Why Judaism forbids racism

The Torah tells us that every human being is created in the image of God; therefore, racism and discrimination are forbidden. From the perspective of the Torah and Judaism, racism is not only an attack on human beings; it is also an assault on God. Jewish tradition also implores us to “love the stranger,” to pursue justice (tzedek) and to work to improve our communities and the world. We all have a responsibility to ensure that our communities are inclusive and free of racism. Rabbi Ahron 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.”

An expanded curriculum is available for this topic.

  1. In Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech before he was assassinated, he made multiple biblical references to Moses and the Jewish people’s journey through the desert on the way to the Land of Israel. For example, Dr. King said, “I’ve been to the mountaintop, I’ve seen the Promised Land and I may not get there with you.” How do the stories of the Jewish and Black communities relate? How could these two communities work together to fight for tolerance, equality and human rights?
  2. A survey of Jews of color, released in August 2021, found that 80% of respondents said they had experienced discrimination in Jewish settings. According to the 2020 Pew Research Center survey, 15% of American Jews aged 18 to 29 identify as Hispanic, Black, Asian, multiracial or some other race or ethnicity. What’s your immediate reaction to this survey result? What do you think is contributing to this? How do you think Jewish communities (like synagogues, day schools and Jewish organizations) should respond to the findings? If you were the leader of a Jewish organization or community, what steps would you take?
  3. There are many questions surrounding Jewish identity in the context of race. Are Jews with pale skin “white”? Are all Jews “people of color”? Read the following article by Israeli writer Hen Mazzig about “white Jews” and “Jews of color.” Also, watch this video by Israel and Jewish activist Rudy Rochman titled “Are Jews white?” Afterward, discuss the questions above.
  4. There are many ways one can contribute to the fight against racism, such as peacefully protesting, posting on social media, donating to relevant causes, speaking up with family and friends, signing petitions, and educating oneself and others — to name a few. What do you think is the best way to contribute to the fight against racism? How do you envision your own role in this struggle? What experiences have you had doing this work?
  1. Watch this speech by Rabbi Joachim Prinz at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. Rabbi Prinz delivered this speech just before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. According to Rabbi Prinz, what motivated Jews to be involved in the civil rights movement? What is the thesis or central idea of Rabbi Prinz’s speech? Do you think that Rabbi Prinz’s speech and message still resonate today?
  2. Watch Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech, and follow along with the transcript. As you watch, look for the answers to the following questions:
    • What is the thesis of Dr. King’s speech? Locate a short passage from the speech that you think captures the thesis.
    • What was a part of the speech that was particularly meaningful to you and why?
    • Were you surprised by anything you heard in the speech? Why did this surprise you?
    • Dr. King quoted or invoked two Biblical passages in this speech. Can you identify them?
  3. Read the following article in Moment Magazine in which rabbis from across the religious spectrum answered the question, “Does Jewish Law Forbid Racism?” Choose one perspective which provoked your thinking the most. Then share why this idea piqued your curiosity with your peers.
  4. Listen to the following episode from our podcast, Unpacking Israeli History, “Ingathering of Exiles: From Ethiopia to Israel.” What were some of the challenges faced by new Ethiopian immigrants when they arrived in Israel? What are some ways life has improved for the Ethiopian-Israeli community since they first arrived in the Jewish state, and what challenges persist?
  1. Reflect on your own experiences with racism and antisemitism:
    • When have you experienced racism or antisemitism? What was the situation? How did you respond? How did it impact you?
    • Have you ever stood up for someone else (or a particular group) who was being discriminated against? What motivated you to act? What was the response to your action?
    • What specific actions can you take to make the communities you are a part of more inclusive and free of racism and discrimination?
    • Do you think that our efforts to fight racism and antisemitism should go hand in hand, or do you think we should fight each one separately?
  2. Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:16 states, “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed. I am the Lord.” Many interpret this as an injunction not to remain silent in the face of racial injustice. When have you taken a stand against racism, antisemitism or another form of bigotry or injustice? What propelled you to act? What actions did you take? What was the result? How did it feel to take a stand?
  3. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “When I marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, I felt my legs were praying.” Have you ever experienced a situation in which you felt your legs were praying? When has carrying out an action taken on spiritual significance for you?

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