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Booker: Blacks and Jews must work together to fight prejudice

African-Americans and Jewish Americans must unite to challenge violence and prejudice as they did in past generations, Sen. Cory Booker said in a Zoom interview Monday with Forward editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren.

Booker is pushing to pass his police reform bill, which has been blocked in the Senate, but said that the most significant change in policing would only occur with cultural change by ending people’s indifference to racism.

“I just want America to know itself, to know the wretchedness of the assault on Black bodies,” he said.

Booker said that he was not surprised by the wave of activism that emerged after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, but was concerned that the movement would peter out.

“I get delighted when I see some teenage white girl speaking about racial issues in a way that my ancestors and [author James] Baldwin would be proud of,” he said. “This gives me delight and gives me sustenance, but I can’t get comfortable. I can’t believe that somehow we’ve got momentum that sustains.”

Booker singled out two groups that have experience fighting long battles against injustice: Jews and African-Americans. The communities “have been forced to figure this out for at least eons,” he said.

Rudoren asked him to comment on recent episodes involving prominent African-American figures, such as TV host Nick Cannon and Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson, sharing anti-Semitic statements on social media. Booker said he wasn’t familiar with those incidents, but added, “It’s not up to Jewish people to defend anti-Semitism. It should be Black folks, Christian folks, Muslim folks – in the same way that I don’t want to have to be the one to call out racism all the time.”

Although polls show former Vice President Joe Biden with a comfortable lead over President Trump, Booker told viewers that he was worried about complacency, as well as the effects of voter suppression and the coronavirus pandemic on electoral turnout. “I don’t know if Blacks and Jews have a corner on this, but we worry,” he quipped.

Booker declined to be drawn on who he supported to be named as Biden’s vice president, noting that he serves in the Senate with several people reported to be on the former veep’s shortlist. But he made clear that he was not interested in serving in Biden’s cabinet: “Leave me where I am,” he said.

Booker, who served as the president of a Jewish society at Oxford University when he was there as a Rhodes Scholar, frequently peppered his Forward interview with Hebrew and Yiddish phrases. Rudoren ended the interview by asking Booker to share a text that he had recently read and found meaningful.

Booker selected a verse in Genesis that is inscribed outside the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, the site of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination: “Behold, here cometh the dreamer, let us slay him and see what becomes of his dream.” The line is a quote from Joseph’s brothers, who were jealous of him and threw him in a pit to die.

Booker said that the verse came to mind after Floyd’s killing.

“I think about that all the time in the wake of tragic deaths of people that believed in this country, who dreamed of better days, who were willing as King was to die for that,” he said. “It’s up to us, the survivors, to decide whether we will perish in the pit as a nation, or rise as Joseph did to lead the nation through a crisis. That question – what will become of the dream – is something our generation will have to answer.”

Aiden Pink is the deputy news editor of the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aidenpink

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