When I was first approached to do this piece, I turned it down. All too often, Jewish articles about race and racial justice are one-sided, and I tend to be disappointed that the conversation ends once my piece makes copy. But I decided to work on it because discussions about the topics of race, racism, and racial justice are important, especially in the Jewish community. It is often overlooked that racial justice is not an “us vs. them” issue. Given that diversity within our communities often goes unnoticed, racial justice work should begin with an internal focus (establishing an “us”), rather than an external one (seeking a “them”).
I’ll give three examples of how Torah teaches us that the Jewish people have always been racially and ethnically diverse. First, in Lekh Lekha, God tells Abram to go from his land to the land that He will show, which suggests that not only is Abram not “Jewish,” he is not from a Jewish “land.” Second, by the time the Jewish people enter the Holy Land, they’ve grown to millions of people. The actual land mass we traverse is on the continent of Africa. Third, when Miriam speaks ill of Moses’s Cushite wife (because of her skin color) she is stricken with leprosy. In addition to these Torah examples, “a multitude” has joined the Jewish people through human migration across the globe, marriage and adoption, and yes, conversion as far back as Torah times, bringing their languages, cultures, traditions, race, and ethnicity. They have helped shape the diversity of the Jewish people of the past and the present.
Still, many of us only see ourselves as “white” people. Only when we look inward and address our own biases can we do good work outside of our community. It takes time, commitment, and potential discomfort. If we dedicate ourselves to seeing and appreciating the racial diversity of the Jewish people, and if we can work to identify and challenge racism and prejudice within our own communities, then we will see more impact from our efforts to promote racial justice in the broader community.
Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett
First step: Take on one piece of racial injustice as our cause. Second: draw on the past civil rights fights by American Jews to teach and inspire us. There’s no shortage of racial injustices to pick from. I nominate this one: the massively disproportionate number of African Americans who end up in our prison system.
Think it’s too big to take on? Our history says otherwise. Jews were a crucial force for civil rights in the 20th century. American Jewish religious leaders, citizen volunteers, lawyers, and funds turned up the light on lynching, on segregated buses and schools, on voter registration. Laws changed. Behavior changed. We can do it again. We can gird ourselves for battle by reading and listening. The landslide of news, research, commentary — and yes, junk — that comes down on us is overwhelming, but it can also galvanize us to sift smarter and listen closer to the fears, hatred, and apathy that feed race-hate and fill our prisons.
Start with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2012). Counter the inevitable discouragement by going back and reading the demanding, courageous words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Back our political candidates into corners and vote fiercely; propose practical steps in the educational, law enforcement, and legal systems that feed this injustice. Demand that our religious leaders call for change. And, always, keep up the relentless attack on tiny shoots of race hate before they grow — stamping on stereotypes and slurs, every day, wherever they push up through the dirt.
The fight for racial justice will never be comfortable, and it will never be finished. It’s not static. But as the late poet Seamus Heaney wrote, “The longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up.” If we make this piece of racial injustice our cause, we will change it. We’ve done it before.