It has been a week like few others I can recall. As the nation convulses in the aftermath of the heartless and heart-wrenching murder of George Floyd, conversations are being had on every conceivable platform regarding race, the riots, and what they mean for America and each of us personally.
Many of the conversations I have had are about the Jewish community and our place in the national conversation. And since we’re Jews, some of those conversations are arguments, as we struggle to define our relationship with the African-American community and how we apply Jewish values to all of this. (Of course, defining Jewish values is another argument altogether.)
The American Jewish community is famously liberal. The two most reliable voting blocks for the Democratic Party, by far, are African-Americans and Jews. Jews were disproportionately involved in the Civil Rights Movement and we are rightly proud of that.
But that was 50 years ago. And sometimes, and we all know this is true, Jews look at our own success in America and say, we came from less than nothing and made it, why can’t they?
It’s an understandable attitude given our experience of America, a secular Promised Land that welcomed us like no other nation in our long global exile. But it’s an attitude that often prevents us from understanding the experience of others.
The first thing we need to grapple with is that the current moment in America is not about us. It’s not about our experience. It is about the experience of African-Americans, whose 400-year struggle in America has been vastly different than ours.
Jews should be able to relate to the Black struggle with deep empathy, because the long, painful suffering of the African Diaspora has tremendous parallels with the Jewish Diaspora. Except for Jews the pain of exile was THERE and THEN. For Black Americans it is HERE and NOW.
My great-grandparents came to America from the ‘Pale of Settlement,’ the Jewish-restricted zone in the Russian Empire. When I think about the Black experience in America, I can’t help but think of my ancestors in the Pale.
- What was it like for them living generation after generation in a land that treated them as inferiors, as not fully human?
- How did they hold their families together when their homes were burned down in government-supported pogroms?
- How did they live, even in times of calm, when each day and every interaction with the majority community was filled with a thousand indignities?
- Even for those who were educated, wealthy, and accomplished, how does it affect your soul to know that no matter what you do, it will not be enough to protect you if something, anything, goes wrong?
- How do you cope when assault, murder or rape are everyday possibilities – knowing the law will not protect you?
- What of those millions who internalized the prejudices of their oppressors?
- How can you “make it” when, for centuries, you live in a society structured to keep you down?
These are the questions I ask myself when I try to understand what life in America may be like for African-Americans.
In both our histories, our ancestors were violently ripped from their homelands and shipped abroad as slaves. Even when our enslavement ended, both of our peoples suffered as second-class citizens at best. We could not own property, work in certain jobs, live in certain places. In most cases the government, the police, and the law were our enemies, not our protectors. Our very lives were subject to the whims of the majority, who considered us racially inferior and, often, less than human.
We were both forced to live in ghettoes, where Jews had to be locked in at sundown (the first ghetto was created in 1516 in Venice to shut in the Jews). Blacks in America had to navigate sundown towns. We were both exploited, murdered, raped, lynched, used as scapegoats, and ‘permitted’ any rights only when and if the societies around us saw fit. We each experienced periods of tolerance, hope and success, and times of severe prejudice, despair, and suffering.
Yet, we both persevered, creating new identities for ourselves, finding solace in our deep faith in G-d and inspiration from the stories of the Bible. We each adapted our historic languages and customs to our new lands, contributing to those alien cultures in ways that transformed both ourselves and the people around us. We each prayed for and dreamed of reaching the Promised Land.
But for Jews, we made it to the Promised Land. America took us in (except when it denied us escape from the Holocaust), promised us equality and opportunity and, for the most part, has delivered on that promise – certainly compared to our former Diaspora homes from Spain to Russia and from Morocco to Iran.
And then, after 2,000 years of forced exile, the Jewish homeland was home to the Jews once again. Jewish refugees flocked to Israel, from the post-Holocaust refugee camps of Europe and from across the oppressed Jewish communities of the Middle East. No more ghettoes, no more dhimmi-status, no more pogroms, no more Farhuds. Zionism liberated the Jews of the world.
But African-Americans are still fighting for their liberation. And their liberation must come in the very place of their oppression.
The difficult irony is that, for Black Americans, the land of their suffering must also be their Promised Land. Unlike Jews in Europe and the Muslim world, they have nowhere else to go.
America without African-Americans is unimaginable, and African-American identity would not exist without America. From 1619 until today, America was built on the backs of Black people and Black people built this nation. America owes them a debt that it – we – can never repay.
America is not perfect and never will be. But it is built on principles that have inspired most of humanity. On the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and on the promise of liberty and justice for all. To be true to our values as Americans and our history as Jews, it is our obligation to work alongside our Black brothers and sisters, our African-American fellow citizens, to ensure that after 400 years this nation fulfills its promises to them, as it has fulfilled them to us.
*From the Book of Exodus 23:9: “Do not oppress a stranger; you know the soul of a stranger, because you were strangers in Egypt.”
וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם