The American Jewish Community and Black Lives Matter

In this extraordinary yet ordinary week in American life, we have witnessed yet more police killings of African-Americans, and yet more monstrous, pointless mad violence, enabled by too much access to devastating weapons.

We witnessed again the power of a presidential leader who – while his policies may be unpopular in certain sectors – possesses rare gifts to articulate our country’s spiritual challenges and possibilities. One wonders who will succeed him as “consoler in chief.”

How does the American Jewish community respond to all this madness? Often it feels like we are by-standers in this conflict, in all relevant senses of the term. Relatively few Jews are police officers, for instance, and relatively few support hyper-aggressive police tactics that exacerbate the conflicts between police and communities “of color.” [I always find that term strange, both because it wasn’t so long ago that “colored” was a slur and besides … isn’t white a color?]

But standing by is not sufficient, for lots of reasons.

First – parochially but thereby also literally a mitzvah – black Jewish lives matter and you must “love your neighbor as yourself.” [*Note: as an ethical imperative one must love all people. As a Halakhic norm, which I affirm, we have special obligations to love our fellow Jews, with whom we share a history and a future.] The Jewish community is growing more interracial. More and more of us are black. This is true at Ansche Chesed, as can be seen in shul every Shabbat, in our Hebrew school, and in shuls and schools across the country.

So while obviously the vast majority of African-Americans are not Jewish, and most Jews are not black, it would be wrong to forget that the risks facing black people affect Jews as well. On this point, let me share this article by Yehudah Webster, an outstanding young man I have known for years since he was a student at the Prozdor high school program at JTS. Yehudah gives voice to his own experiences and reminds us of our intersecting worlds. (Incidentally, Yehudah joined AC member Tamara Fish as among the organizers of the recent, first ever, conference of Jews of Color.)

Also, at the risk of being obvious, most of us probably have only the dimmest awareness of the different experiences that black citizens have of police confrontations. Even Newt Gingrich said this week that “if you are a normal white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America, and you instinctively under-estimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.” Hard to disagree with that.

On that point, let me share a terrifying yet still resonant 50-year-old article by James Baldwin about black anti-Semitism, amid the riots of the late 1960s. The essay, full of rage and radical politics, does not make for comfortable reading, but is worthwhile nonetheless.

In certain liberal sectors, there is a knowing joke that we and our kids think the greatest thing Martin Luther King did was march at Selma with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. [How could they have made a movie about Selma without including Heschel?!] Our over-confident account of Jews and civil rights is that we were the great allies on the march toward equality. True in part, of course.

But Baldwin’s rage reminds us that the black and Jewish experiences of America have been very different: largely a liberation for one community, and largely enslavement for another. How much tension for black Jews, who experience both simultaneously! To help heal America’s ever festering wounds, we have to come to understand that experience.

It is a particular malady of Upper West Side Jews that by virtue of thinking the “right things,” we regard ourselves as activists for the good. But given the great racial divides in our country, making black lives matter to American society will demand more than understanding at a distance. We are going to have to work harder at knowing and coming to love people whom we live near but not often enough live with.