The key theme that emerges from Benjamin Wallace-Wells’ excellent feature on Ta-Nehisi Coates in New York Magazine is the deep pessimism Coates feels about race relations in America. In terms of the Jewish calendar, Coates’ recent book, Between The World And Me, could not have been better timed. As we approach Tisha B’Av and our annual meditation on destruction, calamity, and tragedy, his writing resonates especially powerfully.
“That’s the thing that linked Martin Luther King and Malcolm X,” Coates said. “People say Malcolm was a pessimist. He was a pessimist about America. But he was actually very optimistic. Malcolm very much believed in the dream of nationalism. He believed we could do it. And Martin believed in the dream of integration. He believed that black people could be successful if they did x, y, and z.”
Dr. King and Malcolm X mirrored different rabbinic positions during and following the Great Revolt against Rome. As the Revolt began, many Rabbis were reluctant accommodationists who feared the consequences of standing up to the overwhelming military power of the Roman Empire. Rather than try to defeat it, they attempted to carve out a safe space within it.
Most dramatic is the tradition of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai escaping a besieged Jerusalem to meet with Vespasian, the commander of the Roman forces encamped outside its walls. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai bowed before him, conceded the destruction of the city, and asked for Roman protection for a rabbinic leadership in exile. This narrative indicts the Zealots who remained to fight the Revolt to the bitter end; if only more people had been like Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, perhaps all would not have been lost.
Over time, rabbinic positions with more stridently nationalistic views began to take hold. The Babylonian Talmud records the tradition that Jerusalem fell on account of sinat chinam – the sin of baseless hatred reflected in sectarian infighting that ravaged the city from within even as the Romans waited from without. Had the people been properly unified, the Talmud seems to claim, they would have withstood the Roman assault.
The Palestinian Talmud goes even further, declaring that for “any generation in which the Temple is not built, it is as if it had been destroyed in their times.” In other words, the tragedies that shape the landscape of Jewish history are there because, stretching back through the millennia, the Jews themselves consistently failed to rectify the internal flaws and mistakes that enabled them to occur. In either case, these oft-referenced sources tell us that Tisha B’Av is a day to rue the shortcomings, sins, and failings that led to calamity so that we can adjust our own behavior accordingly.
Coates, though, rejects the debate categorically. “I suspect they were both wrong,” he concludes of Dr. King and Malcolm X. “I suspect that it’s not up to us.” The profile explains how Coates believes that “if you strip away the talk of hope and dreams and faith and progress, what you see are enduring structures of white supremacy and no great reason to conclude that the future will be better than the past.”
But even as he offers no cure from the burden of racism, Coates relieves his community of the burden of responsibility for it. By assuming that the black community possesses agency to combat racism, either through integration or nationalist struggle, Dr. King and Malcolm X each claim the right to blame the black community for its perpetuation.. If Coates responds that black people cannot end white supremacy, he is also saying that they did not cause it, nor can they exacerbate it through their own “bad behavior.” A staple of Coates’ writing is the rejection of “respectability politics,” beginning with his 2008 feature in The Atlantic critiquing Bill Cosby’s denunciation of black culture.
If we look back at our own history, similarities emerge. Realistically, the fate of Judea was likely sealed decades earlier than the Great Revolt, and hundreds of miles away. At the Battle of Actium, Augustus Caesar defeated Mark Antony and consolidated his control over the Roman Empire, inaugurating a hegemony that would endure for centuries. Over time, ever-developing and ever-expanding imperial institutions would inevitably create tension with idiosyncratic local populations and cultures, The limited expansionism and relatively secure borders that characterized Pax Romana, meant there were endless resources to quell internal strife. The ultimate results, for the Judeans as well as many other indigenous groups caught in this dynamic, were as terrible as they were inexorable. Its particular story played out dramatically, but Judea was simply caught up and swept away in the larger flow of history.
Coates’ thinking is, in this respect, reflected in the pervasive Tisha B’Av choice of communal programming revolving around describing the harmful effects of lashon hara (gossip and slander) and strategies for avoiding it in everyday life. On one level, it is a hyper-literal attempt to rectify the aforementioned sin of sinat chinam. More fundamentally, however, the narrow focus may be an implicit recognition of our ultimate powerlessness. By meeting the most monumental events in our history with a deliberately mundane response, we tacitly admit our inability to significantly impact the larger forces in our world, even as they burn our Temples. Perhaps our mourning is not just for the tragedies of the Jewish people, but for the impotence of our answers to them.
At the same time, though, we also are subversively asserting that these are not our problems to fix. We did not create the conditions that brought the wrath of Rome down on the Temple, nor the history and culture of anti-Semitism that led to the Crusades, Inquisitions and Holocaust that we elegize. By responding to epic tragedy by discussing the rhythms of day-to-day life, self-consciously not grappling with anything larger or more encompassing, perhaps we are absolving ourselves of guilt or blame. If Coates lays the legacy of slavery and discrimination at the feet of White America, we place the blood-soaked legacy of Jewish history at the feet of God’s throne.
In Between the World and Me, Coates teaches his son to accept “struggle over hope.” Tisha B’Av, heavy with the weight of a terrible history whose legacy continues to this day, is a day with little hope. But from one long-suffering group to another, we draw strength from the common understanding that the response to hopelessness remains proud struggle.