Racism, Real and Perceived
We don’t have any racists in our community, right?
Of course we do. And, as the political climate changes in the US, we’re going to pay a higher price for whatever racism does exist. To make it worse, the perception of what is racist is changing.
As the interfaith director for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, part of my job is to worry about the support that the Jewish State enjoys from conservative Christians. You’ve heard about that support, and think of it as a done deal, something we can take to the bank of public opinion.
Think again. We’ve been losing some of that support as the clock keeps ticking. Younger evangelicals are less Biblically oriented (and so much of evangelical support flows from the belief that the Bible speaks of a special relationship between G-d, the Jewish people, and their Land), less likely to attend church, less likely to support Israel.
The outlook is gloomy – but not desperate. Some parts of the world are years or even decades behind the forces that are eroding religious commitment in the US. Evangelicals and Pentecostals (another conservative Christian group) are picking up strength in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. (Guatemala moved its embassy to Jerusalem because a new government took over that was top heavy with evangelicals.) They may soon be the people that the Jewish State looks to for support.
There are some groups in the US where the rate of attrition among millennials and even younger people is less than in the rest of the population: Blacks and Hispanics. In both of these communities – at least among conservative churches – there is still great support for Israel.
I was delighted, therefore, to receive an invitation to address about ninety black tourists from the US – almost all first-timers – on a recent visit of theirs to Jerusalem, where I am now based. The pastor leading the group is an old friend, someone who loves Israel, loves Scripture, and is devoting years of his life to partner with the IDF to bring their game-changing techniques in dealing with PTSD back to the inner city.
My presentation was well received – or so I thought. They laughed at the jokes. They seemed to get my points about the racial diversity in Israel, and how all they had to do was open their eyes and they would see how the “apartheid” label wouldn’t stick to reality. They graciously accepted – again, so I thought – my lavish thanks to them for supporting this beleaguered country, and how much we appreciated that support.
Perhaps I should have started worrying earlier, when my host casually mentioned to me before the presentation formally began that at least two members of the group had walked into places and were told that they were not welcome – they assumed, because of their color. And they had been there less than two days. The worrying increased when an Ethiopian spoke of the years of what he perceived as racism he and his family had experienced since arriving – leading him to convert to Christianity.
For the next hour after he finished, the questions and comments were addressed to me. Did I really believe that they were so welcome? My responses were firm and confident (among other things, pointing out that while there was racism that endured, Israel was ahead of the game relative to the US, and we had made far more progress in twenty years than the US made in 150), but it had morphed into where so much of the discussion in the US has: intense identification with a group narrative, born of everyone in that group having shared history and experiences.
Why am I writing all of this in an Anglo-Jewish paper? What does the alleged misconduct of some small part of Israeli society have to do with American Orthodox Jews?
Unfortunately, the answer is simple. And tragic. Their comments quickly turned to their stories of mistreatment at the hands of Jews in the US. Orthodox Jews, in particular. Do keep in mind that these were not Farrakhan supporters. They genuinely had a high regard for Israel. Their comments evinced more hurt than hostility. But the barrier between us had been rolled into place.
One fellow said that he has lived near an Orthodox neighborhood for years, and is often outside when people – particularly the “ultra-Orthodox” walk to shul. They avert their eyes when they see him. Never a “Good morning.” One woman came over privately after the discussion. She didn’t want to offer her indictment in front of the larger group. She was a professional, involved as well with government. She goes out of her way, she said, to be positive and civil to people. From some Orthodox Jews, she claimed, the favor is not returned.
Of course I gently resisted much of this. I appealed to them to understand that residents of large cities simply don’t interact with strangers, or even their neighbors. That some groups cherished a cultural insulation that allows them to survive and thrive in their own bubble, and don’t want it penetrated by any outsiders at all. Nothing racial about it.
It wasn’t working, even though as minority members, they should have been more sympathetic, we would think, to the needs of a different minority. It didn’t work because their own sense of rejection was paramount in their minds. And they see us as white people, part of the “white privilege” problem. Their group experience left them with a kind of tunnel vision, in which everything is processed through their memory of history. (In all fairness, some of us Jews do a good deal of that as well, and should be able to understand when others do it too.) I learned later that the pastor – who really is a lovely human being, and has never brought this up in our private conversations – was very much affected at an early age when he witnessed the humiliation of his father by a white man.
We can protest all we want that this is all unfair. But those protests won’t be effective. Would we prefer to be right, or effective? The answer, as Torah Jews, is that we have to be both: right, and effective. That means increasing our sensitivity to the way others perceive us, whether we think those perceptions as justified or not. It should not be all that difficult, at least with those who are not anti-Semitic, and actually pro-Israel.
The alternative is that we will not only lose their support, but will inadvertently be put on a collision course with groups increasingly stuck on their own parochial narratives. We should be smart enough to realize what the consequences of that might be.
[This essay first appeared in the December 20 issue of The Jewish Press]