Sunday, December 19, 2010

Racism in Orthodoxy

Are Orthodox Jews in America Racist? For me the very question is insulting. We are a nation guided by a Torah given by God. The mere suggestion that an observant Jew could be racist is abhorrent in the eyes of God and should be abhorrent to every Jew.

One of the many things the Torah teaches us is that man is created in the image of God. We are required to treat every human being with dignity and respect. A human being’s race never enters into the picture. All of humankind is equal in the eyes of God. We, His chosen people are required to see and treat them the way one would expect people created in God’s image should be treated.

That we are chosen and required to live holy lives does not detract from our mission to be a light unto the nations and our requirement to treat all of humankind with equal dignity and respect. In fact I would suggest that our very holiness as a people increases our obligation to do so. The more religious we are, the more tolerant and loving of our fellow man we should be.

Unfortunately the reality is quite the opposite. I am not going to discuss the reasons for that here. I’ve already done that. Many times.

But it seems there is almost a direct correlation between racist attitudes and how religious one is – that is if you consider Charedim to be more religious than modern Orthodox Jews. Which is certainly how they think of themselves. This does not mean to say that racism exists only in Charedi circles. It exists everywhere – modern Orthodoxy included. But if what happened in Lakewood last Tuesday is any indication, the racism among Charedim seems to be the greatest. I have yet to hear of anything comparable in modern Orthodox circles. From

The four boys, all about 15 years old, are accused of crowding behind their black female school bus driver after she objected to their conversation, during which they used racial slurs about the KKK's violence against blacks, Lt. Paul Daly of the Lakewood police said.

"They stood behind her instead of being seated," Daly said Thursday. "She felt intimidated."

They boys were arrested on the bus and released later into the custody of their parents.

One might argue that these boys did not learn this attitude from their parents or teachers. But considering how sheltered they are they had no other place to learn it.

Beyond the racist attitudes these boys expressed, what would motivate them to gang up and intimidate a black female bus driver? How deep IS that racism? To think it - is bad enough. To make threatening remarks to a fellow human being is not the act of a Jew. It is not the act of any decent human being.

It is the act of a ignorant mind. A mind that misunderstands our status as God’s chosen people. A mind that is as racist as any white supremacist! Just substitute the word Jew for the word white and their attitudes are the same. That these boys may not have ever actually harmed this bus driver whereas a white supremacist quite often would - is only a function of degree, not of kind.

But who is really at fault here? Is it these young teens or their parents and teachers? While I do not absolve those young teens of personal responsibility, their prejudices were not spontaneously generated. They learned it somewhere. It certainly wasn’t from TV, movies or from ‘Gansta’ rap. They are sheltered from those things. They have only one source of information: Themsleves. Parents, teachers or both. It is they who deserve our attention even more that those kids.

Of course - the response by school officials was to ‘hit all the right notes’. From the article:

During the meeting Thursday night, officials for the unidentified private school that the boys attend assured the township Board of Education that appropriate disciplinary action will be taken if the allegations are proved to be true…

But what do these same ‘officials’ teach their students in the first place about black people? My guess is that they teach them nothing formally. But they do transmit racist attitudes in other ways, via jokes, terminology like ‘Shvartza’ when referring to them (usually said in a derisive tone). They also exhibit generally condescending attitudes about non Jews in general and black people in particular. And how is that attitude manifested? Ask the 49 year old bus driver, Sharon Peters.

The idea that these kids will be disciplined is not mostly what is required here. They should certainly be disciplined. But that does not really address the real problem: the soft racism that permeates these circles.

That racist attitudes are transmitted in such informal - even subliminal - ways rather than in direct ways is where the problem really lies in my view. And it makes correcting it that much harder. How does one un-teach the kind of soft racism that has been ingrained since early childhood and constantly reinforced by parents, teachers, and peers? Especially in environments like Lakewood where barriers to the outside world are built so high and so thick? This is where the problem lies and where it needs to be tackled.

Unfortunately parents of these boys are not exactly thinking along those lines. Instead of realizing what actually happened, the Aveiros and the Chilul HaShem their boys made, and actually doing something to prevent it from ever happening again – they are thinking of taking legal action! How typical!