Does living in St. Louis make me an authority on the Ferguson riots or the Michael Brown shooting? On the one hand, local news offers a view of events more pure, more raw, and more personal than anything found in national coverage. More significant, perhaps, is how the fear of spreading violence, made real by advisory statements from local police and local rabbis, descended upon our community more palpably than the first snowfall of winter.
But let’s be honest. The violence hasn’t spread. Ten miles sounds perilously close to the images spilling over television screens around the world; but I was no more affected by the rioting than you were in New York or Israel or Madagascar.
In University City, St. Louis’s predominantly Torah observant neighborhood, you find an even mixture of middle-class Jews and middle-class blacks. The families next door and across the street from my house are African American, and we couldn’t wish for nicer neighbors. Indeed, for all the portents of spreading violence, not a whisper of civil unrest has disturbed our ethnically divided neighborhood… Baruch Hashem.
So who am I to opine on the Ferguson violence? Frankly, my perspective has more to do with what I do than with where I live. I’m a high school teacher. My subject is Jewish history.
So my first thought was that Jews have had plenty of cause for grievance over the generations. Relentless Roman pogroms, forced conversions by Almohad Muslims, massacres by the Crusader armies, the Cossack uprising in Poland, the expulsion of Jews from Spain (and Portugal, and Britain, and France, ad nauseum), the blood libels of Europe and North Africa and, of course, the Holocaust, have provided ample justification for a culture of entitlement based on historical victimhood.
And yet the Jews have never responded that way. Our collective equanimity comes largely from our religious sensitivity, which dictates that absolute justice is reserved for the World to Come; the best we can hope for in this world is an imperfect system that prevents, according to the teaching of our sages, man from swallowing his fellow alive. We need only watch recent news reports to witness what happens when the rule of law is abandoned.
And so, collectively, we have accepted with stoicism the injustices perpetrated upon us by the nations of the earth, defending ourselves when we could, resigning ourselves to Divine judgment when we could not. But we never responded with random violence, never vented our rage against one another, never burned down our own communities because we had no where else to direct our fury.
Well, almost never.
For the most part, it’s true that traditional values have guided us toward a peaceful response that eschews violence. But history commands a deep mistrust of sweeping statements and generalities. And, as we’ve seen with the reaction to the Darren Wilson decision, intellectual honesty doesn’t always accommodate our predispositions or our visceral reactions.
Consider the times leading up to the destruction of the Second Temple. The Zealot factions cried out for open rebellion against the Romans. The Tzaddukim (Sadducees) allied with the Romans against the Zealots. Trapped in the middle were the sages, calling for capitulation before an implacable Roman army.
Determined to spur the people to military resistance, the Zealots set fire to the storehouses of grain, wood, and oil with which Jerusalem might have held firm against the Roman siege for years. And then, as the Romans tightened their siege around the capital, the Zealot factions and the Tzaddukim turned against one another. Thousands of Jews slaughtered each other while the Roman army waited patiently for the populous to destroy itself. Even after the Romans breached the city walls and advanced upon the Temple mount, still Jew fought against Jew. By the time the warring factions finally joined forces against their common enemy, the fate of Jerusalem was already sealed.
What makes people turn against themselves and wreak destruction on their own community? Perhaps it has less to do with impotent rage than it does with fear — the fear of confronting the real source of our problems face-to-face.
When Former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani asserted on Meet the Press that the African American community should be more concerned about black-on-black violence than the relatively rare cases of white-on-black violence, he was immediately denounced by Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson for his attitude of “white supremacy.”
Parsing the debate, the Washington Post chastised Mr. Giuliani for citing statistics out of context: statistically, black-on-black violence compares closely to white-on-white violence. However, even the Post conceded that the rate of violence against blacks is six times that of on-white violence, and that violence by blacks is nearly eight times higher than violence by whites. The Post’s awarding Mr. Giuliani “two Pinocchios” for failing to provide context appears driven primarily by statistical quibbling that itself lacks context.
Ultimately, it’s easier to invoke racism and victimhood than to contemplate how to address social problems so deeply rooted in demographics, economics, and historical injustices. Much simpler to condemn the grand jury decision and scream for justice. Much more satisfying to set your neighbor’s store on fire.
And while the Jewish community has not torched its own neighborhoods, the embers of senseless hatred still smolder two thousand years after the destruction of the Temple and the sack of Jerusalem. Like the race-baiters who profit from inciting violence in the black community, there are those among us who seem intent upon fanning the flames of discord — or are content to let them burn — rather than seeking common ground and reconciliation. When the rest of us allow them free rein, we make ourselves complicit in their hatemongering and their passive divisiveness.
It’s complicated. Not all hatred is senseless; evil has to be confronted as evil; and there are many legitimate expressions of Jewish identity and practice — as well as some that are not. To preserve and defend our core values even as we reach across the chasm of egos and political ideology is far more easily said than done. But if we can at least make the effort, perhaps the spirit of shalom will begin to define not only the community of Jews but the community of all mankind.