This month, Americans are celebrating the 400th anniversary of a journey that ended in Plymouth, Massachusetts. There is some debate as to whether any Jews were on the Mayflower, but I seriously doubt it. Nor, for that matter, would any Jews have arrived in Point Comfort, Virginia on the first slave ship, just one year earlier, in 1619.
We did not arrive on any of those boats, because we were quite busy at the time. In 1615, King Louis 13th kicked us out of France. In 1618 in Grodno, Jews were accused of Blood Libel and nearly expelled. The Blood Libel stated that Jews consume the blood of Christian children in a satanic pre-Passover ritual. (Sound familiar? This Big Lie was the anti-Semitic precursor to the conspiracy theory known as Q-Anon.) So we were busy while those two ships made the historic journeys that to this day define different visions of American History.
I once saw the great John Lewis speak to a group of college students. The shared suffering of the Civil Rights era rang out to me when Lewis concluded his lecture by saying, “We may have come over in different ships, but now we’re all in the same boat.”
Lewis was right. No matter where we were in 1620, we are all on the same boat now. And it is high time to rebuild and reaffirm the partnership between Blacks and Jews that changed the course of history back in 1960’s and can do the same today.
The twin scourges of slavery and racism share a common biblical root, the infamous “Curse of Ham,” based on a curious passage in Genesis where Ham uncovers his father Noah’s nakedness. Since the middle ages it has been used to justify the enslavement of Black Africans, since Ham was said to have inhabited that continent. In 1578, English travel writer George Best wrote that it was God’s will that Ham’s son and “all his posteritie after him should be so blacke and loathesome that it might be a spectacle of disobedience to all the worlde.”
In the popular imagination, blackness itself became the curse. Slavery was the byproduct. In subsequent centuries, the curse quickly gained the sanction of the church.
As Ibram X Kendi writes in his recent books detailing the history of racism, the Bible was used as a pretext to justify the horrible things that were already happening. Exploitation came first, the biblical foundation for racist ideology came second. Kendi writes, “The same Bible that taught me that all humans descended from the first pair also argued for immutable human difference, the result of a divine curse.”
It should be noted that in Genesis, the curse by Noah falls not on Ham but on Ham’s son Canaan, and most Jewish sources do not connect this to a negative view of skin color, or to slavery at all, but rather on the need to subdue the Canaanite nation in order to possess their land. Still there is one aspect of this Curse of Canaan that Jews and Blacks share: the denial of dignity.
In the 1930s and 1940s, some Revisionist Zionist intellectuals in Palestine founded the ideology of Canaanism, which sought to create a unique Hebrew identity, rooted in ancient Canaanite culture rather than a diaspora-based Jewish one. Some of the great early Zionist writers praised these ancient ties to the Land’s indigenous culture – like the poet Shaul Tschernikovsky and the essayist Leon Pinsker, who looked at the Jewish condition from his perch in Russia in 1882 called the Jews a ghostlike people, in need of what he called “auto-emancipation.” For them, the curse was that for two millennia Jews had been separated from Canaan – the land that they saw as the wellspring of their dignity.
For my generation of American Jews, the revival of the Jewish soul was personified by a character whose refugee father took the name “Ben Canaan.” Ari Ben Canaan is fictional, but the symbolism of Canaan for modern Zionism is real. In order for the Jewish people to realize our full potential, we needed first to restore a sense of inner pride that had been denied us for so long. We needed a Blessing of Canaan to reverse the Curse of the Diaspora.
The same has been true for African Americans. In 1936, the biblical scholar Ephraim Avigdor Speiser proposed that the word Canaan comes from an ancient near eastern term that described them as Kinahhu, or having a purple-ish hue – possibly because of their Phoenician roots, by the sea. Perhaps, then, the thirst for pride and dignity has something to do with that color – the color purple. Alice Walker wrote, famously in her book of that name, “I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it.”
Purple is the color of unity – and an inner pride that allows blue and red the self-assurance to come together. Purple is their synthesis, their glorious compromise. Purple is the color of confidence – because it can’t help but be noticed. The Blessing of Canaan is the blessing of inner and outer beauty, of being beautiful and knowing it.
That is what Jews gained when we returned to the Promised Land after 2,000 years. It is what Blacks affirmed when Martin Luther King talked about the metaphoric Promised Land that he so badly wanted to reach even as he knew he would not.
Martin Luther King said
One’s dignity may be assaulted, vandalized, cruelly mocked, but it can never be taken away unless it is surrendered.
The Curse of Canaan is just that: the surrender of dignity – and accepting the branding inflicted upon you in order to subjugate you. The Blessing of Canaan is finding the wherewithal to overcome it all and to somehow reach the destination.
Ibram X Kendi writes about how Blacks were forced to be docile and illiterate – and then accused of being docile and illiterate and therefore not deserving of their freedom. The Curse of Canaan is the libelous canard of the lazy Black and the conniving Jew, both of them too slothful to put in an honest day’s work. It’s amazing how Blacks can be simultaneously be considered docile and aggressive, subservient and scary, just as Jews are both socialist radicals and corrupt capitalists. C’mon haters, you can’t have both! Pick one!
How about the Jews, forced to change their names just to be tolerated in boardrooms and Hollywood studios, earning acceptance by blending in and not making waves, reduced to writing Christmas songs and straightening our noses in order to be accepted. Blacks had to straighten their hair. Jews were accused of being shape shifters, chameleon-like and slithery, but never really American – never truly loyal. Blacks who tried to look too light were accused of trying to pass as white. These are just some of the microaggressions that both groups have experienced.
The Curse of Canaan is the curse of passivity, dependence and inaction, It is the curse of Tevye and Uncle Tom – beloved and misunderstood, and ultimately too willing to accept their lot in life rather than fight to change the traditions of their day.
The Curse of Canaan is the curse of insidious stereotypes, like the happy the Aunt Jemima mammy and the neurotic Jewish comic. It is the curse of minstrel show blackfaces and the enlarged noses photoshopped on Jewish candidates in political ads. (It is beyond belief that in 2020, both of these are still a thing!)
It’s the curse of a forced sense of inferiority born of an unjust system.
We’ve seen it all. We Jews get it. We get the pain of the confederate flag, because we have seen the swastika. We know how hurtful are the microaggressions of instinctively suspecting a dark person because they are wearing a hoodie, or of teasing a Jew by throwing a coin into a taxi. We’ve seen that deep sense of shame at our parents’ passivity in America – similar to what the early Zionists felt about the shtetl – and a deeper sense of anger that our parents were put through that humiliation, their egos crushed in their subservience, wanting nothing more than simply to fit in.
African Americans had George Wallace, accusing them of being less than human. And American Jews had Joe McCarthy, accusing them of being less than American. And today, we have Joe McCarthy and George Wallace, rolled into one! But we just voted him out of office, a huge step in reversing the Curse of Canaan.
The Curse of Canaan is a soul crushing passivity in the face of relentless attacks on our humanity. The Blessing of Canaan is the blessing of dignity – it is the blessing of a Promised Land 400 years in the making.
For Jews, for Blacks and for everyone else who has been scarred by the stain of hate, this accursed year would be the perfect time to restore a transformational alliance. Together, we can share the blessings of Canaan to the world, the magnificent gift of human dignity (K’vod Ha-Briyot).
And when we do that, we will affirm for all to hear – that our lives, and all lives – do matter – more than we could ever have known.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is author, most recently, of “Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously” (Ben Yehuda Press, 2020).