Confronting Racism: The Role of Jewish Education

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What Happened

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed black man, was killed by a white police officer, who pinned Floyd to the ground and kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, as three other police officers looked on. Footage caught on a smartphone of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis spread across social media and has prompted mass protests across the United States, with some turning violent (including looting and burning buildings, and tear gas used by police in response). Derek Chauvin, the police officer who killed Floyd, has been charged with second-degree murder, and the three other officers have been charged with aiding and abetting his murder. 

Why Does It Matter

The Jewish Perspective on Racism – Does Judaism condone racism?

No. Although the Torah has sections that describes servitude and slavery, and its implications have been discussed over the centuries, from a Jewish perspective, it suffices to say that racism violates numerous sacred principles. In Genesis 1:26-27, the Torah asserts that human beings are created in the image of God. The Torah also stresses the imperative to treat the stranger in a just manner; this is mentioned 36 times through the Five Books of Moses. Compare this to the single time that we are instructed to love our “fellow” or “neighbor” in Leviticus 19:18. The Torah also suggests that cultivating empathy is key to fulfilling this obligation of the just treatment of the stranger. “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger: You were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). From the perspective of the Talmud, racism also violates the principle of human dignity (kavod habriyot). Berakhot 19b states, “Great is human dignity, as it overrides a prohibition in the Torah.” The Talmud goes on to explain that kavod habriyot (literally, “the honor of all creations”) is so important that this principle supersedes rabbinic laws, and even some Biblical obligations can be set aside for its sake. 

Finally, modern rabbinic leads like Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel frequently spoke out against racism. In his essay “Civil Rights and the Dignity of Man,” Soloveichik wrote, “From the standpoint of the Torah, there can be no distinction between one human being and another on the basis of race or color… This key concept of kavod habriyot, the dignity of all human beings, constitutes the basis of human rights.” Heschel, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in support of the civil rights movement, famously said: “Racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.”

The Jewish Community and Black Lives Matter

We all agree that Judaism opposes racism, but how should the Jewish community interact with Black Lives Matter when the Black Lives Matter platform includes language describing Israel as committing genocide?

Good question. Let’s dive in. As mentioned, one dilemma facing many members of the Jewish community is whether to support the Black Lives Matter movement due to the fact that in the Black Lives Matter platform, published in 2016, it supports the boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, refers to it as an apartheid state, and states that Israel is “complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.” When the platform was released, Jewish groups from across the political spectrum condemned the nefarious claim of Israeli genocide against the Palestinians whilere affirming their support for black equality. In the last few weeks, multiple members of the Jewish community have publicly addressed the issue, arguing that the two issues should be separated, and that the Jewish community should support the black community regardless of the wording in the organization’s platform.

Maayan Belding-Zidon argued that “white supremacy is a much bigger threat to American Jews than BDS is to the state of Israel, but even if it weren’t — even if it were not in our self-interest as Jews to stand in solidarity with Black America against hate and bigotry,” the Jewish community should join the protests anyway.

On the other side of the argument however, Melanie Phillips, referring to the rioters and looters, argues that “too many Jews are supporting the twisted, amoral thinking of those who are on the way to destroying it. Their stance is as lemming-like as it is a betrayal of Judaism and the values that lie at the West’s ethical core.”

Jason Ablin, a noted Jewish educator, expressed anger towards this question, saying on his Facebook wall (we asked for his permission): “I am hearing way too much of ‘Yeah Black Lives Matter, but what about us?’ This narcissistic framing, based on seeing the world through the lens of our own community’s fears and suffering, is the equivalent of showing up to a house of mourning and spending the entire time talking about yourself.”

Yair Rosenberg, senior writer at Tablet, put it even more starkly. In an email to me, he said, “I am unimpressed with people trying to use this particular issue to discredit the protests. What that actually does is send a message to rank-and-file black folks–who again have nothing against Israel and know nothing of this platform written by random activists–that Jews do not care about them and their suffering, and demand allegiance to our causes before we will grant them our attention.”

Halak and Floyd – Same Narrative or Different Story?

Our take: This is a different story, but we understand how the stories of Floyd and Halak can be conflated. In a tragic incident in the Old City of Jerusalem this past week, Israeli border police killed Iyad Halak, a 32-year-old Palestinian man with autism after Israeli police said that they spotted a suspect “with a suspicious object that looked like a pistol. When he failed to obey orders to stop, officers opened fire,” according to a police statement. Palestinian activitists and their supporters were quick to try and draw connections between the Israeli authorities’ treatment of Palestinians and American police brutality towards the Black community in Americans. Both the incident in Jerusalem and the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis have drawn international attention. The cartoon below was published in Al-Hayat al-Jadida, the official daily newspaper of the Palestinian Authority.

One of the policemen involved in Halak’s killing was placed under house arrest, and the incident is under investigation. The police have seemingly been working to block the release of the security footage of the incident, and Iyad’s family have said they don’t believe that Israel will do “anything” to the policemen involved because the victim was Palestinian. A week after the incident, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “What happened was a tragedy. This is a man with disabilities, with autism, unjustly suspected, and we expect it to be fully checked. We all join in the family’s grief.” 

Diversity of Perspectives

We can learn a lot from the statements put out by American Jewish organizations. 

The Jewish world has joined together in expressing outrage over George Floyd’s death. At the same time, the various statements that Jewish groups have issued reveal a diversity of responses to this incident and the national protests that followed. Here are five statements we have collated for you.

The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) emphasized their commitment to fight against racism while also condemning violent protests. “We pledge to our brothers and sisters in the black community – and all communities of color – to work together to reverse the systemic racism embedded within our country’s institutions and society in general,” the statement read. “In the strongest terms, we also condemn those who are taking advantage of the anguish over George Floyd’s death by hijacking what would be peaceful rallies across the country for their own violent and destructive agenda.” 

Meanwhile, the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) implored the Jewish community “to assume responsibility to create a more equitable and just society.” Citing Leviticus 19:16, “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed,” JTS asserted that “Jewish tradition forbids us to remain silent in the face of racial injustice.” The Seminary pledged to be part of the solution by promoting dialogue: “We commit to participating, hosting, and facilitating the difficult conversations that will be the necessary first steps in beginning to repair the brokenness of our society.”

Like JTS, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU) underscored the need for the Jewish community to act, but highlighted a different Jewish principle to make that point. “As religious Jews, we believe the most important starting point for the national discourse that must take place is the recognition that all people are created in the image of G-d and that each human life is of infinite value,” said the OU, adding: “Indifference is not an option.” Like JFNA, the OU differentiated between peaceful and violent demonstrations: “The right of citizens outraged by these events to engage in peaceful public protest is to be protected as a fundamental right. But that should not lead to violence and vandalism.” Finally, the OU noted that because of the American Jewish community’s recent experiences with anti-Semitism, “we are acutely sensitive to the essential imperitive to foster tolerance and respect in this highly diverse society in which we live.”

A statement issued by Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, on behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), stressed the Torah’s “unbending demand for justice,” as well as the United States’ value of “justice for all.” Rabbi Pesner on behalf of the URJ bemoaned Floyd’s death as part of a disturbing chain of similar incidents: “Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Trayvon Martin. Sandra Bland. Oscar Grant. Philando Castile. Walter Scott. Terrence Crutcher. Samuel Dubose. Michael Brown. The list feels endless, and so too is our despair.” Calling on the country to “address ongoing racism in all sectors and at all levels of society,” the URJ highlighted its own partnership with the NAACP: “We remain in solidarity and action with the NAACP’s urgent #WeAreDoneDying campaign, whose policy demands cover areas of criminal justice, economic justice, health care, and voting.”

Finally, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, stood out from the examples above for being explicit in its support for Black Lives Matter: “We say once again: Black Lives Matter. And we commit to creating a country that lives by this statement.” T’ruah also expressed concern over how police are handling the protests: “We condemn the use of tear gas and other violent means against those protesting his death. This response by police… offers just one more example of the over-policing of communities of color.” In concluding its statement, T’ruah noted recent anti-Semitic vandalism at a Minneapolis synagogue, and asserted that “our struggles against bias of all kinds must be linked, and that none of us will be free until all of us are free.”

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