Navigate to News section

Why White American Jews Should Rethink Race

‘All Jews are born equal, but some Jews are more equal than others’

Tyler Samuels
May 12, 2015
 A man is detained after being pepper sprayed in the face by police on May 2, 2015, Baltimore, Maryland. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
A man is detained after being pepper sprayed in the face by police on May 2, 2015, Baltimore, Maryland. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

I hold great respect for Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose teachings have inspired me. Rabbi Heschel marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma in 1965, and was himself outspoken in his criticisms of racism and those injustices felt by African Americans. Looking at this now, I wonder to myself why the Jewish people have all but forgotten this alliance.

In fact, Jews and Blacks share similar histories of slavery and oppression. (Closest to my heart is Marcus Garvey, one of Jamaica’s national heroes, who used Zionism to promote his ideals of African Americans returning to Africa.) Thus, my anger has never been stronger since the horrible news of Freddie Gray’s death—a man who was stopped by police for carrying an illegal switchblade. While in police custody, Gray suffered a crushed trachea, a broken spine, and fell into a coma. He died seven days later—the latest African-American casualty at the hands of law enforcement, joining Eric Harris, Philip White, and Justus Howell, who were all unjustly killed in the span of two weeks, from March 31 and April 12.

The United States has become a country where being black is a death sentence. This has even enabled nations with a track record of severe human rights violations to condemn our swelling racial problem. In April, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged Iranian police officers to use their “power along with justice and mercy” in light of how the U.S. government oppresses its black population.

So why is it that the Iranian government can condemn police brutality against African Americans, yet white American Jews by and large refrain from speaking out against these abuses of power, opting instead to either make excuses or even (sickeningly) try to justify these brutal police actions?

Since the Freddie Gray protests erupted in Baltimore, I’ve had various conversations about the issue of police brutality and systemic racism with fellow Jews, both in person and on Facebook. Sadly, these conversations reinforced the conception that white American Jews are out of touch with reality when it comes to understanding race in their country.

The problem is that white American Jews need to see colour. On one hand, adages like, “A Jew is a Jew” or “I don’t care if you’re black, white, blue, purple as long as you’re Jewish,” are quickly employed in this conversation; on the and on the other the classic talking points of systemic and institutionalized oppression are regurgitated.

The anger displayed by Jewish African Americans who are frustrated over the events in Baltimore is met with a refusal from white Jews to even acknowledge the injustices that blacks alone face.

In one Jewish Facebook group, a man claimed that Freddie Gray’s spine was broken by the police van, evoking the “he injured himself” trope cited in the “suicide” death of Malcolm X’s father in 1931, which was invoked again in a similar case of “Houdini suicide” in the 2012 death of Victor White III in Louisiana. In another thread, a claim was made that blacks in America need to be more like the Ethiopian Jews in Israel and complain less, propagating the American myth that all black Americans need to do is “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and thus, all of their problems will disappear.

When you take into account an article like Hila Hershkoviz’s “Ashkenazi Jews Are Not White,” can all Jews really have a meaningful dialogue to discuss the causes and effects of the riots in Baltimore, particularly when white Jews cannot even accept the idea of white privilege? It seems the notion of white privilege is completely foreign to white Jews and the Jewish community at large.

In a recent conversation, I was asked: “How can white privilege be the problem? Baltimore has a black mayor, black police chief, and three officers involved in the case are black!” My answer was simple: “You have no idea what white privilege is.” White privilege is not about the individual; rather, white privilege is about the institutions which hold systemic racial biases against blacks. For example, contrary to conservative beliefs, electing a black president didn’t magically remove racism from the United States.

American Jews, while pointing in horror at the “thugs” of the Baltimore riots, stood in solidarity with the similar protests of Ethiopian Israelis against the overall brutality of Israeli police, since, after all, Jews shouldn’t treat other Jews in the manner the video revealed. Lost in both of those reactions was an acknowledgment of the reality that the system does indeed oppress us black people—wherever we are. In neither scenario is this a simple case of “police brutality” but an inherent inequality in the treatment of minorities by law enforcement.

We need #BlackLivesMatter and not the vindictive counter-response of #AllLivesMatter. American Jews need to realize that the experiences of a black man are entirely different from those of a white man. They need to understand that black people—everywhere—are not calling everything racist and that there are very real problems to address.

I dryly made a point in one of my several conversations with American Jews since Freddie Gray’s death that “All Jews are born equal, but some Jews are more equal than others.” Nothing like an Orwellism to hammer home the point that black Jews will always live with the fear of Freddie Gray’s encounter on April 12 happening to them, or their children. White Jews on the other hand will not.

Rabbi Heschel once wrote that when he marched in Selma he was praying with his feet. I can assume he would not have cared whether 49 years later he’d be included in a movie honoring this historic moment. Rather, he’d more likely chastise American Jewry for their complete lack of attention towards the struggles of African Americans and African American Jews.

This is made evident in a telegram the esteemed rabbi sent to President Kennedy after the former promised the nation a civil rights bill in 1963. It is a message that American Jews should well consider when talking about Baltimore and race:

“We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate negroes… The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”

Tyler Samuels is a liberal traditionalist Sephardic Jew, political science and history student at the University of Toronto, and religious director of the University of Toronto Scarborough Jew Student Life. A small-time writer and poet, Tyler runs Bipolar Reb, a blog about Judaism, politics, and mental illness.