Some 25 years ago, I was privileged to be part of a trialogue of Jewish-, Arab- and African-Americans, convened by the Michael Harrington Center for Democratic Values and Social Change of Queens College. At the first meeting, we were asked to say what brought us to the group and what we might want our exchanges to focus on.
A Jewish-American participant, an educator, immediately mentioned “violence,” by which she meant physical assaults, and referred to the 1991 killing of Yankel Rosenbaum in Crown Heights. An Arab-American merchant said, “and I would like to add verbal violence,” and an African-American clergy member responded, “and let’s not ignore economic violence.”
A participant asked what the reverend meant, and I recall a silent pause that I now realize was a respectful way of asking people to think about their inability to define it themselves.
Over the past few days, as Jews marked the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai with our holiday of Shavuot, our minds and hearts were challenged by the ongoing Covid-19 death toll surpassing 100,000 American lives, and by the emerging mass responses, worldwide, to the slaughter of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. But, of course, the synchronicity is not accidental, because African-American, Latinx and brown and black people in general also suffer from health care violence, manifested in disproportionate death rates. The incidence of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, asthma and so many other conditions that render people of color unusually vulnerable to Covid-19 is directly related to lack of access to adequate health care—a systemic, structural violent reality.
And sitting, virtually of course, in synagogue, eager to truly receive the words of the Torah, I began to expand the list: housing violence, educational violence, occupational violence, social service violence, voting violence, criminal system violence and even spiritual violence came to mind.
But as happens with many other Jews I know, a somewhat tired and frustrated voice rose up in me and protested, “But anti-Semitism is at least as chronic and universal! What about anti-Semitism? Why are you forgetting the recent explosions of anti-Semitism?” And, this time, I answered that voice with, “Alas, my friend, the world has consistently made room for violence against both blacks and Jews — sometimes pitting one against the other for distraction, deception and further devastation.”
On a recent Friday, the first day of Shavuot, I chanted the Haftarah (prophetic reading) in our Zoomed service, and was interrupted at least twice by ambulance sirens headed for a local hospital. And on Saturday/Shabbat afternoon and into the evening, we heard not-so-distant mass demonstrations, including what sounded like gunshots at one point. As an over-65 man with Type I Diabetes, I became acutely aware of both my proximity to and distance from these two raging challenges, a duality that is facilitated by my status as a privileged white Jewish male.
And it is that status that gives me a special degree of responsibility to rise up and awaken to justice. I must continually sort out what my roles can be in undoing the legacy of slavery, in making good on the unfulfilled promises of America as well as the demands of the Jewish tradition. And each of us can and must be a force for healing and change to detoxify the polluted soil from which violence of all kinds grows and thrives. Fighting anti-Semitism, yes; dismantling racism, yes; ending Islamophobia, yes; combating anti-LGBTQ stances, yes; confronting anti-immigrant- and anti-refugee hatred and bigotry, yes. And yes and yes and yes.
As the great first-century Talmudic sage Hillel said:
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? / But if I am only for myself, what am I? / And if not now, when?”
Simkha Y. Weintraub is a rabbi and licensed clinical social worker actively involved in spiritual care and human rights.