I keep trying to imagine what it would be like if parts of Germany–or parts of the US–flew the Nazi flag in government areas, or if streets were named Hitler Avenue, Goebbels Street, or Mengele Court. Wouldn’t every Jew feel even more anxiety than we already do? Wouldn’t there be an outcry? Wouldn’t we be talking about how such a horrible thing could only breed even more antisemitism than already exists in the world?
I’ve never really experienced antisemitism—moments of people saying weird things that roll off my back, or going to a school that was 77% Jewish but didn’t give excused absences for Jewish holy days. My family got out of Eastern Europe long before 1933 (or survived World War II in safety). I grew up in New York City, where being Jewish seemed normal.
On the other hand, my husband was beaten for being a Jew in elementary school. And many many Jews have experienced much worse. We know this. I don’t have to explain this. Antisemitism is deeply embedded in western civilization, almost as the original sin.
I’ve lived my whole life in a culture where I have white privilege, and upper middle class privilege. I’ve never known hunger. I’ve never known fear for my life for being who I am. I have experienced sexual harassment from my boss. I’ve had sex even though I’ve said no, and meant it. I’ve been paid less than my male counterparts. I’ve been treated disrespectfully because I am a woman. But I’ve never been in fear for my life for being who I am.
I was going to say that only racism is as deeply engrained in culture as antisemitism, but then sexism and homophobia come to mind as well. But clearly racism is so deeply embedded that African Americans have to live on streets named for generals who fought to keep their ancestors enslaved, apply for marriage licenses or pay parking tickets in places that fly the Confederate battle flag, re-hung in the 1960s for the specific purpose of reminding them to “stay in their place.” But of course, even paying parking tickets is different if a driver is African American rather than white (see the information from Ferguson).
A large part of my family lived in South Carolina for decades: my father’s father left us a house in Kingstree, a town immortalized in Tony Horwitz’s savagely funny and terrifying book, Confederates in the Attic. We visited my grandfather and various aunts and uncles a few times in my childhood, although I have few memories. My father grew up in Washington DC and South Carolina, and his brother, my beloved uncle Joe, has written eloquently of growing up in a racist environment that made no sense to him.
Recently I wrote about the Cushite wife of Moses, and Miriam and Aaron’s response to her. After the Charleston terrorist attack at the church, I felt like I had been very namby-pamby, that I had ignored the terror that African Americans feel, and that my suggestion was milquetoast. That suggestion, that we say a blessing every time we see someone different from us, someone who might strike fear in us, is actually profound. (It’s not my idea: the rabbis came up with it millennia ago.) It can serve as an antidote to the hatred in the culture. If we see each person as made in the image of the divine, then we can begin to imagine that we are not so different from each other and begin the process of growth.
But at the same time, it seems like we do really have to confront our American history, acknowledge that the Civil War was largely about the nation’s original sin of slavery, of thinking that the people we had kidnapped to allow our economy to grow without paying for labor, were less than people. Both white Northerners and Southerners benefitted from it, but the Northerners were ready to see that it was wrong and was time to go.
But, as Ta Nehisi Coates showed this week, the reasons for secession had everything to do with maintaining slaves in their oppression. The issue of “states’ rights” was a cover.
And when we speak of Southern “heritage”, we must remember we are speaking of white Southern heritage. As Jelani Cobb recently wrote, that region of the country is home to 55% of the nation’s African Americans, for whom Southern heritage means something quite different.
I’ve never understood why a Jew would want to remain in Germany, and yet, I know that for many, Germany was their people’s home for centuries, with a proud history and culture. I can’t imagine what I would do if antisemitism reared its head here, if another Father Coughlin came on the scene and took off. Would I flee to Canada or Israel or would I not believe this were happening here in my beloved country?
But even more, I can’t imagine what it’s like to be the object of so much violence right here, right now, when the micro-aggressions are overwhelmed by the threat of incarceration and death. When you are perceived as being significantly more powerful (and violent, and criminal) than you actually are. That’s my white privilege speaking.
Blessed is the One Who creates diversity within creation – m’shaneh habriyot. May we make the blessing and then take the actions to make that blessing a reality in our time: take down the flags, change the street names, hold people-especially police officers—accountable for violence against innocent people no matter the color of their skin. Talk to your friends, family and neighbors about our history. Consider your privilege—don’t run away from it. Work for sensible gun control—on a state level, if we can’t achieve it right now on a federal level. Work for mental health parity.
But even more important, as Nicholas Kristof noted, it’s not just about a piece of cloth: it’s about truly leveling the field, so that African American life expectancy reaches that of whites, so that economic opportunity is equal, so that educational quality is the same. To pretend that discrimination is over is not just a fantasy–it is true danger to too many who are truly left behind.
Before we can work on this, we still have to try to see everyone as people on their own journey. Change oftentimes has to start at home.