A day after the protests started I called my old friend Y. We grew up together in Milwaukee and in second grade we both got sent to the principal’s office because I defended his right to punch a kid who called him a racial slur. Often the only African American in a sea of white, he is long used to the challenges of being Black in America. He was more worried about MAGA militias being activated and resigned to, even cautiously jaded by, the slow march of progress.
I texted a young pastor friend to check in. “Difficult days, Rabbi. Holding on by a wing and a prayer. How are you doing?” We are holding our friendship close, faith leaders doing our best in this evil wind to hold our feet to the ground and keep our heads held high for better days.
Another exchange, with my friend W, a schoolteacher in Newark. We share a fondness for the work of Eric Foner and believe studying history can save us. “Andy!!! How do you think?! Frustrated, trying to teach social justice to my students, basically doing what I do each day. Happy the charges were upgraded and all charged. I haven’t marched, getting total hip replacement in 12 days. If I was fit, I’d be out there. Thanks for checking in my friend!”
Another Brooklyn pastor kept it simple. “Overwhelmed. Let’s check in later.”
That last message says it all. It captures the way we all feel. Overwhelmed, exhausted, confused, angry, frightened but perhaps above all determined not to accept the status quo as such but to seize the double plague of coronavirus and trenchant American racism as an opportunity, despite limitations, to not only imagine but to create a better future.
Rachel’s and my three daughters, like many of your children, are in this fight with both feet. God willing they will be the generation — reared under eight years of President Barack Obama, the nation’s first and, as of yet, only African American commander in chief — that truly shifts the tide of change. They’re marching, making signs, phone-banking City Hall as well as the Senate and Assembly. They get all their information from texts and Instagram. In a matter of minutes, hundreds and then thousands can be mobilized. In our Brooklyn epicenter, the marchers are overwhelmingly young; remarkably diverse; and in many scenes that I have observed, white kids stand in front of Black kids to protect them as a kind of human shield.
The standoffs are tense, without question. And they can be inexcusably violent. I have witnessed the use of batons and pepper spray by members of the NYPD when words and patience would have deescalated the situation. And those recorded moments will be appropriately investigated by a trusted public servant, New York Attorney General Tish James.
It captures how many of us feel about both the protests and the violence, which is to hold a collection of extremely difficult and painful realities in our hearts and minds at once.
- The anger, pain and deep frustration of systemic racism, often coupled with police abuse and violence, has reached a boiling point from which it will be hard to turn back. Millions watched George Floyd die. It is as indelible in my own mind now as the torture of journalist Daniel Pearl. Daniel Pearl died proclaiming he was a Jew. George Floyd said, “I Can’t Breathe!” which has become a dystopic declaration of Black identity in the custody of a law enforcement officer out to do no good.
- Technology, for all its flaws, is saving us and traumatizing us all at once. We bear witness to Ahmaud Arbery’s lynching and watch in stunned silence, quickly turning to rage at one person’s capacity to inflict harm and death on another. This particular mirror into our souls causes all people of conscience and goodwill to shudder in horror and this particular mirror allows us to bring to justice those very perpetrators of the crimes that are tearing our nation apart.
- If it is fundamentally true that the overwhelming number of protesters are not looters then it is also true that the overwhelming number of police officers are not racist or violent. When I march in Brooklyn I hold up my signs of protest and thank cops on the route who are offering protection for us all. Like the protesters, many of these cops are also young and have dedicated their lives to public safety. I have seen cops hug protesters; take a knee with protesters; and pose for pictures with some of the very people demanding more accountability, oversight, and justice in the application of the law.
Are these easy answers? Of course not. But such is the complexity of a nation founded on principles of “liberty and justice for all” when, at the time of its founding, Native lands were being violently stolen from indigenous nations and the Middle Passage brought millions of Africans, against their will, to work as enslaved persons, as three-fifths human, and to wait from 1619 to 1865 until — as the result of more than 600,000 dead Americans in the Civil War — they could be declared free.
But by 1875, Reconstruction was rolled back and Jim Crow dominated. The Equal Justice Initiative estimates there were nearly 5000 Black men and women lynched in the early twentieth century, a bright white vigilante justice that echoes across generations when our screens show us Ahmaud Arbery being shot dead and Eric Garner or George Floyd pleading, “I Can’t Breathe.” A death penalty with no judge and no jury and no trial is called a lynching. Plain and simple.
Early rabbinic law found not only lynching but any death penalty to be morally repugnant. In the Talmud it is stated that “Any Sanhedrin that executes once in every seven years is called ‘murderous.’ Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah says ‘once in every seventy years.’ Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say, ‘Had we been members of a Sanhedrin, no person ever would have been put to death. Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel remarked, ‘They would also multiply murderers in Israel.’” (Mishnah Makot, 2:1)
But even when lynching abated in the United States, other forms of violence against the Black body continued unabated. The indignity of Jim Crow separate seating and separate facilities, which only began to unravel in 1954; being denied the right to vote, finally encoded in federal law in 1964 and 1965 but what was the price? The blood of Medgar Evers; the blood of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner; the blood of Malcolm X; and ultimately the blood of Martin Luther King Jr.
In the exact same way; in precisely the same way, this is how Jews feel when we see Jews killed for the simple crime of being Jewish. Our hearts tear in agony; we are in disbelief that anti-Semitism still exists; we raise our voices to all those who will listen; and we work like hell to ensure that we will have done everything in our power to make sure it never happens again. With Poway and Pittsburgh; with Buenos Aires and Paris; with Brooklyn, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem we know still what it is to die for being a Jew and what it is to fight, yet again, to be a Jew living in peace and freedom.
And so of course we are allies of our African American brothers and sisters in this profoundly painful moment in our country’s history. Their house of God is our house of God; the trace of the Divine Image in them is a reflection of the selfsame Divine Image in us. This moment, our moment, requires radical empathy, the patience to listen, the willingness to stand together against hate, and the will to ensure that the laws of our shared land are observed with both justice and compassion. It cannot and will not be any other way.
There are a few practical things we can do.
One, we can work on legal reform by embracing the calls to repeal section 50A of New York State law which currently prevents transparency in policing. Both the NAACP and New York State Senators and Assemblymembers are advocating for this and asking for support.
Two, we can challenge all assumptions. “This course is designed to rid you of your slogans.” That’s what Professor George L. Mosse taught his students at the University of Wisconsin. George was a refugee from Nazi Germany who knew what it meant to flee for one’s life and knew what it meant to triumph over injustice. Why are people angry? Why is there violence? Are all cops bad? This is a moment for all of us to push ourselves by listening and learning and opening our hearts and minds and souls to the pain and suffering of our neighbors. So talk to a cop. Talk to a protester. Listen! The one good thing about this damn pandemic is that none of us have anywhere to go. We have the time. Let’s use it.
Three, join us to do that learning. Rabbi Deena is starting a monthly anti-racism book group. Email her to join and learn by reading, discussing, and debating. And this coming week I will be launching a series of Zoom interviews with scholars and activists around questions of racism, anti-Semitism and white supremacy in America today. First up will be a talk on Wednesday at 1 pm with Professor Tony Michels and photographer Gillian Laub, who both traveled to New Orleans last year to interview David Duke. Register here to attend the discussion. Now is a good time to remember the exceedingly wise words of Rabbi Tarfon: “The day is short; there’s a lot of work to do; many are lazy; the reward is great; and the Master of the House is pressing.”
Not the master who lorded over and enslaved us in Egypt; nor the master who enslaved and abused on plantations throughout the American South; but the Master of the Universe, the Holy, Blessed God, who made each and every human in the Divine Image. Neither Black nor White but Divine.
The very God who said to Moses at the end of this week’s Torah portion, Naso, “Tell your brother Aaron and his sons that this is the way you should bless the people: ‘May God bless you and keep you; may God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you; may the Divine Countenance be lifted up toward you and grant you peace.’” (Numbers 6:22-26)
When we keep and bless one another; when we shine our best selves with grace toward one another; and when we are lifted up and lift up one another, we can discover and know peace.
That moment is now.