Seeing the other

As has been widely reported in the media a couple of weeks ago, two young black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, went to a Starbucks in Philadelphia last week. They arrived 10 minutes early for a business meeting. Having been told that the restrooms were only for paying customers, Nelson just sat with his friend at a table waiting for the third person to show up. The manager asked them if they wanted any drinks, and they declined explaining they were waiting for a meeting.

The manager then called the police and officers arrived only a few minutes later. The two men were arrested for trespassing and creating a disturbance but the charges were dropped that night. There was no evidence they created any disturbance.

I have been to a lot of Starbucks coffee shops, and spent a lot of time there. I haven’t always bought a cup of coffee right away. And of course there are many Starbucks customers who spend an hour or more at the shop working on their laptops with the free WiFi available. In fact, that is a major part of Starbucks marketing – making their stores a “third place” to be – outside of work and home.

So it seems painfully obvious that in this case, what happened was subconscious “racial profiling.” I am sure the manager of the coffee shop did not consciously think: these folks are black and I don’t want to serve them. It was more like “these guys don’t look like customers.” They are here just to use the restroom and move on. But, why didn’t they look like customers? I don’t know for sure, of course. I am not a mind reader, especially not for a coffee shop manager I don’t even know. But we do know that people make decisions all the time about other people based on how they appear. And part of that appearance is the color of your skin.

White people do not have to worry about this type of subliminal prejudice. That is just a fact.

But our tradition teaches us “Al tistakel b’kankan, elah b’mah she’yesh bo.” (Avot 4:27) Do not look at the bottle, but rather what is inside. So I try to make a conscious effort to really see the people around me. I am not color blind. That would be ridiculous. Everyone can see that different people have different skin colors. But I make an effort to see the entire person. What does their body language convey? What do their eyes say? Eyes are sometimes called the window into a person’s soul.

Appearances are often deceiving. We need to make an effort to really get to know someone. To see beyond the surface. Obviously, we don’t need that much information about people we encounter randomly at a coffee shop or supermarket. But if we find ourselves making snap judgments about someone – especially about how they look, and especially, especially because of the color of their skin – then we absolutely must remind ourselves that we really know basically nothing about that person and cannot form any valid judgments at all.

But, perhaps the most important teaching in Judaism is found right at the beginning of Genesis. When the Torah teaches us that human beings are created in God’s image. In fact, according to one of our Sages, Ben Azzai, that IS the single most important teaching in Judaism. (Sifra, Kedoshim 4:12) If we remember nothing else, we must remember that each and every human being contains a spark of holiness within them. So even when you are frustrated with someone, even when you might be angry – especially when you are angry – you need to remind yourself that the other person is also a precious human being, with their own problems, their own weaknesses, as well as their own strengths. Each person is deserving of respect and compassion simply – and for no other reason – than because they are created in the image of God. This, too, would be an important lesson for all of us to learn from our tradition in response to this incident.

But then, something else happened after the coffee shop incident which also needs to be addressed. Starbucks admirably decided to close thousands of its stores to have a day of anti-bias training. And they called in a number of experts to provide that training, including the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League.

It should come as no surprise that the ADL was called upon to help provide this training. Although the ADL was founded initially in response to anti-Semitism, its mission is not only to combat the defamation of the Jewish people, but also to secure justice and fair treatment for all. “When Chicago attorney Sigmund Livingston founded [the] ADL in 1913, he envisioned an America where those who seemed different were not targets of discrimination and threats, but were equals, worthy of shared opportunity and a place in the American dream.”

And true to its mission, the ADL has developed a wide range of programs to promote tolerance, respect and understanding for people of different races, ethnicities and religions. In recent years, the ADL has reached out to the Muslim-American community to offer support and guidance in dealing with discrimination against Muslims in this country. It has worked with the NAACP and other organizations to respond to racism. It has worked with numerous law enforcement departments to provide anti-bias training, which has included bringing some law enforcement groups to Israel to see how Israeli law enforcement agencies deal with bias and profiling.

But, of course, as part of its mission to combat anti-Semitism, it frequently supports Israel against unfair and biased charges that are all too often leveled against the Jewish State.

So, as reported in a Jewish Telegraphic Agency article last week, “when far-left activists look at the ADL, they don’t see a civil-rights group. They say the ADL supports domestic institutions perpetuating racism (like the police) while defending what the activists call Israeli oppression of the Palestinians abroad.”

And then, Tamika Mallory, one of the  co-organizers of the Women’s March, who recently was in the news for supporting Louis Farrakhan, denounced Starbucks for cooperating with the Jewish group.

“So you are aware, Starbucks was on a decent track until they enlisted the Anti-Defamation League to build their anti-bias training,” Mallory tweeted Tuesday. “The ADL is CONSTANTLY attacking black and brown people.” Which is completely untrue. The ADL did, however, call out Mallory for defending Louis Farrakhan.

Full disclosure, I was on the board of the local office of the ADL for many years. And, full, full disclosure, I have been a big fan of the ADL ever since I wrote my college thesis paper on the Nazi demonstration in Skokie in the summer of 1978. (Okay, that dates me a bit, I guess.)

The ADL actually filed an Amicus brief in that case arguing that the march was more than an exercise of free speech. By specifically deciding to march through a predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Chicago (Skokie), indeed a neighborhood in which a large number of Holocaust survivors lived, the march was more than mere symbolic speech. It was more like an intentional psychological assault on the residents of the neighborhood. The court ruled, ultimately, in the Nazis’ favor and the march was permitted. But only 20 actual Nazis showed up and they were surrounded by huge crowds of counter-demonstrators.

But I admired the ADL, in any case, for making such a difficult argument in a case that certainly tested the limits of the First Amendment.

So, what should we say to Tamika Mallory? A lot has been written about her support for Farrakhan. Because of her own personal history, she saw value in Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam brining peace and security to poor black neighborhoods, including the one she lived in. She said she does not agree with all of his beliefs. For one thing, she is a Christian. But she also praised him and did not specifically denounce his anti-Semitic rhetoric.

So, on the one hand, she basically is giving Farrakhan a “pass” for his racism and anti-Semitism. And on the other hand, does not recognize the overwhelming amount of good work the ADL does, but wants to focus on one thing, primarily: its support for Israel. And because of that, she considers it abominable.

It would be one thing if she were just a participant in the Women’s March or a Black Lives Matter March and held these views. You know, public demonstrations on particular issues involve large numbers of people with all kinds of views on other subjects. You cannot be responsible for everyone’s views on every subject when you decide to participate in a march on one particular issue.

But she is the leader of the Women’s March. And the leaders of movements, it seems to me, need to be more thoughtful about their opinions and what they say to the media because their words will affect the causes they lead. If they are trying to build large coalitions, they need to think carefully about who they might offend by the positions they take. If it doesn’t matter to them that they might offend a group, because they find that group repugnant to their beliefs, so be it. But they should also ask themselves if that position is their own personal one, or does it truly represent all the other people in their movement. Because the movement is going to lose out if its leaders turns off large numbers of people who otherwise would support their cause.

I support the Women’s Movement. And I certainly support the cause of blacks in America to achieve true equality, which means all of us white folks need to continue to do our homework about our own personal prejudices, and be very careful about the two values I stated earlier: Al tistakel b’kankan, and b’tzelem Elohim bara otam.

But I also support the State of Israel, the one and only Jewish State in the world. It is an amazing miracle of modern time that the Jewish people have taken a swamp-ridden, third world, tiny piece of land the size of New Jersey, and turned it into a modern, first-world, democratic, high-tech, fountain of all kinds of modern technology used all over the world, saving thousands of lives and providing food, water, education, medical advances and countless other benefits to people everywhere.

Is it a perfect country? No. Of course not. I do not defend every action taken by the government. There are many things I am disappointed with. But it is the only country in the world where Jews are the majority and therefore can set the agenda for the country. Zionism is the belief that Jews also have a right to self-determination in a country of their own. I have no problem supporting a Palestinian State. They should live and be well and develop a miraculous country of their own. But if they are entitled to a State, how can one argue that the Jews are not? Anti-Zionism, in my opinion, is therefore really just another form of anti-Semitism.

Natan Sharansky many years ago established three criteria to determine when criticism of Israel crosses the line into anti-Semitism. He called it the “3D Test.” Demonization. Delegitimization. And Double-Standards.

To see Israelis as evil people, or Israeli soldiers as demonic criminals who take pleasure in killing or torturing Palestinians, is demonizing. (There are, of course, individual Israelis who might behave badly – but there are such people in every single country.)

To believe that Israel was “born in sin” and must be dissolved as a country, and all the Jews there need to “go back where they came from” is delegitimizing the Jewish State. No sensible, objective, rational person can seriously claim that of all the countries in the world, Israel is the worst. With Syria committing a near genocide on its own people just across the border, and countless other countries in the world perpetrating all kinds of other atrocities, there simply is no comparison. But for some reason, some people see fit to criticize only Israel to such an extent that they believe it should cease to exist. That is delegitimizing.

Similarly, to hold Israel to a standard that virtually no other country on the planet is held to, is a double-standard that belies a prejudiced hostility to the one and only Jewish State.

So, what would I say to Amika Mallory?

I am calling out her animus against the ADL. Particularly after she was unwilling to unequivocally denounce the racist and anti-Semitic views of Farrakhan.

Does that reflect on Tamika’s support for women’s rights or the rights of blacks in America? Not in my opinion. I can agree with her positions on those subjects even though I believe she is terribly misguided and ill-informed about Israel and therefore the ADL. I pray that she will be one day enlightened.

The Talmud tells the story (Berakhot 10a) of Rabbi Meir who once prayed that his enemies should be destroyed. His wife, Beruria – one of the few women named in the Talmud, and noted to be a very wise and learned scholar in her own right – chided him. How could he pray for the destruction of his enemies? They are human beings, too. Rather, she told her husband, he should pray that they would become enlightened and perform acts of righteousness and kindness. He took his wife’s advice. He prayed for their repentance. The Talmud records that they did indeed repent and changed their ways.

So, now we have three things we can learn from this past couple of weeks:

Al tistakel b’kankan – do not look at the bottle, but rather at what is inside. Try to see the whole person. Each person is a complicated world, a mixture of some good things and some things that still need work. But do not be deceived by superficial outward characteristics. Seek the inner, true, complete person.

B’tzelem Elohim bara otam – every person is created in God’s image and therefore has a spark of holiness. Seek that spark of holiness and try to help it shine. Do not be cruel or hurtful to another, but seek to help them become their best selves, to radiate the holiness inside.

Do not seek harm for those you dislike. But pray for their repentance. Try to create a world in which they too can be redeemed.

About the Author
Rabbi Morgen is an Associate Rabbi of Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston, TX. He has served on the Boards of the Houston Jewish Federation, and the local boards of the AJC, and the ADL. He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He graduated from UCLA School of Law and practiced law in Los Angeles. He was ordained by JTS in 1998.