Americans feel. Despite the recognized heights of success many Jews have achieved, hatred is still alive. The typical accusations against Jews, that we control the media, the banks, and want to control the world – are all still alive. And we are also sensitive to statements. Remember a few years when Ann Coulter said in an interview, “We just want Jews to be perfected.”? That resurrected all the ill feelings about Christians who try to convert Jews. We do not see that as Christians expressing love for us as individuals they want to save from hell. We see that as hatred of Judaism and Jews.

We also fool ourselves in not recognizing that anti-Semitism exists on the left as well as the right. Oberlin College fired Joy Karega for anti-Semitic posts that included a picture of Jacob Rothschild adding the words, “We own your news, the media, your oil and your government.” Last night I related the anti-Semitic reaction of leaders of the Dyke march in Chicago this past June when they banned lesbians carrying rainbow flags with Jewish stars on them. We fail to acknowledge that anti-Semitism is rampant in the Arab world and that many Islamic leaders condemn Judaism as a religion of lies. Anti-Semitism exists across the political spectrum, which is why we feel its presence is often an underlying tone in society.

What is the reality of bigotry? No one is born a racist or an anti-Semite. We are all blank slates. We all have the potential for love or hate, depending on what we learn as we age. The presence of bigotry is complex. Yet I think the solution is rather simple and well expressed by 3 important commands from the Torah portion we will read this afternoon.

The first – “Do not stand on the blood of your neighbor.” Rashi puts it very clearly, if you can save your neighbor, do it. I believe this is not just about throwing a life saver to a drowning person, but standing up for the rights that will preserve their ability to live the same as us.

The second – “You shall reprove your fellow and not bear a sin on his account.” If someone with you expresses bigotry or hate, correct them, teach them the truth, moral truth and factual truth. Silence in the presence of bigotry makes you a contributor to their sin.

The third – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Not just the person like you, the person in your family or ethnic group, but the stranger, the person who is different.

It is Yom Kippur. It is the day we plead to God for forgiveness. One way we do this is through the words of al cheit.

Al cheit shechatanu lefanecha – For the sins we have done before You by failing to acknowledge the bigotry suffered by others.

Al cheit shechatanu lefanecha – For the sins we have done before You by failing to recognize sources of bigotry against ourselves.

Al cheit shechatanu lefanecha – For the sins we have done before You by failing to properly educate our children about the history of hate.

Al cheit shechatanu lefanecha – For the sins we have committed before You by failing to rebuke acts and words of bigotry even when spoken by friends.

Al cheit shechatanu lefanecha – For the sin we have committed before You by failing to accept the stranger as ourselves.

For all these sins, Adonai our God, help us to find a path to repentance, to atonement, to creating a better, more just world.

Kein yehi ratzon – may this be your will.     Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

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            Last week was framed by two events unconnected on the surface, but rather connected in my mind.  First was my presentation at a commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Krystallnact.  I shared stories learned this summer from interviewing my surviving family – in Germany and across the US.  Krystallnact was the tipping point for many German Jews regarding their fate in Germany.  Since 1933 there had been a steady worsening of the oppression of Jews in Germany, the passing of more anti-Semitic laws, more arrests, more Jews sent to concentration camps.  On November 9,10 1938 it all exploded with thousands of Jews arrested, Jewish businesses destroyed, Jewish homes invaded.  This night of terror forced many Jews to finally concede that the Nazis were not just some passing phase, but a persistent reality that would not soon fade away.

The Nazi party excelled in demonizing those it determined to be the “other.”  Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, people with physical handicaps were all singled out as not fully “Aryan,” meaning not worthy of citizenship in the Reich.  Those not conforming to Nazi party ideology were labeled disloyal Germans.  Anyone daring to voice political opposition to the Nazi party was arrested or worse.  Indeed, one of my great uncles was beaten to death in 1937 because of his leadership in the Social Democratic party.

The Nazis inculcated a culture in which German businesses stopped dealing with those deemed “undesirable” – blaming the victims for the reason they no longer deserved access to goods and services.  A great example is a letter sent to my great uncle Karl Romberg dated December 29, 1938, from LAB, a health insurance provider to small businesses.  The opening paragraph of the letter says:

“We have cause to point out to you, a Jewish member of the LAB, that your membership is most unwelcome due to your racial affiliation.  On the one hand, our Aryan members cannot be expected to be in a risk-bearing community with Jews and perhaps give up their own assets whenever the latter fall ill.  On the other hand, our employees cannot be induced after the events of November 9th and 10th  (italics added by me) to deal with the affairs of Jewish members”

The hypocrisy of the letter is obvious but still worth emphasizing.  Jewish members paid into the LAB the same as non-Jews.  So the risks are proportionately distributed.  This is a simple casting out of the “other” from a business relationship, and using the Nazi spurred oppression of Krystallnacht as an excuse – in effect blaming the victim.

But what framed all of these lessons from Krystallnact in a new light was participating in a panel discussion through our ongoing “Faith, Food, and Friday” series on racism in America in a post Trayvon Martin atmosphere.  Joining me were 3 other clergy as well as Ahmad Abuznaid, a founder and leader of the Dream Defenders – the political action group that occupied the Florida state capital after the verdict in the Martin case came down.  We discussed many aspects of race  issues in America – the changing demographics of the country, the persistence of prejudice, the need to form relationships across ethnic and ideological barriers – but there was one aspect of the discussion that has haunted me, that just refuses to go away.

Our justice system has a serious problem.  As a percentage of our population, we have the largest prison population among all modern industrialized nations.  Along with this, one in 3 African American males has spent, is spending or will spend time in prison.  We have created a system in which imprisoning people is a cottage industry.  Instead of working to rehabilitate, we simply incarcerate.  I do not deny that there are some crimes for which incarceration is very appropriate, but there exists a pipeline in our schools that identifies and categorizes children from very early ages and steers them into the prison system.  The details of this business, how and why it must be drastically reformed are a subject for future discussion.  For now I want to contemplate why America allows a system in which prison is the default remedy for so many infractions of the law.

On the practical level the answer is simple – an industry needs customers to thrive.  The 2008 “kids for cash” scandal illustrates how this system can run amok.  Two judges were convicted of sentencing children to private institutions in exchange for payoffs.  While this is a strong argument against the privatization of prisons, one cannot escape the fact that state run prisons also become self justifying entities that demand a flow of prisoners.

But I think there is an ideological reason for the American obsession with incarceration.  Too many of us judge people as “evil” or “undesirable” as opposed to understanding that it is behavior that is most times evil or undesirable.  Incarceration presumes the person is unredeemable and must be isolated from society.  There are certainly cases where that is likely true, but the huge numbers of minorities placed in the prison system, especially for lesser crimes, indicates a different motive.  In this dominantly Christian country we too often dived people into good and evil camps.  Indeed there is a Christian theology that confines people to an eternity in prison – separating them as unredeemable from those who will enter heaven.

This is not the Jewish way.  We begin from a point that sees evil as in an action, not inherent in an individual.  Ergo, most people have the potential for redemption.  There is a wonderful story in the Talmud illustrating this tension.

“There were certain boors in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood causing him considerable distress.  He prayed for mercy for them that they would die (by killing them before they committed too many sins, their place in the next world would at least be assured).  His wife, Beruriah said to him, ‘Why are you praying thus?’ He answered, ‘Because it is written, Let sinners cease fro the earth(Psalms 104:35).  To which Beruriah answered, ‘It is not written as sinners but sins.  Further, go to the end of the verse which reads that wicked will be no more.  Rather you should pray that these boors repent of their wickedness then wicked will be no more.’” (Berachot 10a)

Dividing people into groups of good and evil justifies removal and separation.  Far harder, but more powerful is to look for the redeemable and to work to bring those who do wrong back into the mainstream of our society.  Racism/prejudice is the surface evaluation of someone as “evil” and a refusal to search for the good.

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