A young black Jewish couple who are members of my congregation take a Shabbat walk in their neighborhood and stand in front of someone’s home for a few minutes admiring the flowers in the garden. The owner comes out and anxiously asks, “Can I help you?” The couple responds, thinking they would become acquainted with a new neighbor, “We were just admiring your beautiful garden.” As the couple begins walking toward the man to continue the conversation, he nervously retreats back into his home. The couple shared with me that when the neighbor came out of his house, his hand was clutching something that looked like a gun. The husband confirmed that it was indeed a gun and he instinctively knew that he and his wife had to be as ‘non-threatening’ as possible and walk back towards their home. They shared with me that they feared they could have been shot and killed.
This gut-wrenching story brought tears to my eyes. I think about this black Jewish family and other black Jewish families in my congregation and community. Not only are they and their children targets of racism, they have the distinction of being Jewish and with the rise of anti-Semitism in this country, they face discrimination because of the color of their skin and their religious beliefs.
Since the murder of George Floyd, every organization has made statements condemning the police brutality which has become too commonplace in our country. Rabbis and clergy of various religious faiths have delivered sermons. Statements and sermons. But words are not going to repair the frayed tapestry of the fabric in our society. We thought that the Coronavirus was the pandemic. But clearly, the pandemic is institutional racism and xenophobia which has infected our communities and particularly, our law enforcement agencies. Since Jan. 1, 2015, 1,252 black people have been shot and killed by police, according to The Washington Post’s database tracking police shootings. That doesn’t even include those who died in police custody or were killed using other methods.
A family in my congregation shared with me an 18 minute YouTube video made by Trevor Noah, host of “The Daily Show.” I watched it and was disturbed by Noah’s heartfelt, but truthful words. In his video he talks about the domino effect that the news cycle has had on the deaths and altercations between police and unarmed African Americans. He said:
“I saw so many people online saying, ‘These riots are disgusting, this is not how a society should be run, you do not loot and you do not burn, this is not how our society is built,’” Noah said. “But what is society? When you boil it down, society is a contract we sign as human beings amongst each other. ‘Amongst this group of us, we agree in common rules, common ideals, and common practices that are going to define us as a group.’”
The social contract Noah refers to was propagated by John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and others during the Age of Enlightenment. The theory relates to the legitimacy of the moral authority of the state over the individual. It means that we elect government officials who use their authority to protect our rights, to insure that our society is one in which all citizens have equal justice before the law. And when those in power break that social contract, when there is a breakdown of that moral authority, it damages the bonds of social responsibility and undermines the rule of law. The police officer who murdered George Floyd and the officers who stood idly by watching, broke that social contract.
A social contract and moral authority are not exclusive to elected officials and police officers. Moral authority and social contracts are not exclusive to religious leaders. Moral authority is and should be expected of every citizen of our country. Those of us who are white and privileged, whether we are Jews, Christians, Muslims, adherents of other religious faiths, atheists or agnostics—–we are also responsible for the social contract we have with each other.
Until the day a black family can walk down the street, admire the architecture of a building or the landscape of someone’s front lawn and never ever have to fear for their lives, we will continue to deteriorate as a society. We can be better. We must be better. Our very existence as a nation depends upon it.