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Blacks and Jews have unfinished business

Despite good reasons to be allies, our communities have been struggling with the relationship. Exploring Biblical stories together can help
For both groups, the Bible is our Romeo and Juliet. (Bishop Garry Tyson (l), Dr. Mark Jones (ctr) and Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum)
For both groups, the Bible is our Romeo and Juliet. (Bishop Garry Tyson (l), Dr. Mark Jones (ctr) and Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum)

This post is co-authored together with Bishop Garry Tyson, pastor of Seattle’s Goodwill Baptist Church and President of the General Baptist Convention of the Northwest, and Mark R. Jones, Ph.D., CEO of the Sunyata Group and a senior executive consultant.

Whoopi Goldberg’s comments about the Holocaust were hurtful, but they shouldn’t be considered in isolation. Despite many good reasons to be allies, Blacks and Jews have been struggling with our relationship for a long time. We believe our relationship can be rejuvenated. But, just calling each other out when we’re hurt won’t get us there. We need to talk. That’s why for the past three years, Seattle area Black and Jewish clergy have been gathering monthly to study Bible in a spirit of fellowship and mutual affection. We started our group three years ago. Our project has now spread to six cities.

Why Bible? A famous author suggests a reason. Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Who Am I This Time” describes two shy people who fall in love when they play the romantic leads in a community theater. When they have trouble extending their relationship off stage, Helene invites Harry to dinner and hands him a copy of Romeo and Juliet. For the rest of their lives they communicate their love through the words of great playwrights.

For Blacks and Jews, the Bible is our Romeo and Juliet. For both of our communities, the stories of Hebrew scripture have been a vehicle for us to explore and express our deepest hopes and fears. Through our engagement with the Biblical text, we are able to share things with each other we might be hesitant to share otherwise, because they touch such deep emotional chords.

Blacks and Jews have good reason to feel connected. We share the experience of centuries of dehumanization. We both have longstanding history of living under the constant threat of violence. And we share a Biblical narrative of transforming a painful past into a redemptive future. During the Civil Rights Movement, Black and Jewish clergy, students, community leaders and activists came together to support Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s dream of building Beloved Community, and an America of racial equity and harmony. With racism and antisemitism rising nationally and globally, there is great value for old friends to renew bonds of trust and friendship.

We stand in solidarity against the common enemy of white nationalism. But our goals are also deeper. Black and Jewish leaders often look back with wistful pride at the iconic photograph of Dr. King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm in arm at Selma. But let’s be honest. The Black and Jewish experiences are not identical. And, over the decades, the Black and Jewish communities have often gone our separate ways. In order for our communities to flourish, there are some things we needed to do alone. Invariably, tensions crept into the relationship. If we are to renew our bonds, we must address the whole of our relationship with courage and with candor.

The Bible has been our vehicle. Biblical study has given us the freedom to touch on emotionally sensitive territory. We wondered why Joseph’s social climbing ex-prison mate allowed Joseph to languish in prison for two years without ever mentioning him to his powerful boss. That triggered the suggestion that Blacks and Jews both feel abandoned by the other. The story of Sarah and Hagar reminded us that a person or a people can be both powerful and vulnerable at the same time. Oppression is typically described as the persecution of the weak. But both Blacks and Jews have experienced the hatred that is triggered when an oppressed people begins to rise. Blacks experienced this hatred during Reconstruction, at Tulsa, and with the election of Barack Obama. Jews experienced this hatred in pre-war Germany and in the hostility of the world towards a flourishing State of Israel.

Exploring Biblical stories has encouraged us to share our own. A Black colleague shared his reluctance to tell his children of his dehumanization by the police for fear of passing down his trauma to the next generation. A Jewish colleague related his in-laws’ reluctance to share their Holocaust story for the same reason. Black colleagues shared personal stories that testified to the persistence of racism far beyond what we had imagined.

Blacks and Jews have unfinished business together. Dr. King’s vision for America still awaits realization. The level of polarization in America is dangerously high. In such an environment, hate flourishes. None of us is safe when such hate is allowed to go unchecked. This is an ideal moment for Blacks and Jews to renew together the work of building Beloved Community. By repairing our own relationship we can provide a model for repairing America.

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Bishop Garry L. Tyson is pastor of Seattle’s Goodwill Baptist Church and President of the General Baptist Convention of the Northwest. Bishop Tyson has led two missionary trips to Haiti, and he and his wife, First Lady Nicole Tyson have frequently hosted the TBN broadcast of “Praise the Lord.” In 2017, Bishop Tyson founded the Nehemiah Initiative, offering African American churches in Seattle’s Central District alternatives to succumbing to gentrification.

Mark R. Jones, Ph.D. is the CEO of the Sunyata Group and a senior executive consultant with 45+ years’ experience developing and leading high-performance teams as Beloved Communities. For the past three years, Dr. Jones has been using Beloved Community strategies to address inclusive economic development through coalitions between cultural groups such as Black and Jewish communities, immigrant and native populations, and communities and real estate developers.

About the Author
Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum is rabbi emeritus of Herzl-Ner Tamid Congregation in Mercer Island, WA after serving 17 years as HNT’s senior rabbi. He currently chairs the Seattle JCRC's Intergroup Relations Committee. As a congregational rabbi for 39 years, he has often been called upon to bring together people with opposing agendas. His work as a pastor is rooted in the central Jewish spiritual practice of Torah study which at its core is about harmonizing diverse opinions. Rabbi Rosenbaum has devoted his life’s energy to making peace between ancient texts with modern sensibilities. He believes that if you can close the gap between two ideas, you can overcome the barriers between two human beings. In recent years, he has concentrated on deepening understanding between the Black and Jewish communities, Muslims and Jews, Christians and Jews, and Israeli Jews and American Jews.
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