Jews have a history of oppression. In almost every age, in almost every country, we have been dehumanized, had our rights limited, were relegated to ghettos or kicked out of countries altogether, and in the worst of times and places, were even subject to large scale violence. Thankfully, the United States has long been a friend to the Jewish community. Although antisemitism is definitely no stranger here, the institutional discrimination we have faced in this country has been fairly limited. In 1790, George Washington issued a letter to the American Jewish community of the time, located in Newport, RI. He said he appreciated their support and made a point of acknowledging the similarities of the Children of Abraham and that we are all equal citizens of the United States:
“It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
The great irony of this, of course, is that while this kind of support for a Jewish community was unprecedented and monumental, this statement completely erases the existence of the class of people in the United States that were still not awarded any human rights or recognition. This country, though still often problematic in its treatments and expectations of Jewish Americans, has afforded us never before enjoyed privileges, while denying those privileges to others. As Jews, we understand oppression. We experienced it. We recognize it. We know all the ways in which it is wrong and hurtful. But as American Jews, we don’t have to face oppression to the extent our parents or grandparents or great grandparents did in the countries they came from, or to the extent people of color have had to endure right next to us. And that gives us a unique perspective through which to look at racism in the United States.
I want to pause here to acknowledge the habit of Euro-centricism which the American Jewish community, myself included, is often guilty. I have heard more than once “Jews are white now,” and anthropologist Karen Brodkin even wrote a book entitled, “How the Jews Became White Folks and What that Says about Race in America,” which is the say that the racialization of Judaism is less prevalent in modern America than it has been historically or may still be globally. This does not mean that all Jews are actually white. White-skinned Jews have now, for the most part, been afforded the privileges other white people have in our society, privileges previously denied us. Jewish people of color are still by and large denied those privileges. We are all still Jewish. We are all a part of the same community, and if for nothing else, Jews have a responsibility to fight racism for the sake of our own brethren (who are equally our brethren whether they were born into a non-white Jewish community, were born to interfaith/interracial families, or became Jews by choice) who still experience institutionalized, often violent, oppression.
That said, there are bigger reasons to fight racism than how it might affect our fellow Jews. Our scriptures tell us to be welcoming to strangers, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. It tells us to treat others kindly and with respect, as our father Abraham did for the messengers that visited his camp. It tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves and to not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors. Tradition tells us that the whole of the Torah can be summed up as “That which is hateful to you, do not to others.” Jews have understood oppression, understood it to be hateful, and have an explicit responsibility to not allow it to be done to others. We have a responsibility and a tradition for Tikkun Olam, repairing the world.
Furthermore, Jewish culture, especially in the United States, has a strong history of leftism and social justice advocacy. Modern Yiddish poetry in the early 19th century was primarily written by immigrants who had been associated with anti-czarist movements in the Old Country, and focused on Labor Movement issues, such as protecting sweatshop workers and ethnic minorities. They wrote poems in which they identified with Black Americans and the violent racism they faced. The song, “Strange Fruit,” a hauntingly beautiful tune about southern lynching made famous by Billie Holiday was actually written by a Jewish man named Abel Meeropol in 1937. In 1965, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously marched on Selma alongside Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and said of that experience that he was praying with his feet. Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath less famously also marched with them, and can be seen in the front row of the march, carrying a Torah, in one of the famous pictures of the era. Today, there are many Jewish efforts to continue this legacy and fight the racism that persists today. One such effort is the organization Jews for Racial and Economic Justice in NYC. They have put together many resources for Jews invested in understanding racial inequality and how we can better fight oppression.
You are here tonight because you have an interest in Jewish leadership on campus. In the weekly Torah portion for this week – the one on the regular cycle, not the holiday readings we read on Rosh Hashanah or will read on Yom Kippur – Moses transfers his leadership of the Israelites to Joshua. Tonight, and for those of you joining us, the retreat tomorrow, your staff at Hillel would like to transfer some leadership to you. Civil rights and large scale activism might not be the right place for you to exhibit your Jewish leadership, but in being willing to grapple with these topics and to engage with them Jewishly you are showing that you are ready to take on more Judaism and more responsibility in your own community. On your tables, there are several handouts. First look at the Discussion Questions and begin the conversation with your friends and neighbors on how you can use Jewish values to understand oppression in 21st century America. Use the other materials at the table as needed to continue the conversation.