Cleaning the Same Window

Years ago, I served on the Prince George’s County (Maryland) Human Relations Commission, chairing the Public Accommodation Committee. We heard cases in which a person was denied entrance to a public venue based on race, creed, color, sexual orientation or religion. The other two members of my committee were African American women, and one, Sue, was the wife of a local Baptist minister.

One case involved a University of Maryland student who filed a complaint against a local nightclub owner who had denied him entrance. The student claimed he was denied entry because he was black.

As we three commissioners retired to consider the evidence, I said I could not see racism for both the student and the owner were black. Sue looked at me with pity.

“It’s a clear case of bias,” she said. “Look, the owner of the nightclub never finished high school, the student is in college. The student is from a middle class family while the owner grew up poor. But the most important factor is that the student is a light black while the owner is ebon.”

She concluded: “There is racism all over, even in the black community.”

Then she said what has kept this episode in the forefront of my memory to this day: “Rabbi, you think you are white? You are as black as I am. The only difference is that when you walk into a store it takes them a little longer to find out who you are.”

The story is relevant always, but especially so today, as the Jewish community struggles with how tightly to align itself with the Black Lives Matter movement, with its platform that targets Israel, describing it as an “apartheid” country carrying out genocide against the Palestinians.

To single out Israel in this way is beyond question a classic act of anti-Semitism. So, it’s argued by some, the Jewish community should be wary of supporting Black Lives Matter, for ultimately “they” will turn on “us.”

There is a Midrash (rabbinic commentary) on an episode in Genesis in which Abraham expels Hagar and her son Ishmael into the wilderness. As they are dying of thirst, God prepares to save them.

The angels remind God that in the future, when the First Temple is destroyed and the Jewish survivors flee, Ishmael’s descendants will deny them water because of the memory of Abraham’s forsaking him. “If you allow Ishmael to die now, the descendants of Isaac will not die.”

We learn that a person cannot be held accountable for potential future misdeeds.

The Jewish community has welcomed financial support from – and advocacy of Israel by – Evangelical Christians. Yet we also know the basis of that support is their belief that Jesus cannot “return” until all Jews are safe in their homeland, at which time all Jews will become Christian or be consigned to hell.

While there has been some criticism of this political stance, we do not worry about the potential problems this support will cause in the future because we need help now.

Intersectionality is a real issue, conflating as it sometimes does identities and affiliations into invalid and dangerous categorizations. Black lives at risk are a real issue too. Are we to allow injustice and murder now because of potential future actions of BLM leaders? In the long run does this curious reticence work for or against us?

In the armed forces, the leadership training manuals direct that enmity between two recruits be settled by making them clean the windows in the mess hall. They must clean the same window at the same time, one from the inside and one from the outside. Invariably, they learn to work together and usually finish the task with respect.

Are we too proud, threatened, or privileged to clean the same window?

I’m not sure of the color of my skin, but I know we have much work to do. And it is worthwhile work that can save lives on both sides of the baton.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Bayar is Founder and Executive Director of JSurge, an organization providing Jewish education and services to unaffiliated Jews. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, where he served the pulpit for 30 years, and teaches at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbis Without Borders, and has trained as a hospice chaplain, a Wise Aging facilitator, and a trainer for safe and respectful Jewish work spaces. He’s the co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education,” “Rachel & Misha,” and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
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