I hear myself saying, “I am not a racist.” I hear myself saying, ”God created Adam to impress upon mankind that we all originated from the same ancestor.” I hear myself saying words in support of racial tolerance, yet, deep down I wonder if this is what I truly believe. Am I subconsciously fine-tuning what I think I should be saying while in the deeper recesses of my heart racist beliefs may lie?
Since humans have evolved with a unique ability to suppress or ignore their innermost sentiments, I may never know the truth. We express solidarity with the downtrodden and oppressed, but often fail to truly internalize these convictions. We may have moments of epiphany and understanding, but do they truly change our thinking? What assurance is there that by tomorrow my newfound understanding won’t revert back to my thinking of yesterday?
I will start by sharing what should be obvious to all. We should be ashamed to accept a culture of violence selectively targeting any group, including the African American community. It behooves all Americans to be aghast by evidence of brutality and murder against any human being. I certainly think all Americans deserve to be treated with dignity, respect, and a presumption of innocence. I’m fully supportive of our law enforcement when they enforce the law, but we can have zero tolerance when they choose to impose laws selectively and with immoral biases. Equality can’t just be a mantra of the protestors; it must become a norm in our society.
Yet, is this what I truly believe? I may have expressed my sentiments in a politically sensitive manner, but in reality I’m merely parroting what thousands of other Americans have already stated. Deep down I fear the ramifications of being honest; I worry if I write what I truly believe, some may take offense at my honesty. Nevertheless, I think it’s important never to be intimidated into silence or fear stating one’s beliefs. What is happening isn’t about George Floyd. It is about a systemic denigration and discrimination of African Americans over the last four hundred years. Racism and Anti-Semitism are similar to a dangerous virus. Unless it is completely eradicated it can spread and become a pandemic. Sadly, it does not appear that there is a vaccine on the horizon.
I try to be honest with myself while trying to fathom the broader community’s sensitivity in these turbulent times. In the recent census I was hesitant to answer the question about race. Why should our government care if I am Caucasian, Latino, Native American or African American? We shouldn’t be dividing our country by race or skin tone. Yet, it might be easier for me to ignore the issue of race, as I’m neither Latino nor African American. I was raised in abject poverty and admit that it is hard for me to understand the white privilege I have enjoyed. I also realize that I will never be able to walk in the shoes of those with darker skin than my own and experience what it is like to have the color of my skin be the first thing someone notices about me. Although my ancestors were enslaved in Egypt and gassed in Auschwitz, as a white American I’m not subjected to racial intolerance on a daily basis. However, Anti-Semitism is palpable and impacts the way I think and view the world, but I can’t expect a Latino or African American to comprehend the evils perpetrated against my people.
Jews, African Americans, and other minorities face an abundance of unique trials and tribulations. However, it is disingenuous and confusing to mesh each group’s misfortune into one. I’m concerned that by Holocaust Museums becoming so politically sensitive and referring to themselves as ‘museums of tolerance’ they are minimizing the atrocities of the Holocaust. And yet, if this change in title brings in a larger and broader public, how can this be a bad thing? I want the world to know what happened in Auschwitz, but I wonder if those who never lost a family member there can truly perceive the extent of the tragedy. Perhaps with effort and deep study they can. And perhaps with effort and deep study I can truly begin to understand the experience of others.
Suffering and oppression is inexcusable, but words of solidarity may fall short or be misconstrued as patronizing. Everyone wants to be perceived as caring, but often it’s a facade. And yet, leadership is incredibly important in a time of such mass unrest and distress. So perhaps even if a leader is only stating healing words for political gain, it is better than not saying anything at all and is definitely better than saying something divisive. We look to our leaders to heal and speak to our collective pain and grief and confusion.
I believe the African American community is grieving. They are not just grieving the loss of George Floyd and Ahaud Arbery but rather the loss of millions of sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and grandparents who have been murdered before them. They are grieving hundreds of years of systemic discrimination and abuse. And we know that when emotions are high and grief is deep our wise-minds often take a back seat. This grief is a result of trans generational trauma with which we Jews are quite familiar. Only when this time of ‘Shiva’ is over and there has been ample time to heal will we be able to assess how we can assure that equality is more than a right.
I really do believe that the same God created us all. And for some reason unbeknownst to me, He decided that people from different parts of the globe have unique features and skin tones. Do I understand what motivated God? No! But suffice to say, this is one issue I am happy to leave unanswered.
Rabbi Jack Engel