Monday, June 08, 2020

The Racism Among Ourselves

Black Entertainer, Nissim Black - a convert to Judaism (Arutz Sheva)
This morning I was sent a link to a Facebook post that really got to me. Not because of any surprises in it. But because of the complacency about such matters in the world of Orthodox Judaism. And because it is so often overlooked. And because of how it affects people that are the target of racism in all of its many forms.

Orthodox Jews are not immune to being racist. Even though we should be. We are historically the most persecuted people on earth. And yet we still look at people that are different from ourselves as inferior. Especially when it comes to black people. 

Whenever I hear the word ‘Shvartze’ used by one of my co-coreligionists, I cringe on the inside. Sometimes I will offer a mild reprimand. And sometimes I just overlook it. That’s because it comes out of the mouths of some otherwise fine people. Some of which are good friends...  old friends of many years. 

For this I must offer my sincerest apologies. I have quoted Edmund Burke before. Many times. But it bears repeating here: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Complacency in the face of racism is tantamount to complicity.

I hereby pledge that I will no longer be silent. Nor will my rebukes be mild any longer. I hope to always be able to clearly and forthrightly state my objection to the belittling other people. It is a grave sin to diminish God’s creations. Even if done in jest. Even if the ‘joke’ meant no harm. Because there is always harm when racism raises it’s ugly head. That was made clear by Aharon Frazer in a Facebook post I was sent a link to.

Being black does not mean one cannot be Jewish. There are black Jews in Chicago that are Orthodox. Some of them are even Charedi. I’m sure that a racist joke is never told in front of them. Nor is the word Shvartze ever used. And the truth is that most of us accept  black converts with the love and admiration they deserve. It isn’t easy converting to Judaism. Even harder for black people since they will always stand out in a world where racism exists. 

And it exists in spades in among Orthodox Jews. Something the black convert soon becomes aware of - if he hadn’t been aware of it before his conversion. Or his children  Why it exists is a combination of factors that are irrelevant. Especially to a Ger Tzedek - a righteous convert. The point is that in the 21st century we all ought to know better about what ‘makes the man’. And color ain’t it. It’s character. It is how a person lives. It is his morals. It is his values. It is his ethics… that is what makes the man. And as I always say in the case of an Orthodox Jew, it is as well his commitment to God - serving Him by observing His law as written in the Torah and interpreted by the sages and rabbinic authorities throughout every generation.

As educated Jews living in an enlightened country we all know this. And yet the racism still exists even if it is not expressed through violence. Racism in America is the number one topic in the world right now. There have been international protests in solidarity with American protestrs. All saying the same thing: ‘Black lives matter!’ Saying it is one thing. Living it is another.

It isn’t only friends. Some of the most respected rabbinic leaders in Orthodoxy have used the word ‘Shvartze’ in racist ways. Both in the Charedi world and the modern Orthodox world. They might think they are using it ‘among friends’ and would never repeat it outside of their immediate circles. 

But that rarely happens. When a rabbinic leader makes a racist comment in any kind of public forum, it will get out. And ultimately make a Chilul HaShem. Which in and of itself is a major sin. But what about the Orthodox Jewish black fellow that hears about it? How can he not be disillusioned? I will never forget hearing one rabbinic leader during the Presidential campaign of Barack Obama saying something along the lines of ‘God forbid that Shvartze becomes President!’ This was during a public lecture. A racist comment coming out of the mouth of a rabbinic leader?!  It is a miracle a black convert doesn’t just abandon Judaism as a religion of hypocrisy!

How can it not hurt a black person to hear his race being the butt of a joke? How can he not be hurt being thought of as an inferior being? someone to avoid?  

These are my thoughts - evoked by Aharon Frazer after reading his Facebook post (Which should be read in its entirety by everyone. Especially by people who think racists jokes about black people are harmless.) He is the son of a black convert and has been suffering these indignities for a long time. Repeatedly being hurt by people that he had respected:  He apparently does not look black so he is in a position to  hear racist comments by individuals that don’t realize there is a black person in the room. Here is an excerpt that says it all:
It is not victimless and it is not harmless - it is exactly the biblical prohibition of Onaat Dvarim - hurtful speech. As a child of a black convert to Judaism I have been personally traumatized by this many times. So many refined people have been wonderful friends to me personally and to my family, and I would never want to seem ungrateful for that. Yet there are also far too many incidents of racism for me to ignore.
He goes on to describe of few of them that came to mind. Nonetheless he has remained a committed Orthodox Jew. The pain he expresses in his Facebook post is palpable.   

I would therefore urge all who read this post (and his) to reconsider their own racism – or tolerance of it in others, take a stand and call it out when we see it.  

One more thing. The word ‘Shvartze’ should be eliminated from our vocabulary. For those who might argue that the word ‘Shvartz’ is just  Yiddish for black and the word Shvartze just means a black person... I got news for you. Words evolve. Just because it was used one way in the past doesn’t prevent it from become a pejorative. It is long past time that the word ‘Shvartze’ is meant simply to innocuously describe a person of color. The majority of the time it is used in a negative stereotypical context. If there is some need to describe a person of color (...for example, giving the police a description of someone that attacked you) if he was black, the word black will do just fine. Just as will the word white would be if the attacker was white.

If there is anything the Orthodox Jewish community should take away from all these protests it is the realization of just how harmful our own racism in any of its manifestations can be. It is NOT only the police that need to be color blind. It is all of us. Including (and perhaps especially) Orthodox Jews. the word Shvartze needs to be completely eradicated from our lexicon. Especially from those of us that are leaders. Because if doesn’t stop, I have to question how in God’s name anyone can consider them to be a leader anymore. No matter how learned or respected they might otherwise be.

My hat is off to Aaron Frazer for knocking some social conscientiousness into my brain today. I hope this is true for everyone who reads this post. Or better yet, read his own words on Facebook. But perhaps the ultimate recognition should be given to George Floyd. He lost his life to racism. It was not intentional but what happened to him has woken up the world. Which includes us.