The year was 2008. The young Jewish man was returning home from a Purim party, driving some friends home—sober—as their designated driver.
He never expected he would be pulled over. Never anticipated he would find himself surrounded by almost a dozen police officers with guns drawn, accusing him of conspiring to commit an act of terrorism, ignoring the yarmulke adorning his head. When he left his home that morning, he had no clue that his life would be in so much danger that night that he would start saying Shema under his breath on the side of a highway, possible seconds away from being blown to bits.
It sounds like any classic case of anti-Semitic harassment in law enforcement, especially given the heightened wave of hatred sweeping across Europe nowadays.
Except this wasn’t Europe. It was New Jersey.
And his crime wasn’t being Jewish. It was being black.
That man’s name is Jared Jackson. He’s a friend of mine. Baruch Hashem, he survived that night (and went on to found the non-profit organization Jews In ALL Hues.) But he never forgot that Purim night on the side of the highway.
What should be commanding all of our attention is the systemic discrimination of law enforcement against African-Americans and other minorities, which causes and condones the wholesale murder and more of unarmed civilians. Focus on the fact that between 1882 and 1903 there were 2,145 cases of lynchings, averaging out to about 100 per year, but in 2012 alone 313 black people died at the hands of police, security guards and vigilantes. That is three times more than the amounts of black people killed by lynchings in what is considered to be one of the most racially turbulent and violent times in American history. That very much is, or should be, a Jewish issue.
But maybe you’re one of those Jews who believes one has to first look out for their own. You might not care about racial profiling. It’s the only way to stop “those people,” you say. You might not care about stop-and-frisk. It’s for their own good, you say. If you’re not guilty, then you should have nothing to hide, you nod. You think racial profiling and stop-and-frisk doesn’t happen to Jews, so it’s not a Jewish problem to think about. It only happens to “those people.”
You are wrong.
Because here’s the thing: Some of your people are “those people.” Some of “those people” are your people. There are Jews, here, in these United States, this bastion of freedom for Jews escaping pogroms and Inquisitions and Holocausts, who cannot walk down the street without a fear for their lives from the very authorities who are supposed to protect them. There are Jews who will always be approached by police as a suspect, never as a citizen. Who will always be viewed as just another criminal savage who hasn’t been put away yet. A perp who doesn’t have a mugshot yet. And there aren’t enough streimels or black hats or tallitot in the world to protect them.
I know. It’s happened to me, too.
Being Jewish doesn’t make skin color invisible, nor does it stop police officers from asking you why you’re in a certain neighborhood on Erev Shabbat, regardless of how shabbasdik you obviously look were you a different color. Being Jewish doesn’t stop police officers from telling you that you had better be gone by the next time they circle around the block, regardless of whether or not you are waiting for your Shabbat host to come home from Maariv.
It is not the riots of Ferguson that should consume your interest. Stop rehashing the (false) narrative that Eric Garner shouldn’t have illegally been selling cigarettes. (He wasn’t, by the way. He was breaking up a fight). Ending policies like stop-and-frisk, Stand Your Ground, and racial profiling in general is not you fighting for communities that are not yours or people who don’t care about you. It is not an exercise in “ethics” or a self-masturbatory pontification on the superiority of the altruism of Jewish values.
You are fighting for Am Yisrael. You are fighting quite literally for the lives of Am Yisrael.
“If you’re innocent then you should have nothing to hide.”
It doesn’t matter if I have nothing to hide. It’s not okay for police to ask me to leave neighborhoods I have a right to be in. And it’s not okay for you to be okay with it.
MaNishtana is the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, an Orthodox African-American Jewish blogger, editor-at-large at JN Magazine, and author of Thoughts From A Unicorn and Fine, thanks. How are YOU, Jewish? Follow him on Twitter @MaNishtana.
Previous: Why the Eric Garner Ruling Is a Grave Injustice
Related: ‘Go Down, Moses’: Engaging With My Complex Musical Heritage at Passover
MaNishtana is the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, an Orthodox African-American Jewish writer, speaker, rabbi, and author of Thoughts From A Unicorn. His latest book is Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi.