Confronting Racism: The Role of Jewish Education

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Friends, 

Although we typically use this space to discuss what is happening in Israel, this week we felt the story in the United States takes precedence. 

We are not here to make any statements. We are not here to issue any proclamations. Rather, we want to offer our style of education – uncovering, excavating, and exploring – to unpack this critical moment in history. As our primary target market in Unpacked for Educators is the broader Jewish community, we ask what George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent response should mean to us. 

Please read through and I would love to hear your thoughts, comments and feedback. 

With a heavy heart,

Noam

What Happened

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed black man, was killed by a white police officer, who pinned Floyd to the ground and kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, as three other police officers looked on. Footage caught on a smartphone of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis spread across social media and has prompted mass protests across the United States, with some turning violent (including looting and burning buildings, and tear gas used by police in response). Derek Chauvin, the police officer who killed Floyd, has been charged with second-degree murder, and the three other officers have been charged with aiding and abetting his murder. 

Why Does It Matter

The Jewish Perspective on Racism – Does Judaism condone racism?

No. Although the Torah has sections that describes servitude and slavery, and its implications have been discussed over the centuries, from a Jewish perspective, it suffices to say that racism violates numerous sacred principles. In Genesis 1:26-27, the Torah asserts that human beings are created in the image of God. The Torah also stresses the imperative to treat the stranger in a just manner; this is mentioned 36 times through the Five Books of Moses. Compare this to the single time that we are instructed to love our “fellow” or “neighbor” in Leviticus 19:18. The Torah also suggests that cultivating empathy is key to fulfilling this obligation of the just treatment of the stranger. “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger: You were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). From the perspective of the Talmud, racism also violates the principle of human dignity (kavod habriyot). Berakhot 19b states, “Great is human dignity, as it overrides a prohibition in the Torah.” The Talmud goes on to explain that kavod habriyot (literally, “the honor of all creations”) is so important that this principle supersedes rabbinic laws, and even some Biblical obligations can be set aside for its sake. 

Finally, modern rabbinic leads like Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel frequently spoke out against racism. In his essay “Civil Rights and the Dignity of Man,” Soloveichik wrote, “From the standpoint of the Torah, there can be no distinction between one human being and another on the basis of race or color… This key concept of kavod habriyot, the dignity of all human beings, constitutes the basis of human rights.” Heschel, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in support of the civil rights movement, famously said: “Racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.”

The Jewish Community and Black Lives Matter

We all agree that Judaism opposes racism, but how should the Jewish community interact with Black Lives Matter when the Black Lives Matter platform includes language describing Israel as committing genocide?

Good question. Let’s dive in. As mentioned, one dilemma facing many members of the Jewish community is whether to support the Black Lives Matter movement due to the fact that in the Black Lives Matter platform, published in 2016, it supports the boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, refers to it as an apartheid state, and states that Israel is “complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.” When the platform was released, Jewish groups from across the political spectrum condemned the nefarious claim of Israeli genocide against the Palestinians whilere affirming their support for black equality. In the last few weeks, multiple members of the Jewish community have publicly addressed the issue, arguing that the two issues should be separated, and that the Jewish community should support the black community regardless of the wording in the organization’s platform.

Maayan Belding-Zidon argued that “white supremacy is a much bigger threat to American Jews than BDS is to the state of Israel, but even if it weren’t — even if it were not in our self-interest as Jews to stand in solidarity with Black America against hate and bigotry,” the Jewish community should join the protests anyway.

On the other side of the argument however, Melanie Phillips, referring to the rioters and looters, argues that “too many Jews are supporting the twisted, amoral thinking of those who are on the way to destroying it. Their stance is as lemming-like as it is a betrayal of Judaism and the values that lie at the West’s ethical core.”

Jason Ablin, a noted Jewish educator, expressed anger towards this question, saying on his Facebook wall (we asked for his permission): “I am hearing way too much of ‘Yeah Black Lives Matter, but what about us?’ This narcissistic framing, based on seeing the world through the lens of our own community’s fears and suffering, is the equivalent of showing up to a house of mourning and spending the entire time talking about yourself.”

Yair Rosenberg, senior writer at Tablet, put it even more starkly. In an email to me, he said, “I am unimpressed with people trying to use this particular issue to discredit the protests. What that actually does is send a message to rank-and-file black folks–who again have nothing against Israel and know nothing of this platform written by random activists–that Jews do not care about them and their suffering, and demand allegiance to our causes before we will grant them our attention.”

Halak and Floyd – Same Narrative or Different Story?

Our take: This is a different story, but we understand how the stories of Floyd and Halak can be conflated. In a tragic incident in the Old City of Jerusalem this past week, Israeli border police killed Iyad Halak, a 32-year-old Palestinian man with autism after Israeli police said that they spotted a suspect “with a suspicious object that looked like a pistol. When he failed to obey orders to stop, officers opened fire,” according to a police statement. Palestinian activitists and their supporters were quick to try and draw connections between the Israeli authorities’ treatment of Palestinians and American police brutality towards the Black community in Americans. Both the incident in Jerusalem and the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis have drawn international attention. The cartoon below was published in Al-Hayat al-Jadida, the official daily newspaper of the Palestinian Authority.

One of the policemen involved in Halak’s killing was placed under house arrest, and the incident is under investigation. The police have seemingly been working to block the release of the security footage of the incident, and Iyad’s family have said they don’t believe that Israel will do “anything” to the policemen involved because the victim was Palestinian. A week after the incident, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “What happened was a tragedy. This is a man with disabilities, with autism, unjustly suspected, and we expect it to be fully checked. We all join in the family’s grief.” 

Diversity of Perspectives

We can learn a lot from the statements put out by American Jewish organizations. 

The Jewish world has joined together in expressing outrage over George Floyd’s death. At the same time, the various statements that Jewish groups have issued reveal a diversity of responses to this incident and the national protests that followed. Here are five statements we have collated for you.

The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) emphasized their commitment to fight against racism while also condemning violent protests. “We pledge to our brothers and sisters in the black community – and all communities of color – to work together to reverse the systemic racism embedded within our country’s institutions and society in general,” the statement read. “In the strongest terms, we also condemn those who are taking advantage of the anguish over George Floyd’s death by hijacking what would be peaceful rallies across the country for their own violent and destructive agenda.” 

Meanwhile, the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) implored the Jewish community “to assume responsibility to create a more equitable and just society.” Citing Leviticus 19:16, “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed,” JTS asserted that “Jewish tradition forbids us to remain silent in the face of racial injustice.” The Seminary pledged to be part of the solution by promoting dialogue: “We commit to participating, hosting, and facilitating the difficult conversations that will be the necessary first steps in beginning to repair the brokenness of our society.”

Like JTS, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU) underscored the need for the Jewish community to act, but highlighted a different Jewish principle to make that point. “As religious Jews, we believe the most important starting point for the national discourse that must take place is the recognition that all people are created in the image of G-d and that each human life is of infinite value,” said the OU, adding: “Indifference is not an option.” Like JFNA, the OU differentiated between peaceful and violent demonstrations: “The right of citizens outraged by these events to engage in peaceful public protest is to be protected as a fundamental right. But that should not lead to violence and vandalism.” Finally, the OU noted that because of the American Jewish community’s recent experiences with anti-Semitism, “we are acutely sensitive to the essential imperitive to foster tolerance and respect in this highly diverse society in which we live.”

A statement issued by Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, on behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), stressed the Torah’s “unbending demand for justice,” as well as the United States’ value of “justice for all.” Rabbi Pesner on behalf of the URJ bemoaned Floyd’s death as part of a disturbing chain of similar incidents: “Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Trayvon Martin. Sandra Bland. Oscar Grant. Philando Castile. Walter Scott. Terrence Crutcher. Samuel Dubose. Michael Brown. The list feels endless, and so too is our despair.” Calling on the country to “address ongoing racism in all sectors and at all levels of society,” the URJ highlighted its own partnership with the NAACP: “We remain in solidarity and action with the NAACP’s urgent #WeAreDoneDying campaign, whose policy demands cover areas of criminal justice, economic justice, health care, and voting.”

Finally, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, stood out from the examples above for being explicit in its support for Black Lives Matter: “We say once again: Black Lives Matter. And we commit to creating a country that lives by this statement.” T’ruah also expressed concern over how police are handling the protests: “We condemn the use of tear gas and other violent means against those protesting his death. This response by police… offers just one more example of the over-policing of communities of color.” In concluding its statement, T’ruah noted recent anti-Semitic vandalism at a Minneapolis synagogue, and asserted that “our struggles against bias of all kinds must be linked, and that none of us will be free until all of us are free.”

Discussion Questions

  1. Young people have advocated and protested against racism in a variety of ways since the killing of George Floyd. There are numerous ways in which our students can show support for the Black community, such as peacefully protesting, posting on social media, donating to relevant causes, speaking up to family and friends, signing petitions and educating themselves — to name a few. What do you think is the best way to contribute to the fight against racism?
  2. What are some ways we can amplify and listen to Jews of Color and other diverse voices in our communities? How can make this a bigger focus in our schools, camps, synagogues and youth groups? 
  3. Show the tweet below to your students. On the surface, it may seem humorous, but in reality, it is indicative of the way protesting has changed with the advent of social media. Is one kind of protesting more meaningful or impactful than the other? 
  4. Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik writes that there are two distinct mitzvot (commandments) to love one’s fellow human being. One is the mitzvah of Ahavat Ha-Briyot (to love humankind) and the other is Ahavat Yisrael (to love your fellow Jew). Why do you think loving others is split into two separate mitzvot? Should loving your fellow Jew be included in the mitzvah to love everyone, or should it be its own separate mitzvah?
  5. Some have drawn a parallel between George Floyd and Iyad Halak, a 32-year-old unarmed Palestinian man who was killed by Israeli police in Jerusalem. Israeli police thought mistakenly that Halak was armed. Palestinian and some Israeli protesters have gathered to express solidarity with Floyd and Halak, holding signs stating, “Black Lives Matter. Palestinian Lives Matter.” Do you agree with these protesters that the killings of Floyd and Halak should be connected or do you think connecting the two incidents is politically motivated?
  6. When I asked Chloe Valdary what her response was to Jewish community members who are concerned about the platform of Black Lives Matter, she was understanding of these concerns, but was equally emphatic about the cause, explaining, “No one at these protests cares about the platforms of this movement. The only thing they care about is the idea that black lives do in fact matter. That’s all.” Do you identify with Chloe’s perspective, or do you have a different approach?

Classroom Tips 

  1. With your students, read the following statements (referenced above) made by three different Jewish organizations, the Orthodox Union, the Union for Reform Judaism, and the Jewish Theological Seminary. After reading the statements together, engage your students through any of the following questions and/or learning activities:
    • Compare and contrast the messages from each statement and discuss which one they found to be most effective. 
    • What are your thoughts about what these organizations are saying by having these different statements? Are they saying the same thing?
    • Ask your students to individually, in written form, develop their own statements on behalf of the Jewish community in response to the recent events. 
  2. Participate in one of two experiential activities based on different narratives and empathy found HERE. Alternatively, play this powerful animated video about empathy by Dr. Brené Brown. Use it as a springboard to discuss empathy: How is it different from sympathy? What is so powerful about it? Why is it hard to achieve? How can we flex our “empathy muscle” in this current situation?
  3. Read the following article with your students and discuss the following questions: 
    • What can the Jewish community do to support black Americans?
    • What role do you think the Jewish community can take,as Melanie Roth Gorelick writes, in “creating a better society for everyone?”
  4. Read the following three quotations to your students and ask how they can be applied to current events — or not.
    • “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” – James Baldwin
    • “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” – Elie Wiesel
    • “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. The Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not…the KKK, but the white moderate, who prefers a negative peace (the absence of tension) to a positive peace (the presence of justice). Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
  5. Utilize the following resource from Facing History with your students. Read the letter together and then have a discussion based on the “Connection Questions” found below.

In Other News

  1. In a global report, Israel was named the world’s third best start-up ecosystem. Tel Aviv was tapped as the seventh leading city for start-ups worldwide.
  2. On Saturday, a few thousand Israelis protested against Prime Minister Netanyahu’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank calling it a “war crime”.
  3. Israeli supermarket magnate Rami Levy donated 1 million shekels to buy pairs of tefillin for European Jews who couldn’t afford to purchase them.
  4. Jordan is said to be considering cancelling its peace deal with Israel, if Israel goes ahead with annexing parts of the West Bank.

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is Senior Vice President at OpenDor Media. He leads the education vision and implementation at OpenDor Media with a special focus on the development of meaningful content and resources for students and educators. He holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design.

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