Teshuvah is for everyone

Photo by Aliza Becker

As the Hebrew month of Elul begins and Jews prepare to atone for their sins by repairing their relationships and refining their hearts to start with a clean slate for the coming new year, we might also pause to notice the power of teshuvah (return) to address all matters of humans harming humans. After all, you don’t have to be Jewish to practice the essence of teshuvah

Black public figures DeSean Jackson and Nick Cannon have used a teshuvah-like process to atone for recent incidents of antisemitism that has paved the path for a broader communal healing and renewal. They acknowledged the damage their mistakes have inflicted, requested forgiveness and made amends, educated themselves about antisemitism, and made a firm commitment to support the very people their actions have harmed and act as allies. Jackson and Cannon have demonstrated the essence of teshuvah in the Jewish tradition–its insistence that humans have the capacity to learn and change.

This is the first article in a three-part series addressing recent incidents of conflict among Black gentiles and Jews, including Jews who are themselves Black. You can find the second and third articles here and here. I come to this topic as an oral historian currently immersed in Meanings of October 27th, an oral history project that documents Pittsburghers’ life histories and reflections on the October 27th, 2018 synagogue shooting, a seminal event in Jewish American history, and one that highlights antisemitism. 

After he was called out for using his platform as a member of the National Football League (NFL) to post a quote falsely attributed to Adolf Hitler claiming that modern-day Jews were imposters, DeSean Jackson wrote an apologetic social media post acknowledging the hurt his actions had caused: 

Hitler has caused terrible pain to Jewish people like the pain African-Americans have suffered. We should be together fighting antisemitism and racism. This was a mistake to post this and I truly apologize for posting it and sorry for any hurt I have caused. 

Jackson also moved to educate himself in order to avoid future mistakes.  According to news reports, he held virtual meetings with Creative Community for Peace, an organization dedicated to combating antisemitism, as well as with 94-year-old Holocaust survivor Ed Mosberg. Jackson accepted Mosberg’s invitation to visit the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz. He also had extensive conversations with Howie Roseman, the executive vice president/ general manager and Jeffrey Lurie, the owner of Jackson’s team, the Philadelphia Eagles, who are both Jewish. Jewish NFL player Julian Edelman reported that he has spoken with Jackson at length and the two are “making plans to use our experiences to educate one another and grow together.” Lastly, Jackson promised to match the fine he received from his team and donate a significant amount towards Jewish community efforts. 

Similarly, media personality Nick Cannon, who defended the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic teachings and amplified anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, apologized repeatedly and took subsequent steps right out of the teshuvah model.

Cannon claimed responsibility for his actions:

I have spoken with many rabbis, clergy, professors and coworkers who offer their sincere help. I must apologize to my Jewish brothers and sisters for putting them in such a painful position, which was never my intention, but I know this whole situation has hurt many people and together we will make it right. I have dedicated my daily efforts to continuing conversations to bring the Jewish community and the African American community closer together, embracing our differences and sharing our commonalities… 

Later, Cannon wrote reviews on Instagram about books by Simon Wiesenthal on forgiveness and Bari Weiss on fighting antisemitism. “The words that stood out to me were antisemitism is fueled by the malicious but often feeds on the ignorance of the well-intentioned.. [I’m] asking myself, is she talking about me?,” he said about Weiss’ book. He came to realize that he was not “fully educated in the space of the trigger words and coded conversation” regarding antisemitic conspiracy theories. 

Cannon participated in conversations on antisemitism with rabbinic leaders from the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the American Jewish Committee.  He has learned through this teshuvah experience about Sephardic Jewish heritage in his own family. 

As we Jews do our own teshuvah, we can take inspiration from the courage it took for Jackson and Cannon to do so publicly and the powerful healing it provided for the many Jews who felt harmed by their actions.  

In recent years, many Jews have opted to walk away from groups who display signs of antisemitism. Perhaps if we Jews consider using a teshuvah-like strategy to engage when these issues arise, we might expand the base of allies who are committed to combating antisemitism. Rabbi Noam Marans, director of the Interreligious and Intergroup Relations at the American Jewish Committee, believes that “the positive impact of Cannon teaching his ‘followers’ in this way is incalculable.”

Encouraging the process of teshuvah to amend for mistakes that people will continue to make out of ignorance or confusion helps develop stronger and smarter allies. 

Teshuvah can be done by gentiles to make amends to Jews for antisemitism. It can also be done by white Jews to atone for mistakes that cause harm to Black people. During a time when our political leadership encourages divisions, we Jews can offer a treasure from our tradition that has the potential to bring us together.

About the Author
Aliza Becker is the director of two oral history projects: The Meanings of October 27th, reflections from Pittsburghers on the 2018 synagogues shooting and the American Jewish Peace Archive 1967-2018, stories from American Jews involved in leadership of American Jewish peace and anti-occupation organizations. She is an Associate Fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College.
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