What a few weeks it has been for anyone who has been on the other side of being the other…First Michael Brown’s killer and then Eric Garner’s killer walk away from the criminal justice system without an indictment between them. Rabbis and others are killed in a heinous murder in a synagogue during morning prayers in Jerusalem. The Senate finally releases its torture report to let us know in too much detail what we already knew: the United States government tortured in the erroneous belief that it was fighting terrorism. Both parts of that sentence should give pause.
I have read copiously about the lack of indictments and its indictment of the American justice system, and I have found myself lacking in wisdom to say something brilliant. But finally, as I reread Vayeshev, this week’s Torah portion, I realized I have to write something.
I find it hard to swallow, or even to really understand, that so many whites don’t understand that slavery has long term consequences on the people kept in chains. Intergenerational trauma is a thing. We’ve been talking about it since the bible, when we read that the sins of the fathers last for generations. It can’t just mean sins, although the sequel of the slaughter at Shechem (in last week’s torah portion) might be seen as the precursor of the years of slavery that followed.
The effects of slavery have been written about for millennia, and certainly by my people. I just came back from watching the abysmal Exodus movie, and am reminded yet again how many generations it has taken for that slavery experience to stop troubling us.
But just as our people have suffered long after slavery through other means of making us other, less than and not equal, so has the United States found ways to continue to oppress the generations post slavery. After Reconstruction, there was Jim Crow, lynchings and systematic forced poverty. Ta-Nehisi Coates made a strong case for reparations in a thorough article laying out the ways redlining mortgages, employment discrimination, education discrimination and voting discrimination all led to generations of African Americans having very limited means to enter the middle class or accumulate any wealth. It is not lack of will, but lack of open doors that has created the situation. Now that we are past Jim Crow, we are in the era of mass incarceration, documented so painfully by Michelle Alexander in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Unfair laws and unfair execution of them, so that possession and sale of one type of cocaine has higher penalties than for another type, for example, have been a time honored practice, penalizing people of color overwhelmingly more than whites. Stop and frisk laws put more people behind bars as well, so that entire communities are plagued by the incarceration that will render their post-jail life even harder, in terms of employment, just to start.
Jewish tradition has frowned upon unequal distribution of justice, reminding us from the Torah onwards that we are not supposed to judge the rich and the poor differently, or have one law for one group and another from another. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof—justice justice shall you pursue, we are taught.
Last year, during a particularly stressful time at work, I experienced shortness of breath that became a full fledged anxiety attack that sent me to the emergency room. For the first time in my life, my blood pressure was really high and I could feel it. I couldn’t breathe. I haven’t been able to watch more than a few seconds of the Eric Garner video because I don’t like to watch violence of any type, but I know what it feels like to not be able to breathe, the message he kept repeating before he died. I also know that adrenaline does terrible things to people who might behave differently were the hormone not coursing through their body (this is NOT to make an excuse for his killers). That they did not respond to his repeated statement seems unbelievable to me, and that a grand jury could not find enough evidence to indict based on the video seems even more unfair, stretching the definition of believable. And while it is possible that Michael Brown was a threat if he did indeed lean into the police car, he wasn’t shot at point blank range, he was shot while he was 30 feet away, in the street. A grand jury isn’t about finding if the evidence is compelling enough to convict, just compelling enough to raise questions. We all know this.
As a white woman who has never had cause to fear the police (even when I did some strange things in my 20s), I still know that the police are to be feared, even when nothing is wrong. As someone who has witnessed the police bend over backward to help a white teen in trouble, I know that the heart is there in more than one or two of them. But the stories of people of color needing to protect themselves at unexpected moments consistently remind me of the ways my people have been oppressed in so many places.
As a woman, and as a Jew (who has never experienced antisemitism personally – Baruch Hashem), I know it is my responsibility to stand in solidarity with people of color, to show them that their lives matter and that when they say they can’t breathe, we offer them aid, rather than additional pressure on their windpipe. As a Jew, I also know that it is my responsibility to acknowledge the benefits I receive from white privilege—from not having to have “the talk” with my child, from not worrying that I will be stopped when I shop, or drive, or walk, or breathe. I know that my job application will not be discounted if my color is known. I know my health care will not be compromised because of the color of my skin. It doesn’t have to be overt; those judgments happen, because too often we don’t remember the beginning of our journey: that each of us is made from one mold, with the spark of the divine, so that none of us can say, “My father is better than your father.”
All lives matter: black, brown, white, Jewish, Catholic, atheist, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist, male, female, gay, straight, bisexual, transsexual, married, single, widowed, temporarily able bodied, disabled, American, African, European, Arab, Asian, ALL lives matter. But black lives, in this time and place, are the ones treated as though they don’t matter…
But until we recognize that we are NOT colorblind, we can’t acknowledge what we have to do to assure that each of us has what we need to live with equal opportunity.
Our ancestor Joseph left prison believing that everything that happened to him had happened for a reason from his God, both to save Egypt and his family from famine. I am not sure that we can say that about what happened to all those who became slaves in Egypt or in the United States, or to their grandchildren.
But the story of our people keeps telling us—all lives matter. From the stranger Joseph met in the field who sent him to his brothers, to the others jailed alongside him, even to Mrs. Potiphar, who couldn’t keep her hands off the fair son of Israel: all lives matter. Slaves can become viceroys, their grandchildren Supreme Court justices.
Joseph had dreams that helped his people and his neighbors, he could understand the dreams of others. May we all keep working to make the day when Martin Luther King’s dream becomes a reality. We are not ready for colorblindness, but we can move closer to having the conversation so that we treat every single person as though their life matters, and that we especially–especially–acknowledge here and now that black lives matter.
Because they do.
 Boring, and with bizarre theology and barely connected to the source material, with a cast of thousands who are all basically extras except Moses and Ramses. And God is an 11 year old boy. Really?
Rip Light says
Lovely. Thank you for writing this. Now, the challenge is to bring into the fold of compassion those Whites who feel left out and bitter — too often toward other victims instead of toward those who benefit from their (these Whites’) disenfranchisement — and to make it easier for them to feel compassion.
Meredith Cahn says
Thanks Rip. It would be great to do so. Education from school or the pulpit or the bully pulpit might help.