What we need to learn, what we need to unlearn

Some things go without saying but need to be said anyway — of course, George Floyd’s murder was horrific; of course, peaceful protests are an appropriate response to injustice; of course, looting is not okay; of course, there are some racist police officers in the police force, and they need to be rooted out.

But we need to do more than the “of courses.”

  1. Of course, we all believe that there is no place for racism in this country, but… it is not enough anymore to just say that. We are in a time when we need to work on being anti-racist.
  2. We need to stop saying the reason to stand up against racism is because we have experienced ant-Semitism, or we want people to stand up for us when we are being oppressed. Of course, we want that. But we need to stand up against racism because it is the right thing to do. It is morally corrupt to treat people differently based on the color of their skin (or for any other external reason).
  3. We need to take tangible actions. We need to do something to make the divide in our country and city better. We need to help clean up looted stores, join a peaceful protest, email elected officials, deliver food and drink to police officers, firefighters, and also to peaceful protesters. Perhaps most importantly, we need to start reaching out to our Black neighbors, and we must listen. We must try and understand their experience. We need to build and rebuild those bonds.

But we want to push ourselves a step further. We MUST discuss some of the underlying assumptions that remain prevalent within our community — assumptions that are often unspoken or subconscious and that are holding us back from real progress.

  1. Our community, understandably, has a very complicated relationship with the Black Lives Matter movement. Of course, “black lives matter as much as any human being,” and who could feel otherwise? But the BLM movement has embraced several anti-Semitic leaders, and that makes it complicated for us. While this is not the place for a discussion about the differences between being anti-Israel, anti-Zionism, and anti-Semitism, it is crucial that we talk through this issue. How do we separate these underlying issues with the BLM movement from the broader moral and ethical issues at stake in the urgent fight against racial injustice? This challenge holds many in our community back from full-blown support of this vital push for racial justice, and if our goal is to broaden support within our community, then we need to bring this issue to the surface.
  2. Educating within our community about the urgent need to counteract systemic racism is not only about what we need to learn, but also what we need to unlearn. Maybe the most notable example comes from our communal pride — undeniably justifiable pride — around our own collective story of overcoming the horrors of anti-Semitism, genocide, and the Holocaust. We have been persecuted and oppressed for centuries and have come out on the other side. For many, this collective experience of the Jewish people serves as the very motivation to join other minorities in their fight for equality and against persecution. However, it can also lead those within our community to wonder why the Black community has not achieved similar success. Indeed, these lurking questions often mutate into outright blame: “If we can do it, why can’t the Black community?” Teaching in response to this narrative — one of our most urgent communal responsibilities — can only occur if we speak openly and directly about this oft-embraced equation. No doubt, doing so touches matters of great pride and pain for the Jewish people. But these feelings are out there. And if we want to effect change, we need to allow people to both learn and unlearn. And that means giving them permission to speak these sorts of questions without immediately being dismissed as “racists.”
  3. Many in our community, understandably, feel very positively towards the police department. We, by and large, have a great relationship with them; they protect us, and we, therefore, feel incredible gratitude towards the police force. Of course, we acknowledge that there are some bad police officers (how can you not with the video evidence?!), but our community’s experience is overwhelmingly positive. For that reason, many in our community get incredibly upset when people state that the entire enterprise of law enforcement in this country is racist. The number of emails I got in response to the communal rabbi email we sent out that took umbrage with the notion of “systemic racism” in our police force evinces an underlying assumption that we need to unpack. What does “systemic racism” mean? Can we tweak the existing system and root out the bad apples or is a system that allows this many bad apples broken enough that it needs to be overhauled entirely and built from scratch? This conversation will only happen across our entire community if we create a forum where all members of our community can express their views.

We will reiterate and bold it so that there is no misunderstanding about what we are saying. We are raising these underlying beliefs, not as our own, but because we believe – and we always have – that we need to create a community where people feel safe enough to express their true opinions and thoughts (or as we have written about their “hava aminas”) so we can unpack them, discuss them, and ultimately effect change. Unfortunately, people are scared to discuss these issues because they will be shamed and shunned—because they fear being called racist for trying to engage the very issues we as a community if we are to improve. Without creating this space, we fear that we will all remain in our own echo-chambers without any real change to the DNA of our country.

About the Author
Rabbi Ari Segal is Head of School at Shalhevet High School, in California.
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