I can breathe

USA’s Kareem Adbul-Jabbar is considered one of the greatest players ever to play in the NBA. In the wake of the protests and riots unfolding in the USA, he asked a cogent question: “What was your first reaction when you saw the video of the white cop kneeling on George Floyd’s neck while Floyd croaked, “I can’t breathe”?

If you’re white, you probably muttered a horrified, ‘Oh, my God’ while shaking your head at the cruel injustice. If you’re black, you probably leapt to your feet, cursed, maybe threw something (certainly wanted to throw something), while shouting, ‘ Not @#$%! again!‘ “

Having grown up in South Africa’s apartheid era, both the riots and Kareem’s question (and answer) struck me hard. I was back in Johannesburg in 1976, watching the smoke rising from the Alexandra Township, feeling the horror of the young black school students being killed on the streets of Soweto, hearing the government line about the protesters being savage looters…

I dug up an angry poem I wrote back then: “Oh see the bringer of beauty-truth …the meaning of his philsophistry/Lies twitching in that body heap over there /Yes here mr kruger in soweto..”

I was a young yeshiva and uni student at the time and the callous injustice of racism and the unrelenting and unbearable suffering it caused cut deep into my heart. Racism is a global issue but it’s also a profoundly Jewish one. Kareem’s question speaks to me as a Jew because of the countless tyrants across the centuries who kneeled on our necks. It talks to me about an Egyptian taskmaster whipping the Israelite slave while his fellow oppressors stand by and say nothing. It calls out to me about barbaric crusaders burning down homes and destroying hearts. It cries out to me about my grandparents and uncles and aunts who weren’t allowed to breathe by their Nazi oppressors. Antisemitism is always a hatred of the other. And that’s why regardless of the colour of our skin, we Jews should always be at the forefront opposing any form of racism. It pains me that Ethiopian Jews suffer discrimination and prejudice in Israel, it hurts me to hear the casual racist talk and jokes about shvartsers in our frum community.

Yes, protests often are used as an opportunity for some to exploit, just as fans in Europe celebrating a sports team championship sometimes burn cars and destroy shopfronts. Says Kareem: “I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands.“

Kareem is talking about the deeply imbedded nature of racism in the world’s greatest democracy. He highlights its insidious and overt damage to people of colour, how the Black communities of the USA suffer disproportionately(as the Covid crisis has highlighted). He could be talking about racism in Australia. Australia is not America and certainly not apartheid South Africa, but racism is an insidious undercurrent in our lucky land. This was brought home to me when listening to Stan Grant on TV and then reading his searing account of growing up as an indigenous Australian in Talking to My Country. It’s a book about race and identity but its also about our shared identity. Grant points out how little Australians know about their first peoples, how we know something about Custer and Sitting Bull, Caesar, Napoleon and Tutankhamen but haven’t heard of Pemulwuy and Winradyne or the massacre of Risdon Cove. (We do sadly know from our Law Commission on Racism that indigenous incarceration in Australia is extremely high and that too often native people are imprisoned for minor offences.)

It’s a crie de couer. His cry from the heart talks to my heart in line with the poignant phrase of Chazal that words that come from the heart enter the heart (of the other.) I can identify with Grant’s pain and recognise Kareem’s invisibility because I am a Jew.

We are currently reading the Book of Bamidbar (this week’s Parasha is Naso), a tale of tribalism in the Sinai wilderness. It’s a story of an identity born in the outback of Israel, it’s a reminder of how being born on the outside of society made us strong and resilient but also made us the classic outsiders. It paradoxically allowed us to be both tough insiders, knowing how to navigate and negotiate in varied cultures and societies, and resolute outsiders with a different perspective and passionate pursuers of justice. The Pandemic has exposed the ugly fractures of societies; it has increased antisemitism and racism and allowed for countless conspiracy accounts online.

It has has also opened a wide space of generosity, a large place to reexamine and calibrate our values. May we use the opportunity to become stronger and better, breathing more deeply and allowing others to breathe more freely.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Born in Zimbabwe, raised in South Africa, Rabbi Ralph Genende is a well-known and popular Modern Orthodox Rabbi. Ralph was Senior Rabbi to the Auckland, New Zealand Jewish community for ten years. He then became College Rabbi at Mount Scopus College, member of its Executive Team and Rabbi of Beit Aharon congregation. Currently Rabbi Genende is Senior Rabbi of Caulfield Hebrew Congregation, one of Melbourne’s largest congregations. He was a senior Reserve Chaplain in the South African Defence Force and is now Principal Rabbi to the Australian Defence Force, Member of the Religious Advisory Council to the Minister of Defence (RACS), board member of AIJAC (Australian Israel Jewish Affairs Council) and member of the Premier's Mulitifaith Advisory Group. He was President of JCMA (Jewish Christian Muslim Association) and a long time executive member of the Rabbinical Association of Victoria. He also oversees Yad BeYad a premarital relationship program, is a member of Swinburne University’s Research Ethics Committee and on the Glen Eira City Council’s Committee responsible for its Reconciliation Action Plan for recognition and integration of our first peoples. Ralph has a passion for social justice and creating bridges between different cultures and faiths. For him the purpose of religion is to create a better society for all people and to engage with the critical issues facing Australian society. The role of the rabbi is, in his words, to challenge the comfortable and comfort the challenged. In 2018 Rabbi Genende was awarded an OAM for his services to multi-faith relations, and to the Jewish community of Victoria. Rabbi Genende is a trained counsellor with a Masters degree from Auckland University. He is married to Caron, a psychologist and they have three children – Eyal (who is married to Carly), Daniella and Yonatan and a grandson Ezra.
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