Note: I deliberately use the term “black” above, rather than “African-American,” because the issue is broader than North America.
This topic has been on my mind for a long time, but the specific catalyst for this article is the murder of Stephen Johns, an African-American, at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.
My problem is this: Why does it take a neo-Nazi who "was really prejudiced against blacks and Jews," to quote one news article, to bring Blacks and Jews into the same sentence?
I often hear family members tell each other at funerals, “I can’t believe I haven’t seen you since X’s funeral,” and, “We have to stop meeting in cemeteries.” This bothers me; people who take advantage of happy gatherings will not end up holding their only reunions around tombstones.
Well, the same is true for Jews and Blacks; we shouldn’t be getting together for funerals.
I am frustrated with myself as a rabbi in this regard; although I think meetings and joint events for these communities are important, I haven’t done enough to make them happen. I sat on a committee for one such community event, and my shul brought in a local Latino city councilman, Julio Guridy, for another, and we have participated in some community-wide service days, but that’s about it for the past eight years.
Why not more? Just because I get caught up in the million other responsibilities I carry. But, really, I could and should have done more with this over the years, and I'm sorry it's too late for me to do it here and now.
There are many reasons for tension between the Jewish community and (speaking regarding the US) the African-American community, and it's not about skin color:
• Jews are perceived to have “made it” in the US, and so are lumped together with those who oppress those who have not “made it.” Going back further in time, there were Jews in the slave trade; not many, but enough to be visible and enough to provide fodder for those who would sow division.
• In the other direction, the virulence of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, the anti-Jewish diatribes from various ministers and politicians, and the inherent insularity of the Jewish community, make Jews less likely to reach out.
• Add to this some significant cultural differences between the two communities, and the fact that the main challenges facing the two communities are quite different, and the result is that they – we – don’t get together too often.
It doesn’t need to be this way, and it should not be this way. There are Jews who are dark-skinned, both those born Jewish and those who converted to Judaism. Skin color is a pathetic reason for division between human beings.
We shouldn’t be getting together only to mourn a hero, or even for political expediency. As Rav Soloveitchik put it, “all of us speak the universal language of modern man.” I believe it is time we speak it together.