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For Jews, Racial Justice Requires Repentance

I will never forget the first time someone called me a racist.

In the fourth grade, I got into a pushing match in the cafeteria with Umar, an African-American classmate, the cause of which I can no longer remember. The two of us were sent to the principal’s office, and when asked why he hit me, Umar said that I was a racist and called him a racial epithet. Shocked, I took offense at his accusation, and ultimately the principal sent us both on our way, pink slips in hand to be signed by each of our parents.

Although I did not realize it at the time, this incident was my first encounter with what Robin DiAngelo calls white fragility, “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.” DiAngelo outlines a variety of triggers that can evoke white fragility, such as “suggesting that a white person’s viewpoint comes from a racialized frame of reference” or “receiving feedback that one’s behavior had a racist impact.” In each case, upon the suggestion that a white person may possess an implicit form of racial bias, that white person engages “argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation,” allowing his or her offense at the suggestion of racial bias to end the conversation, and thus “reinstate the racial equilibrium.” Today, it hardly matters whether or not I called Umar a derogatory name, for he felt that I somehow debased him because of his race, and looking back I have no doubt that he was right.

As we approach Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I find myself asking what is the spiritual obligation of Jews on this day, and what this day ought to become in the civil religion of American Jews. Like many rabbis, I grew up worshipping the iconic images of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching together in Selma, Alabama, reciting in numerous sermons Rabbi Heschel’s famous quote that his “feet were praying” as he marched with Dr. King. Few historical moments made me more proud to be a Jew and a rabbi. However, a closer reading of American Jewish history reveals a far more complicated legacy of Jews and the Civil Rights Movement. In 1965, Alfred O. Hero Jr. wrote that while southern Jews were “distinctly less inclined than white Southern gentiles to express segregationist, and particularly racist, ideology,” it was also true that “Views on race relations expressed by Southern Jewish interviewees were considerably more segregationist, white supremacist, and generally conservative than those offered by non-Southern Jews.”

Moreover, Marc Dollinger describes in an outstanding essay about how much of the Jewish activism in the Civil Rights era came from northern rabbis, threatening to disrupt the coexistence between southern Jews and the broader community, leading Rabbi Richard Winograd of the University of Chicago Hillel to lament he and his fellow activists “were the Hamans and Torquemadas” to Southern Jews, placing the lives of these Jews at-risk while they came down from the north, protested, and then returned to the safety of their home communities.

Of course, American Jews are not the only ethnic or religious community to tell a selective history about their role in the Civil Rights Movement. Yet telling only one piece of the story has tremendous consequences on how Jews think about their role in issues of racial justice today. Many, if not most, Jews would bristle at any suggestion that we perpetuate a cycle of racial oppression in the United States. However, there is an essential difference between absolving ourselves of any responsibility for racism and acknowledging that all of us possess implicit bias that perpetuates racism, and a wise person ought to know the difference. I am fortunate to know many Jews who marched for Civil Rights, played leadership roles in their local NAACP chapters, and voted for politicians who passed major pieces of Civil Rights legislation. However, while I live on the uber-progressive Upper West Side of NYC, I am embarrassed that my primary interactions with people of color are in a service capacity, such as the security guard in my building’s lobby, or the bus driver who takes my daughter to school. I grew up attending a public school from kindergarten through grade 12, and cannot name a single person of color with whom I formed a significant friendship. And as a Jewish professional, I am well-aware that a non-trivial number of major Jewish philanthropies had their endowments built on the backs of blockbusting and redlining in neighborhoods heavily populated by African-Americans.

Given this reality, all of us have two choices: we can join in with the cacophony of those who wish to deny the existence of white privilege and systemic racism, in spite of all the evidence, or we can show up, flaws and all, and listen to the voices of people of color about where we fell short, and how we can walk in support of them. In December, my organization hosted a conversation in the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church between Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, and Reverend Natosha Reid Rice, Associate Pastor of the church. In that sacred space, Reverend Rice urged attendees to be “at the forefront” of fighting racial justice without “taking the movement over.” I have no doubt she is right, yet my fellow Jews and I cannot step up for equality unless we are willing to admit that all Jews are, in some way, responsible for the racial reality our society constructs.

At a time of huge racial tensions in the United States, Jews need to look at MLK Day as a secular Yom Kippur, an opportunity for Jews to engage in what our tradition calls heshbon ha-nefesh (reckoning of the soul), a moment when we take a moral inventory of ourselves in the racial tapestry of the United States. This moral inventory does not take place by simply sharing the latest Ta-Nehisi Coates article on social media (although we should absolutely read it); instead, it begins by assuming that all of us play a role in the racial climate we created, and all of us, in some way, are among the sinners.

On this MLK Day, by all means do service projects, participate in interracial dialogues, and remember those moments when Jews were at our best in the fight for racial equality. But, to the extent that you can, take seriously the words of our High Holiday liturgy when we say before God, “Forgive us, our creator, for we have sinned; pardon us, our king, for we have transgressed.” For unless we accept our guilt, we cannot play a small role in being a part of the solution.

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