During the last year I was involved in two study groups focusing on racism and white privilege. A recent incident brought home to me the problem of Jewish privilege. An individual on the Education Committee of a synagogue objected to the presentation of a workshop on “Responsibility in the Jewish Tradition.” The intention of the workshop was to touch, only briefly, on complicity, structural racism, bias and white privilege. The objection was that the person did not want to present anything controversial, because the synagogue might lose members.
I find this objection to be extremely problematic. Membership, although vital to the survival of the synagogue, was given priority over education about an important and admittedly controversial social justice issue. I maintain that this attitude reflects a subtle form of white privilege which manifests as a desire to maintain ignorance of racial issues because these issues make people uncomfortable. This is clearly a violation of Jewish tradition which mandates that we are all responsible for each other. This mitzvah actually extends beyond the bounds of the Jewish community. We are mandated to speak out against injustice wherever it is to be found and bear responsibility when we don’t. (This was one of the central points of the proposed presentation.)
When we ignore social justice issues, or subordinate these issues to other concerns, we invite ignorance, and cheapen the importance of our tradition. Not dealing with social and racial issues, as divisive as they may be, is dismissive of People of Color (POC), and is a betrayal of our own tradition and history as a minority people.
I have little doubt that a program focused on anti-Semitism and what we can do to combat that scourge would be welcome. The truth is that we cannot fight anti-Semitism without fighting racism. White supremacists are equal opportunity haters of Jews, POC, LGBTQ and other minorities. To fight this battle we must understand the enemy both outside of us and within us. White supremacy and the related doctrine of manifest destiny are part of the legacy of the USA. The doctrine of manifest destiny has roots in the Christian belief that Israel and its “successors” are chosen. That doctrine nurtured slavery, the genocide of indigenous peoples, and policies that continually privilege white moneyed interests. Ideas and policies such as these must be repudiated and fought through all possible peaceful means.
As Jews we live in two civilizations. We are both an oppressed minority and (those of us who are white) beneficiaries of being white. Jews of color face unique issues as well. We need to acknowledge both of these identities, and not hide behind a self-righteous attitude that claims we are both a targeted minority and, as a community long involved in the Civil Rights movement, the true allies of POC. While those claims are true, we also benefit, often unknowingly, from participation in racist systems and practices that pervade our culture.
While truth and peace are sometimes at odds (Ketubot 16b) when injustice is involved there is an obligation for tochecha – rebuke and calling out truth. To sanction ignorance for the sake of comfort and peace in this case is unconscionable because we are responsible for each other. (Talmud, Shevuot 39a). Let us confront the critical issues of our time with courage, education, humility, soul searching and action. We cannot solve these problems without taking a hard look within ourselves and our own communities.
Let us begin by taking up the challenge of creating a Kehilah kodoshah, a holy community, concerned about both justice and creating a space where all views can be heard and respected. We need to listen to each other with openness and humility in order to discern the often complex facts underlying issues, and find solutions to pressing problems. While political ideologies increasingly separate us, we must come together around common values, and seek practical solutions to problems of injustice.