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Exodus and Incarceration: A Jewish View of Racial Justice
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The View From Campus

Exodus and Incarceration: A Jewish View of Racial Justice

A seminar at Princeton grapples with massive disparities in the American criminal justice system.

(Matthias Müller/Flickr Commons)
(Matthias Müller/Flickr Commons)

Last semester, I participated in my second Jewish Learning Fellowship (JLF) through the Princeton Center for Jewish Life (CJL). The fellowship was called “Let Our People Go: Mass Incarceration, Liberation, and the Passover Story,” and it was taught by Rabbi Julie Roth, executive director of the CJL, along with Professor Udi Ofer, deputy national political director at the ACLU and lecturer in the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.

The fellowship was my first real introduction, as a college sophomore, to the enormous scale and rampant racism of mass incarceration in the United States. It exposed me to the massive disparities in the American criminal justice system, right before the nation also grappled with these same themes during a summer filled with much-needed discourse about systemic racism.

As we learned about mass incarceration, we juxtaposed these topics with the Passover story’s themes of suffering and freedom. In the Passover story, the Jews were slaves in Egypt, where they were subject to violence and discrimination. The Pharaoh enslaved the Jews because he was scared of them and their power. Meanwhile, the rest of Egypt went along his plan, serving as taskmasters and perpetuating oppression.

Just as the Egyptians feared the Jews, and relegated them to a separate category of personhood less deserving of basic human rights, Americans today still treat Black Americans differently than people of other races. In May, a white woman called the police on a Black birdwatcher to accuse him of threatening her, when all he did was ask her to follow park rules. There are countless other examples of Black people being singled out just for existing in public spaces. Black children even receive harsher punishments in school than white children.

Naomi Hess (Courtesy)

Some of the most obvious differences in how Black and white people in America are treated can be seen the disproportionate number of people of color in jails and prisons. According to the ACLU, although the United States has only 5% of the world’s population, it has close to 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. An average of one of every 17 white boys will be imprisoned in his lifetime, compared to one out of every three Black boys and one of every six Latino boys. These are just a few of the startling inequities that contribute to the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and other forms of systemic racism against Black Americans.

The fellowship was a learning opportunity for Rabbi Roth as well, who said she also gained a new perspective on incarceration.

“I remember the shameful feeling of seeing the United States at the top of the list of countries in the world for the most incarcerated people per capita. I never understood the full devastating impact of the intersection of mandatory sentencing, bail, police violence, racism, poverty, and politics before this class,” she said.

“Reading the familiar story of the Exodus from Egypt through the lens of mass incarceration was profound and eye-opening. I understood everything differently – from the economics to the cruelty, from the resilience to the message of hope – from a new lens that helped me understand myself in a new way, as an American and as a Jew,” she continued.

As the problems within the criminal justice system exploded into the spotlight again with the recent police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Jacob Blake and so many other Black Americans, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to discuss these topics with passionate students and dedicated experts during the fellowship.

Other participants of the fellowship also say that it lent a new weight to the national conversation about systemic racism.

“Everything seemed so much bigger after the fellowship. No issue seems separate from racism, and no problem seems solvable without first confronting the discrimination that pervades our society,” said Joe Shipley ’22, who interned for the fellowship.

“I like to hope that demonstrating the similarity between the moral stakes of the Exodus and of undoing our inhumane criminal justice system can help those skeptical of radical approaches like abolition [of the police] appreciate why people feel the need to think on that scale, even if they may not be fully sold on the specifics of that approach,” said Dylan Shapiro ’23.

The program gave me important background knowledge that helped me understand the necessity of systemic change in the American criminal justice system. Our discussion of the Exodus story reminded me that even though the Jews were freed from slavery in Egypt, pervasive anti-Semitism has caused many modern instances of discrimination against Jews.

Because Jews have been the subject of prejudice before, it is on us to stand up against other forms of prejudice when we see them. Recent activism around the country has demonstrated what can happen when people of all different races, religions, sexualities, and other identities unite in the fight for a better and more just future.

I never understood the full devastating impact of the intersection of mandatory sentencing, bail, police violence, racism, poverty, and politics before this class.

As students, we didn’t just keep our new knowledge to ourselves. We were able to extend the effect of the fellowship to the wider Princeton community by creating a supplement to the Passover Haggadah. It had text from the Passover story, along with discussion questions that related to mass incarceration and criminal justice. The Haggadah supplement was sent to over 7,500 Princeton alumni, parents, faculty and students so that people outside our class would be able to use it. It was a meaningful way to compile what we learned and share it with the broader community.

I am proud to see students like those who participated in the fellowship and the CJL community as a whole stepping up in this moment to further demonstrate their belief in racial justice. Koach, the Conservative Jewish minyan, ran a successful fundraiser for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. There was a CJL reading group dedicated to books about racism.

The CJL is also offering another fellowship this fall called Race and Justice, which shows their dedication to providing a space for the discussion of important matters of social justice in a Jewish setting. Recent CJL activities show me and my peers the importance of dedicating oneself to learning about the problems in society and advocating for justice and freedom.

Naomi Hess is a junior at Princeton University studying public policy and journalism.

Debates over Israel, mental health challenges, anti-Semitism, creating a strong Jewish life — young Jews experience a lot in college. The View From Campus is a column for them to tell The Jewish Week, and you, all about it. Want to write for us? Send a draft or pitch to Lev Gringauz at lev@jewishweek.org.

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