Dialogue Between the Black and Jewish Communities: Is There Hope?

Many people in my community were happy that I opened a dialogue with a black religious leader in order to hear his perspective on racism. Many of them expressed hope that additional dialogue will encourage both Jewish and black people to understand each other’s struggles and challenges.  Additionally, I was heartened when Charles Barkley recently spoke out against the presence of anti-Semitism among Black celebrities, following Kareem Abdul-Jabar, who did so in an essay last week.  I was also heartened that many Black celebrities who had made anti-semitic remarks apologized for their comments.

Some people, however, told me that, in their words, I should not be fooled. They believe that on the whole, the black community is anti-semitic and will be anti-semitic no matter what we do to reach out to them. To support this claim, they cite “halacha yadua he she’Esav sonei l’Yaakov.”  In other words, it’s a rule, it’s a given, that Esav hates Yaakov, that the non-Jew has always, currently does and will always hate the Jew.  They claim that this is a reality of the world in which we live, and we are wasting our time trying to build relationships with those who are not Jewish because anti-semitism is essentially a Divine decree, and we cannot change that.

I’d like to address this assertion. First, the line that “halacha he b’yadua he she’Esav sonei l’Yaakov” is a line found in Rashi in Parshat Vayishlach. It is taken from a Sifri, which cites Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai who made this statement in trying to understand why Esav kissed Yaakov after they met.  After all, he said, it’s a halacha that Esav hates Yaakov!  It should be noted that there are different manuscripts of what Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s actually said.  Many manuscripts of the Sifri actually have a different text.  According to those, it does not say, “halacha he b’yadua” – it’s a known law, but it says “halo he b’yadua” – isn’t it known, that Esav hates Yaakov, so why did Esav kiss Yaakov?  In other words, there is a reading of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s statement that is not about the nations of Yaakov and Esav, but the person Yaakov and the person Esav.  Read this way, the statement is in no way indicates that anti-semitism is immutable.  (Please see a prior blog post that I wrote that discusses this point.)

The truth is that even if the reading of “halacha he b’yadua he she’Esav sonei l’Yaakov” is accurate, all that means is that anti-semitism exists and may always exist in some capacity.

And I will be the first to admit that I understand this feeling of hopelessness; the sense that no matter what we do, anti-semitism was, is, and always will be.  Because we have been hated when we were poor, and we have been hated when we were rich, and we have been hated when we tried to assimilate, and we have been hated when we tried to be separate.  There seems to be something unnatural and almost supernatural about anti-semitism. But that doesn’t mean that we should accept it and not try to fight it. Certainly it does not mean that we shouldn’t try our best to build bridges!

The Torah states after the original sin with reference to the woman, “v’hu yimshal bach,” that the man will rule over the woman, that there will be gender discrimination.  But that doesn’t mean that we should accept it and not try to fight it!  The Torah states in Parshat R’ey, “ki lo yechdal evyon mi’kerev ha’aretz,” that poverty will always exist.  But that doesn’t mean that we should accept it and not try to fight it!

We may never succeed in completely eliminating gender discrimination.  We may never succeed in completely eliminating poverty.  We may never succeed in completely eliminating anti-semitism.  But our mission is to try to perfect this world.  “Lo alecha hamelacha ligmor v’lo ata ben chorin l’hibatel mimenu.”  It is not incumbent upon us to finish the work, but we are not free to refrain from doing it.

So I will continue to try to educate.  I will continue to try to build bridges between our Jewish community and other communities, knowing full well that I may not be fully successful, but that there’s no excuse for not trying.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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