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Judaism’s Racial Blind Spot

If members of non-Orthodox Judaism want to fight systemic racial injustices, they should begin by looking in their own backyard

August 21, 2015

“Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter From a Birmingham Jail

Dr. King’s words sprang into my mind this week as I was reading Rabbi Jason Miller’s thoughts on the new film Straight Outta Compton and how it rekindled his love for gangsta rap and strengthened his commitment to the #blacklivesmatter movement. (Miller is a blogger and Jewish social media presence who often writes about the intersection of technology and Judaism.)

After all, while N.W.A.’s music “might have been made for the black community,” one mustn’t forget, as Rabbi Miller recounts, that “millions of Caucasian young people like myself enjoyed the music… The rap industry should recognize that there’s a large fan base of middle and upper-class Caucasians in their thirties and forties who came of age listening to the hard-hitting songs of N.W.A.”

Yes. Yes, that is what needs to be recognized about the effect of the film. Not the systemic institutionalized racism or police brutality, which has only escalated since those early N.W.A. days. Not the expression of the frustration of large swaths of African/Caribbean-Americans in this country, a large percentage who make up the #blacklivesmatter movement.

Nope. According to Miller, the rap industry should recognize the good feels suburban white kids got, along with some superficial familiarity of the experience of Black America, while listening to these “hard-hitting” songs, but not the actual “hard hitting” these artists and their communities received, which inspired the songs to be created in the first place.

Rabbi Miller’s article goes even further, declaring that the N.W.A. film is about the need to understand Black America:

As I sat glued to the screen I couldn’t help but think about how the American Jewish community and the black community should be doing more to work together. As two minorities we’re often at odds…but there’s much potential for partnership…looking deeper into [Black] culture could prove rewarding for easing much of the race tension that exists today in the 21st century.

Indeed, Miller posits: “If we are truly to rally behind the mantra that “Black Lives Matter,” we need to gain an inside perspective of what is really going on in our inner cities.”

Quite honestly, I’m disheartened that a member of Rabbis Without Borders, an organization committed to sharing Jewish wisdom that is “grounded by a sense of service to all,” can rally behind #blacklivesmatter, yet have no perspective on those Jews right in his own backyard for whom #blacklivesmatter acutely affects. Instead, he paints them as part of some arcane institution that needs to be “looked into.”

I’m disheartened, but not shocked.

Sadly, for all of its strides in the various arenas of social justice, liberal, “progressive,” generally non-Orthodox Judaism has a crippling blind spot concerning its self-perception and how it deals with race within Judaism; it’s a blind spot just as woefully large as the one present in Orthodox Judaism, a religious community the liberal, “progressive,” generally non-Orthodox Judaism is convinced is the bastion of all racial insensitivity.

In fact, the reaction of liberal Judaism to almost any claim of discrimination against Jews of Color is to say that “their” community (i.e., a non-Orthodox one) is “more welcoming,” painting traditional communities as backwards not only on issues of religion in a modern world, such as gender equality, social justice, and gay rights, but also in race relations. Yet there is a blatant refusal to acknowledge—and almost pathologically so—on the part of liberal Judaism to look inward at its own systemic racial prejudices, despite efforts to fight racial injustice and violations of human rights “over there.”

Earlier this month Tablet published an article about the types of discrimination Jews of Color face at Jewish summer camps, and the parallels here, with Miller’s perspective, are apparent. In the Facebook comments under the post, one reader commented, “This sounds like a problem at Orthodox camps. Our Reform camp is very diverse and these are barely issues.”

Oh really?

First, the author grew up Reform, so the racial issues she’s describing of her camp experience are from her within Reform summer camp.

Second, what does “barely happen” mean, given the fact that the article states that when racial incidents happen—full stop—they need to be educated against—full stop—and addressed. The ultimate point is that racial incidents should not happen, and not the fact that a camp may have a marginally better track record than those other guys in the funny hats and clothes.

Third—and ignoring for the moment that the reader had no idea what micro-aggressions the Jews of Color at a Reform camp are or are not experiencing on a daily basis—is the reader really under the impression that the mere presence of diversity counteracts any possibility of racial incidents? If so, then I’ve got a post-racial country to sell you. Oh wait…

Much like Rabbi Miller and his epiphanies surrounding Straight Outta Compton, there seems to be the perception that being engaged in issues of race outside of the Jewish community precludes a duty to look inwardly to examine issues of race within. The narrative of an accepting liberal Judaism vs. a bigoted traditional Judaism is propagated to such an extent that it creates knee-jerk defenses that defy logic. Case in point, 100% of summer camp romantic rejections on racial grounds happen in non-Orthodox camps, because Orthodox camps are not co-ed. This is a scenario that literally cannot happen anywhere else but in non-Orthodox spaces. Yet the reaction to such a tale, more often than not, is along the lines of, “Well, that’s not a problem in our camp, because we’re not Orthodox.”

Take for example, the disbelief of identity experienced by the Black and Jewish intern of Ilana Kaufman, the Public Affairs and Civic Engagement Director for Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco, which did not happen in an Orthodox space. That young high school sophomore—a member of her school’s Jewish Student Union—cried in Kaufman’s office in reaction to a classmate’s incredulity to her being Jewish, bitterly retorting: “My name is Tova, I wear a Jewish star around my neck, I go to synagogue, my mother is even Jewish. What more can I possibly do to be seen and be counted and to matter to these people.” And she is not talking about a classmate from an Orthodox yeshiva, or an internship at an Orthodox organization.

If self-defined liberal, “progressive,” generally non-Orthodox Judaism truly wants to be progressive, the first step it should take is to systematically address the reality that the issue of race in Judaism on the Orthodox/non-Orthodox axis is no different than how racism in America manifests in the North as opposed to in the South. If Rabbi Miller and others really want to take a message away from Straight Outta Compton—if there’s something in the film they think will motivate them in tackling #blacklivesmatter—then they should realize that for many Jews of Color, regardless of denomination, American Judaism is Compton.

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.