We need a reckoning – Jews, race and the death of George Floyd

People at a Black Lives Matter protest rally outside the US Embassy in Dublin following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, US. Gardai are investigating the protest in Dublin over alleged lockdown breaches. (Jewish News)
People at a Black Lives Matter protest rally outside the US Embassy in Dublin following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, US. Gardai are investigating the protest in Dublin over alleged lockdown breaches. (Jewish News)

With the death of George Floyd, everything has changed.

With the death of George Floyd, nothing has changed. 

I have followed and advocated for the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement since it was founded in 2013 in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin as he walked home from a local convenience store in Florida. Although the loss of black life to police brutality was nothing new at the time of BLM’s inception, the movement’s enormous global growth meant that the stories of subsequent victims travelled wider and faster than ever before, with their names punctuating our news cycles with a terrible regularity:

Michael Brown.

Eric Garner. 

Freddie Gray. 

Philando Castile. 

Sandra Bland. 

Tamir Rice. 

Breonna Taylor.

Ahmaud Arbery.

The pattern remained largely the same: in the aftermath of these deaths, my Twitter feed – a self-constructed echo chamber of commentators and colleagues whose ideological, political and social ideals align with my own – would be awash with graphics, videos, emotions and opinions decrying the events that had unfolded for several days. As the oft-ribbed, lone left-wing liberal of my immediate social circle, however, I am used to my Facebook or Instagram posts on racial injustice being largely ignored by those closest to me, save for a few likes that are often accompanied by some gently teasing comments about my liberal values.

And then, on May 25th, the news of George Floyd’s death broke – and simultaneously, everything and nothing changed. 

The aftermath of George’s death has brought with it an unprecedented level of engagement with BLM and the issues of race, justice and violence. In addition to days of protests across all 50 states and worldwide, more people than ever are asking to learn about racial inequality and contemporary race relations; social media is flooded with suggestions of what white people should read, watch and internalise to become true allies of the black community; there is a rare and strong emphasis on elevating black voices, and conversations around white privilege have rarely seen more honesty and nuance. For reasons that I am still contemplating, it seems in many ways that George Floyd’s death has tipped the scale – that something has finally snapped in the collective consciousness to destroy the myth of America as a post-racial society, resulting in the largest, most enduring and hugely diverse cry against racism in decades. 

And yet, the large majority of the Jewish community have stayed silent despite the wave of anger at the kind of discrimination and oppression that we as a people know all too well. Although some Rabbinic authorities, Jewish people of colour and several influencers have spoken out, my Facebook feed remains frustratingly mute on the subject of the justice that we are always taught to pursue. I’ve tried to be patient. I’ve waited several days, thinking that perhaps our community and its leaders were gathering their thoughts. But I’m tired of waiting for a breach of the silence that I now realise is not coming. So today, I feel compelled to write; not only to question why this silence exists, but to stand up and demand that our communities admit and confront the complexity of their relationship to blackness. 

I am not suggesting for a moment that those who have not spoken out are inherently racist. What I am saying – and what I know to be true from my own experience growing up and living within the Jewish community – is that discussions around race and racial inequality are conspicuously absent from our educational and social lives. Orthodox life is, in many ways, inevitably and essentially insular; but a consequence of that insularity is too often a disinterest, unawareness or unwillingness to look outside of our immediate bounds. The harsh truth is that within many Orthodox communities, black faces and black voices are few and far between; a fact that may partially account for what seems to be a lack of consciousness around contemporary racism. But make no mistake: this does not exempt us from our responsibilities to educate ourselves about it – a responsibility that has gone neglected for far too long.

We need a reckoning. 

It is easy to condemn discrimination perpetuated by, and directed against, other people. But the time has come to open our eyes and hold ourselves accountable for our own prejudices – to acknowledge that race-based discrimination hits much closer to home than many people realise. 

In July 2019, 19-year-old Solomon Teka – a black man whose name many of you will read here for the first time – was wrongfully shot and killed by an off-duty police officer; an incident that you might safely assume happened on US soil. But it didn’t. Solomon was an Ethiopian-Israeli teenager, killed in Haifa. Solomon’s death sparked days of sometimes violent and destructive demonstrations across Israel; an eruption of the long-simmering anger of the Ethiopian community who have faced systemic discrimination since they first arrived in the country in 1984. According to data collected by the Ethiopian National Project, the Ethiopian-Israeli community lags behind the general population in nearly every socioeconomic category, experiencing higher poverty rates, lower employment rates and lower average incomes. Solomon’s story is just one example of the discrimination faced by his community, but it has become emblematic of the challenges of visibility and viability that people of colour face in what are usually overwhelmingly white Jewish spaces. The complex dynamics of voice and presence as they relate to Jews of colour do not only assert themselves in our modern day movements, but extend to Jewish history and our processes of commemoration: whilst the majority of us will have been taught about the Nazi pogroms that brutalized Jews across Europe, few, for example, will have any knowledge of the Farhud – the 1941 pogrom in Baghdad, Iraq that violently forced 120,000 Iraqi Jews from their homes and decimated what had been a thriving hub of Jewish life. I could go on, but the bottom line is this: we, too, have a race problem. 

The line between anti-Semitism and racism is an easy one to draw, and to some extent we can generate productive comparisons between them. But in drawing these parallels, it is all too easy to forget our privilege; to forget the fact that the vast majority of Jews do not wear their religion on their skin in a way that marks them out as targets. However, our historical awareness of the pain and trauma associated with discrimination, coupled with a conscious awareness of this privilege can and must be our impetus to do better – a commitment to improvement that must begin with the acknowledgement of our failings up until this point; our admittance of the fact that the lack of racial diversity in our communities has created blind spots in our thinking that we cannot, and must not, ignore any further.

The solution to this problem is not one that can be implemented overnight. Confronting our own prejudices and fostering a genuine empathy for the pain of others takes hard work, uncomfortable introspection, an active seeking out of knowledge and the building of bridges you might not have anticipated. But it CAN be done. Bring issues around race up at your Shabbat tables and social events; explain and normalise racial diversity to your children; ask questions about race you might not understand; consider the impact of your language in reference to people of other races; include the history of all persecuted groups on educational curriculums; be open to listening to the experiences and pain of other people. Race is a fraught, sensitive and loaded subject – I understand that it can be daunting to approach it. The words of Maya Angelou, though, come to mind: “do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” 

We can do better. But breaking through the barriers of our own biases and addressing the gaps in our knowledge requires conscious commitments on all of our parts. When anti-Semitic attacks occur – as they have and will continue to do – we instinctively look towards others for solidarity, hoping that the moral compasses of those outside our community will acknowledge how we have been wronged. Why should the black community expect anything different from us? If we fail to identify with people of colour both inside and outside our communities, we are only really failing ourselves.

 

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About the Author
Ayala Maurer-Prager holds a PhD from University College London (UCL) in Human Rights, Political Violence and Literature, and specialises in comparative genocide studies and the dynamics of race and gender in conflict and humanitarian contexts. She has worked in communications and advocacy, and is looking forward to developing her career in public policy when she returns from maternity leave in September. She lives in North West London with her husband and two sons, and can be found on Twitter and Instagram @Dr_Yalz.
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