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Israel needs to understand the significance of racism in America

Israelis have a moral imperative to oppose racism -- it is the Jewish Bible, after all, that proclaims a common human ancestry and that all humans are created in the Divine image
Demonstrators attend a gathering in support of US protesters over the death of George Floyd and against police violence on June 2, 2020, in Tel Aviv. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
Demonstrators attend a gathering in support of US protesters over the death of George Floyd and against police violence on June 2, 2020, in Tel Aviv. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The unresolved issue of racism, which mars America’s self-image and splits the country, has implications for Israel. President Trump and his white Christian Evangelical supporters are viewed as denying that America is a racist country and are seen as supporters of the Netanyahu Israeli government. Whether the two are logically connected may be less important than the perception.

There is a split among American Jewry, though the large majority acknowledge and oppose racism. Within the Orthodox world, particularly for those with limited involvement with the non-Jewish world, conflicts with African-Americans in their local communities make the Jews unsympathetic to their neighbors’ plight. With a limited amount of sources — beyond the statement in Pirkei Avot, חביב אדם שנברא בצלם — that every person is created in the image of God — the opposition by Judaism to racism is not obvious to all.

It is not clear why recent killings of blacks by police officers have touched so many Americans, when, in the past, support for the police was a given in the broader community. Demonstrations are increasing in size and the incidents of violence declining. It is becoming harder to shift attention to rioters and radicals. The lack of any empathy shown by the president has led to a loss of support from some who previously forgave character weaknesses because of specific policies.

Israel is the foreign country where President Trump has the highest approval rating. If its leaders and citizens downplay the seriousness of this moment, it may well be damaging to Israel’s moral image — and politically harmful if Trump is not re-elected. In my efforts to stay current with Israeli society, albeit from afar, I have not seen any indication that this is understood in Israel. While the drama is playing out in the political arena, statistical studies have shown a major shift in the attitudes of the American people. In significant ways, the Civil War may have kept the Union, but it didn’t resolve the legacy of slavery.

There were few Jews in America until the end of the 19th century and we should not be major players in this conflict. Unfortunately, as has been endlessly shown, Jews will inevitably be drawn in to every issue. On a religious level (an issue for Orthodoxy), rabbinical leadership must strongly reiterate that it is the Jewish Bible that proclaims a common human ancestry and that all humans are created in the Divine image. It is a given that there will be some Jews on both sides and that their roles will be exaggerated, which will lead to anti-Semitism, but that would be the case even if Jewish leadership tried to be neutral. It is better to be attacked for a moral stand.

Israel is in a difficult position. President Trump personalizes everything and sees Prime Minister Netanyahu as a friend and ally. However, if Israel were to mirror Trump’s indifference to racism, that would stain its image in the world, as well as have a negative impact on the already shaky attachment to Israel of many young American Jews.

Many Israeli Jews have at best limited understanding of America and American Jews. If Israelis’ response to the current events in the United States only with prioritizing what is politically helpful for Israel (which tends to be from a short-term perspective), without any confrontation with the moral dimensions of racism, that would be a terrible mistake. Israel, from the time of its statement of independence, has strived to be exceptional, and that necessarily includes a moral dimension that goes beyond being a start-up nation.

About the Author
Rabbi Yosef Blau is the Senior Mashgiach Ruchani (spiritual advisor) at Yeshiva University, and a partial resident in Jerusalem.
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