In the violence that accompanied some of the current protests against racial violence, synagogues were not spared. Images of defaced and damaged synagogues immediately recall for Jews grave times of anti-Semitic violence, although it’s clear that these protests were not triggered by hatred for Jews. Still, this whole terrible time in America certainly brings up troubling racial issues for American Jews: how have we benefited from our white skin; what part do we have in the oppression of black people? As someone who no longer lives in America, I am fairly removed from these questions now. But until my aliyah in 1997, they were difficult to face.
Though there were some black students at Columbia in the early 1980’s, including transfer student Barack Obama (like me, he also graduated Columbia College in 1983), I went through four years of Morningside Heights without really speaking to a black person. It wasn’t until graduate school at Emory University in Atlanta in the mid and late ‘80’s that I made friends with two African Americans: a fellow student named Barbara McCaskill (now Professor of English at the University of Georgia), and an Assistant Professor (now Professor Emeritus) of Religion at Emory named Theophus “Thee” Smith. I’m sure that Barbara and Thee were aware of the fact that my conversations with them were a kind of inter-racial dialogue for me and an exploration of where my Jewishness fits into white oppression—but thankfully they didn’t make a big deal of this.
Why exactly was I so bothered about being perceived as a white oppressor? Didn’t I know that I was not one? I guess I was uneasy at the facile comparison that many Jews make between the Jewish and black experiences in America, a comparison that portrays Jews as industrious and blacks as weak. Inevitably, attached to such a comparison is a complaint about the unfairness inherent in Jews not being allowed to claim minority status, though they constitute much more of a minority in American society than do blacks and Hispanics. But what if there were serious institutional, societal, and cultural barriers to black success? What if Jews only could have achieved what they did in America because they were white?
In the summer of 1997, to my great relief, I put this whole issue behind me when we immigrated to Israel. My advice, if I may, for my fellow Jews living in America at this precarious moment would be to try to engage black Americans in real conversation and perhaps real friendship. Here is how this starts: Ask to have coffee with a black person with whom you are acquainted. What’s that, you say? How awkward? How artificial? To try to sit down and talk with a person just because they are black. Yes! You’ve got to start somewhere. For the record, I contacted my two Emory black friends and asked them about my “dialogues” with them. Here is what they had to say:
Thee Smith: “In your reflection you highlight the virtues of dialogue and connection for Black-Jewish relations today. Rabbi Marc Gopin’s work is key in this regard. Gopin insists that we add to dialogue the power of deeds and symbols. Many examples are offered in his book, Between Eden and Armageddon (2002). They include attending each other’s life-changing events such as weddings, funerals, new-birth rituals and rites-of-passage ceremonies. I commend to us these new ‘modes of reconciliation,’ and I pray that in the decades ahead you and I may belong to flourishing communities of engagement and reconciliation across all sorts of issues and conflicts.”
Barbara McCaskill: “As I try to bridge ethnic and religious differences within my own friendships, if there’s a lesson I’ve applied it is this: Some of us may get to choose to be white, but all of us can choose to be ‘An American. ’ Without discounting the fact that other people can and do perceive us in ways that we may/may not embrace, each of us also has some agency in deciding what American-ness means to us. The way out of racial and ethnic tensions is not to pretend that such differences and backgrounds do not matter, but to follow a path where we do not impose greater or lesser value on these markers, and where they do not obscure our clear vision of common ground.”
Teddy Weinberger is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.