The Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, says, “There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.” Our hearts are broken. All people of good faith are still reeling from the horrific footage of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd, an African-American man, by kneeling on his neck. Mr. Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” were the same as those of Eric Garner, who the police killed in New York in 2014. The murder of George Floyd came on the heels of the arrest of three men in Georgia for killing a young African American man, Ahmaud Arbery, after pursuing him. The prosecutor initially declined to charge these men, on the basis of their actions being lawful under Georgia’s self-defense laws.
People, of course, have protested these events. Many Americans have watched some protests rage out of control on television. We think peaceful protests in the tradition of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are absolutely correct and praiseworthy. We ask, however, what is accomplished by the destruction of businesses, homes and public property, including police stations? As a Jew and a rabbi, I am pained by attacks on synagogues during these protests. We are shocked as we see fires, looting and violence raging through many American cities.
In addition to the other horror of this moment, when we see these protests descend into chaos, we say, “This just harms a very important cause.” Obviously these sentiments are correct and shared by African Americans as well, but there is a major difference in the way they may view these events. I would not for a moment presume to speak for African Americans on this topic. I cannot appreciate my enormous level of white privilege. I simply repeat what I have learned by listening and reading the words of African Americans on this topic.
First of all, we must delineate between those engaged in non-violent protests and individuals perpetuating theft, vandalism and bloodshed. These people are clearly not interested in social justice and embed themselves among protesters as cover for their crimes. The vast majority of the protesters are peaceful. Also, it should be noted that in Minneapolis, protesters faced a much more intense police presence than anything faced by predominantly white anti-lockdown protesters armed with guns.
As for outside extreme liberal groups and anarchists who use violence, there is no conclusive evidence for what their numbers actually are. There is also a theory that ultra-right-wing protesters posed as anti-racist protesters and used violence to impugn the peaceful protestors. Again, this has not been substantiated or confirmed.
More importantly, there is context to these events. We need to acknowledge that racism exists inherently in educational institutions, the work force, policing, the legal system, government and society in general. There is so much that African American leaders and their allies do to combat racism, including op-Eds in major periodicals, in depth coverage on television, radio, films and podcasts, supporting political candidates, and lobbying for legislation. Substantive change, however, is lacking.
Many ask how these protests can be going on during the pandemic? They are endangering themselves and others by not social distancing during the pandemic. COVID-19, in fact, has acted as an additional catalyst to this situation. African Americans are dying at a much higher rate than white Americans and that is tied to systemic racism. There are those in the African American community who feel they may choose to shelter in their homes forever, even once the pandemic is over. The virus of prejudice is as dangerous and contagious as the coronavirus.
Those who are white need to realize how different our lives are from African Americans. We do not have to think about our sons, brothers, fathers and husbands being killed by a police officer when they go out for a run or get stopped for a traffic violation. We do not give our children “The Talk,” a rite of passage for many African-American children. They are “prepared” on how to handle interactions with the police, on how to stay safe. White Americans tell their children that police officers are there to help them. African American parents give their children “The Talk.”
This is a time where we need leadership in America, not an uninvited photo op in front of a house of worship. Furthermore, the Bible is not a prop. It is a holy text that should be read to transform our lives. Bereishit (Genesis) 1:27 says that all human beings are created in the image of God. Therefore, just as God is infinite, all human beings are worth infinite value and must be treated with infinite dignity.
Such dignity is being shown by people throughout America. Chief of the New York Police Department, Terence Monahan kneeled in solidarity with protesters. He also spoke to the crowd with respect about the protests being conducted peacefully. In Kentucky, a group of Black men formed a protective chain around a police officer who had been separated from his unit.
Sheriff Christopher R. Swanson, the Sheriff of Genesee County in Michigan stood before a crowd of demonstrators, removed his helmet and walked with protesters. Police Officers put down their batons and protesters applauded as Swanson spoke to the crowd about what he and his department could do to help improve policing.
In these difficult days, we need to truly ask ourselves, what kind of country do we wish to live in? We need to question the direction we are going in. We can move towards greater polarization, increasing conflict between people of different races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, religions, and political views.
Or we can choose a better course. We can strive to replace the bitterness that exists with empathy and wisdom. We do not need divisiveness. Instead we must come together through a respect for life. There is far too much hate. I think we can all hear the cry for all the love that humanity has to give.
The United States must strive to put an end to violence and to make the quest for peace not something to simply hope for, but a true strategic goal. We are experiencing difficult times now. We have had problems in our history. We still have challenging times ahead. However, people want to live in a land where all people are valued and treated with dignity. Let us fully dedicate ourselves to making this dream a reality. We have the capacity. We have the ability. God has given us all the resources to accomplish this goal.
I will close with a prayer for the United States from this week’s Torah portion, Naso, Bamidbar (Numbers) 6:24-26, the priestly blessing, “May God bless you and protect you. May God illuminate The One’s countenance for you and be gracious to you. May God lift The One’s countenance to you and give you peace”