I received a flyer about a solidarity vigil that was sponsored by the UJA and the JCRC that featured clergy from the Jewish and the African-American community. I asked two people in my shul who know the lay of the land in our community whether it would be appropriate to send out the flyer. One person thought that I definitely should send it out, and another person thought it was too divisive for our community. The event was not being sponsored by Black Lives Matter, an organization which has advocated for BDS in the past and has been associated with antisemitism. Nevertheless, this person’s feeling was that it was divisive for our shul to promote this event.
I didn’t feel it was worthwhile to cause a controversy over this, so instead of sending a flyer from the shul promoting this event, I posted on Facebook that I support this vigil. Someone wrote me what, probably, a number of people were thinking, which was that he questioned participation in this event unless the leaders of the African-American community during this rally would also condemn the recent anti-Semitic attacks in Los Angeles, and the anti-Semitic positions taken by Black Lives Matter, Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan. I was told that other opposition to participation in this vigil stems from the fact that it conveys that I support the liberal view that wants to de-fund the police and/or support looters and rioters as part of this protest. Additionally, I was told that support for an event like this perpetuates the myth that the African-American community does not bear any responsibility for their status as second-class citizens in this country.
While I was having this conversation, I was watching another discussion unfold, when a community leader wanted to reach out and share appreciation with the local police, many of whom are good cops who do their best in very dangerous situations and are being maligned by the public for something that they themselves didn’t do. Someone thought that we should not write letters of thanksgiving to our police officers because this action would imply that the cops as a whole have done nothing wrong but are being disrespected. Furthermore, this letter will be used by the police union to dig in their heels and to argue that no police reform is needed. They argue that the George Floyd murder is not a singular incident, but it is a symbol of the systemic racism that permeates our country and the police, and we cannot do anything which will minimize this issue.
Both of these conversations troubled me. They raise the question of whether it’s appropriate to express feelings empathy or gratitude when doing so may convey an incorrect impression and may do more harm than good. To me, the answer is simple. First of all, there is a practical advantage to reaching out to both the African-American community and the police, especially if you may be critical of their positions or behaviors. If we want to bring about change in someone else, the best way to accomplish this is if we have a relationship with that person. Criticizing someone with whom you have no relationship has little chance of success. In Masechet Arachin 16b, Rabbi Tarfon said that he would be surprised if anyone in his generation could receive rebuke and Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaria said that he would be suprised if anyone in his generation knows how to rebuke correctly. If you believe that there needs to be police reform or if you believe that the African-American community needs to take more responsibility to either improve their standing or to condemn anti-Semitism, the best way to effectuate change is to try to build a relationship with them, support them in their times of crisis, and express gratitude to them for all that they have done for us.
Additionally, I think that there is a more basic reason why we must engage in these acts of chesed, even if we risk creating an incorrect impression. To avoid acts of chesed, being empathic and expressing gratitude, because we are worried that people won’t be nuanced in their interpretation and will simply generalize in either case, would be terrible. It would be terrible in general to curtail the values of chesed generally, and it would be even more terrible in today’s society when empathy and gratitude are needed more than ever. In a world of either-or thinking, we must be bold enough to empathize with one group even if we may be critical of some of their policies or behaviors. In today’s polarized world, we must each stretch ourselves to give each other a little room to breathe. We must resist snap judgments, embrace nuanced thinking, and find the good even in opinions with which we do not agree.
So, yes, let’s try to find opportunities to build relationships with the African-American community, with the police, even now, and especially now – not only because it is practically beneficial, but because it reflects a core value of “olam chesed yibaneh” – the world is built on chesed.