Editor's Note: We are reposting this column in response to renewed reader interest in it after the shooting by police of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, in Ferguson, MO.
Just like now, it was Purim. 2008. A young Jewish man was coming home from a Purim party in New Jersey. As designated driver, he hadn’t been drinking.
And then he was pulled over by a police officer and asked to take off his glasses and recite the alphabet from C to T. He was told to “walk the line;” was accused of conspiring to commit an act of terrorism and was surrounded by 10 uniformed officers with guns drawn. He was wearing a kippah. He felt so threatened by his situation, he started saying the She’ma under his breath.
I may be the first person to write about this particular incident. Actually, I know I am. Why? Because I am that man. And that incident wasn’t the first of its kind; they’ve been happening to me since I was 15.
Every week there is a moment, or more, when I become an object of suspicion by the police or “concerned” citizens. This is especially acute when I drive, shop or generally go outside with my wife, who “looks” somewhat Caucasian. So I always have a moment of cognitive dissonance when I read blogs and articles by my fellow Jews who make racism and anti-racism work seem like more of a mental exercise, which it is for them, than a reality, which it is for me.
Many Jews who identify as white have trouble believing me. They quickly assert that such occurrences are rare or even nonexistent, especially when I say that they happen in the Jewish community. Either I must be oversensitive, they imply, or these are anomalies that only I have experienced.
I was glad to read a recent, well-written blog post (Kol HaKavod, by the way!) from Jews For Racial and Economic Justice’s director that addressed incidents like these. Titled “When Jewish Silence Betrays Our Heritage,” the writer connected these abuses to Jewish history.
It was a call to action against Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which gives people the right to use deadly force to defend themselves if he or she “reasonably” thinks it’s necessary to prevent their own death or great bodily harm. The piece urges the reader to rise up against the injustices put upon others in the name of our Jewish identity. It’s a familiar theme in Jewish writing on social justice.
And it’s good as far as it goes. But that isn’t far enough. It isn’t deep enough. And it betrays a total ignorance of the racism that actually impacts actual Jews who have African American and/or Latino heritage.
Many good social justice commentaries like this one leave out the very real, personal and current connection that members of the Jewish community have with these issues. These things happen to us – not them. But the absence of this awareness feeds an “Us and Them” trope that many in the Jewish community unknowingly perpetuate. It creates a division between these people and the causes they champion. If you are looking to make a clear connection between those who are on the receiving end of racial injustice in America and the Jewish community’s experience, you don’t have to look that far in time or space.
I’m here to say that they are us! There are Jews in the United States who can’t walk down the street without being profiled as just another criminal who hasn’t been locked up. There are Jews out there who fear for their lives when confronted with what some accept as everyday situations. We are real people, and not just a heady notion for you to wrestle with. Yes, we must end Stand Your Ground. By doing so, you are not only advocating for other communities, you’re fighting for the lives of Am Yisrael, including my own.
It is time that we wake up to the fact that we are not removed from racism and murderous violence. It is time that we realize that the same bigotry and prejudice that we fight outside of our community, and that is such a big part of our history, still resides within it.
Even those who work towards the righteous goals of tzedakah (justice), emet (truth) and amiyoot (peoplehood) aren’t exempt from working on their own personal prejudices, because we all have the capacity to perpetuate the fear and ignorance we see in others. We must commit ourselves to the betterment of our own communities. And that means committing to a long-term process that digs deep and forges structural change.
Jared Jackson is the Founder and Executive Director of Jews in ALL Hues, a member of the ROI Community, and on the list of “Ten Jews [Who] Will Change The World” according to Ma’ariv News.