It’s difficult to describe the emotions evoked by the destruction of the Temple, the Dreyfus Affair, the turning back of the St. Louis to Nazi Germany, or any of the other injustice experienced by Jews over the centuries. While an Armenian can empathize with the cattle cars that sent families to Auschwitz (the first use of cattle cars to send masses of people to their death was during the Armenian Genocide), most experiences in Jewish history aren’t as easily translated to the lives of other nationalities or ethnic groups.
Even today, some people view The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as real, or subscribe to the belief that the Jews killed Jesus. The truth is that Jews have been outsiders for centuries; minorities without many of the civil rights enjoyed by the majority in the countries we called home. Events like the Spanish Inquisition or pogroms in Eastern Europe provided harsh reminders of this unenviable status, and while we persevered and advanced, even our successes were viewed by many as proof of conspiracy.
We often times forget that many of the first ghettos were constructed to separate Jews from the local populace. Jews had curfews, were barred from occupations, couldn’t intermarry, and historically faced various systemic injustices. Up until Napoleon and the Jewish emancipation in Europe, Jews were largely considered a separate people who weren’t really German, or French, or part of the citizenry of their country. Our fate, from 70 A.D. until shortly after the end of the Holocaust, was influenced primarily by the edicts of others.
In short, as a diaspora culture we were minorities for close to 2,000 years, and with the State of Israel, our global minority status has been transformed into a nuclear power within a dangerous region of the world. With that power has come a new range of issues, from the 4.5 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank who want a state of their own to the security issues that plague the average Israeli.
As for American Jews, we’re as American as apple pie in terms of feeling a part of the majority, but can also relate (because of our own history as minorities) to the African-American experience and empathize with the suffering of other disenfranchised groups. Jewish Americans for the most part are liberal, aside from the great many who lean towards conservative stances on Israel and foreign policy. There’s a reason that (according to Pew Research) 79% of Jews voted for Gore in 2000, 74% voted for Kerry in 2004, 78% voted for Obama in 2008, and 69% voted for Obama in 2012. Like blacks and other American minorities, Jewish Americans lean towards liberal social values primarily because we too have been denied within our own history the right to vote, own property, or intermarry.
I wrote an article in the Huffington Post this year about what would happen if blacks and whites switched places in America, titled Ferguson and Race From White America’s Perspective, If It Switched Places With Black America. I was interviewed on HuffPost Live by Marc Lamont Hill about the article and here’s the interview. However, what if I had switched the words “White America’s Perspective” with “the Jewish-American Perspective” and reversed statistics in this regard?
The following statistics highlighting the disparities between whites and blacks in America are from the Pew Research Center. This time, instead of attributing these startling numbers to African-Americans in comparison to white Americans, Jewish Americans are now experiencing a new life (based on the African-American experience) in the U.S.:
Jewish Americans are nearly three times as likely as white Americans to live in poverty…
In 2011, the typical white household had a net worth of $91,405, compared with $6,446 for Jewish households…
Jewish men were more than six times as likely as white men in 2010 to be incarcerated in federal and state prisons, and local jails, the last year complete data are available.
The median household income for whites was $67,175 in 2011… For Jewish Americans, it was $39,760;
Also, using statistics from the NAACP, just switch African-Americans with American Jews and you get the following data:
Jews now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population…
Jewish Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites…
If Jewish Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates of whites, today’s prison and jail populations would decline by approximately 50%
One in six Jewish men had been incarcerated as of 2001.
If current trends continue, one in three Jewish males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime…
1 in 100 Jewish American women are in prison…
Nationwide, Jewish Americans represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, 46% of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice).
Combine these numbers with the fact that Jewish men face 20% longer prison sentences than white men in recent years, and you’ll see a country that doesn’t exactly treat Jews in an equitable manner.
How does it feel to hear that 58% of youth admitted to state prisons were Jewish, or that the average net worth of a Jewish household in America was $6,446?
If you think this is a sophomoric use of data, you might be missing the point. Based on Pew Research and NAACP statistics, if the tables were turned with blacks in America, Jews would be experiencing an existence where criminal justice views us differently from the majority. Economically, we’d be worse off than the majority and socially, we’d be in a tougher position to gain upward mobility. All we have to do is look at Jewish history to see that in many ways, we’ve already experienced similar (although not identical) economic and political disparities in Europe throughout the centuries.
With the events surrounding Ferguson and the deaths of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, John Crawford, and so many other unarmed black men, viewing these tragedies from a Jewish perspective isn’t difficult for me. My perspective is not only one that empathizes with African-Americans, it’s one that asks, “What if Jews experienced what blacks are experiencing in 2014?”
In many ways, blacks in America today face a similar reality to what Jews faced before the creation of Israel and life in America. Economically, politically, and socially, blacks have progressed enormously over the years, as did Jews from the 1500’s to the late 1800’s. However, African-Americans often times still can’t get a grand jury to indict a cop who kills an unarmed black man, or convict a neighborhood watchman for killing an unarmed black teenager walking home.
Harvard University’s Skin Color Paradox study states “racial minorities with dark skin in the United States have been disproportionately disadvantaged for centuries.”
For Jews throughout Jewish history, antisemitism was the “dark skin” that put us in “disproportionately disadvantaged” positions.
Ridiculous comparison, you might say? Just ask why there’s still racial tension in 2014 America, and compare aspects of Jewish history to the African-American experience. You’ll see that the similarities are striking, and you’ll also see that if the tables are turned with African-Americans, Jewish Americans would be living a similar existence to a long forgotten time period in Jewish life.