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Racism in America

Shabbat Shavu’ot 5780

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ

I had a sermon prepared for tonight about Shavu’ot and Mt. Sinai and revelation. It was an appropriate sermon, following the wonderful Virtual Tikun Leil Shavu’ot we enjoyed last night, but in light of current events I think it’s necessary to talk about a subject that somehow keeps coming up in terrible ways in our country: racism.

The brutal murder of an African-American man named George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis this week, with three fellow policemen participating to varying degrees in that killing, including all of them kneeling on a 48 year-old man who was handcuffed and lying on the ground, has triggered a series of protests and riots in the typically peaceful Twin Cities and around the country. That atrocity was filmed in full—it lasts ten minutes—from two different angles and of course shared on social media. The next day all the policemen involved were fired. After a four-day delay—which gave protestors plenty of time to move from peaceful assembly to full-on rioting and looting, including burning a police station—the main perpetrator has now been arrested and charged with third-degree murder.

In the intervening days the actions of these renegade policemen have been condemned by law enforcement leaders throughout the United States, and by nearly all responsible public figures. The murder of George Floyd—and if you’ve watched the whole sickening video, you know it can’t be considered anything but a homicide—is a shondeh, and in many ways it is something much worse. It damages the standing of the many men and women who put their lives on the line for all of us every day, and tragically it brings discredit to the great number of police and sheriffs and keepers of the public order who, in the words of the Mishnah, prevent us from tearing each other apart. It is a terrible incident, and it should shock us.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t shock us, because it is far from an isolated incident. In fact, there have been several killings recently that are nearly as egregiously terrible, and they don’t shock us enough either. And in the past few years there have been a number of relatively similar killings, or the very least deaths in custody of individuals that fit much too easily into the same sort of category, and highlight a problem that some of us naively believed was behind us in this, the third decade of the 21st century: racism.

Look, it has been a difficult enough time here in America, the last two and a half months of COVID-19 pandemic, so that it goes without saying that such a horrible event could not come at a worse time. Of course, I'm not sure what would be a good time for such an atrocity.

A few observations: one wonders at the arrogance of anyone serving in an official capacity acting in this brutal way on a public street and not expecting someone would be standing nearby with a smartphone camera capturing it all. As it turned out, at least two people filmed the incident, and when the EMTs arrived bystanders said to them, speaking of the policemen involved, “They killed this man.”

Mind you, George Floyd was being arrested for passing what appeared to be a counterfeit $20 bill—that is, an apparent crime, but surely not a crime of violence. While the officers involved claimed he resisted arrest, the videos do not show that at all. He was certainly not resisting arrest while he was lying on the ground with his hands cuffed behind him next to the wheel of a police vehicle and a man kneeled on his throat, choking him to death.

I’m struck by the fact that the very same week authorities in New Jersey managed to peacefully arrest a very large young white man who apparently murdered several people in Connecticut and then fled across various state lines. And by the fact that recent white perpetrators of mass violence, such as the evil man who murdered 11 Jews at prayer in Pittsburgh 18 months ago, were captured by authorities without being killed.

There have been a troubling number of awful examples of racist killings of African-Americans in the past months. These include the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, whose main crime was going jogging in a suburb of Atlanta in February, and whose killers were an off-duty policeman and his son and another accomplice, a crime that went unprosecuted until the video of that brutality was publicized. And in Louisville, Kentucky the police killing of Breonna Taylor in March in her own home was horrific. Taylor was an EMT who was shot eight times after police broke in without warning into the wrong house pursuing a narcotics warrant for an individual who had already been arrested. Riots in Louisville this week resulted in 7 more people being shot, apparently mostly by one another.

The rioting that arises in response to these killings is now predictable, and there is a reason for it: it is because nothing seems to change. From the killing of Trayvon Martin to the killing of Michael Brown to the killing of Tamir Rice to the killing of Eric Garner—well, there’s a reason we are not shocked. It’s because it keeps happening.

I don’t think any of us here tonight, or joining us on Facebook of Zoom, has participated in any racist killing in our entire lives. But I do think racism is something that we, as Jews, need to act against. Because perhaps more than any other minority group in human history we should understand what it means to be treated as subhuman, as less than equal, as unworthy of legal protection and justice. We know what it means to have people attack us because we are Jews. When the Tree of Life synagogue was attacked in Pittsburgh, or the shul in Poway, California, or the kosher deli in New Jersey last fall, or the Chanukah party attacked last December in New York, we felt the violence of racism unleashed at us. But we Jews are, in one way, fortunate: the official arbiters of justice in America are on our side. We believe, rightly, that law enforcement and the strong arm of the law seek to protect us from the irrational hate of racists.

That is not the case with the African-American community in the United States, a community that dates back to the 17th century. They do not, in general, trust that law enforcement will treat them even-handedly. They genuinely believe that many police forces have racist cops, and that they are targeted for violent attacks far more than should be the case. And after the awful videos we can now see from each of these terrible events, how do you blame them? Who can deny that racism is still prevalent in America, and that we have a lot of work to do?

And you know, while we Jews tend to believe that we are free of racism, I wonder if that is really as true as we would like to believe it to be. Maybe we are actually part of the problem, too.

I interviewed an author the other day for the Too Jewish Radio Show, Marra B. Gad, who wrote a book called The Color of Love: the Diary of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl. The interview will air in a few weeks, while I am recovering from my upcoming back surgery. Her story is an interesting one. Her mother was a Jewish young woman who had an affair with an African-American man around 1970. She became pregnant, and wanted to give the baby up for adoption. Working with a rabbi in New York, she was adopted just after birth. The rabbi hadn’t told her adoptive family that she was half-black in advance, by the way; but after the initial surprise they accepted her and loved her. And even though they hadn’t been able to get pregnant before adopting her, they soon were able to have natural children as well, and she had two younger siblings in a very loving Jewish home.

It should have been a beautiful story about acceptance in the contemporary Jewish world, a world where we are likely to find Asian-American Jews, African-American Jews, Hispanic Jews and many other blends in what I have always seen as a beautiful rainbow of the contemporary Jewish community. I am, perhaps, naïve. While my first bar mitzvah in Tucson was an African-American boy—he’s now a rabbi, by the way—and I distinctly remember one bar/bat mitzvah class that included a Korean girl, a Vietnamese girl, another African-American boy, a Japanese girl and a redheaded daughter of two Jews-by-Choice, that doesn’t mean that everyone is so accepting of racial difference in Judaism.

Ms. Gad talked about how early in her Reform religious school a rumor circulated that her Jewish mother had been raped by a black man and that was why she was the color she was. She was 7 or 8 when she went home and asked her parents what “rape” meant.

And those kinds of experiences continued as she went through her very engaged synagogue, youth group, and summer camp life growing up in Reform congregations. They even continued in her own extended family, where relatives would give her siblings gifts but not give them to her.

In fact, they continued at the URJ Biennial convention last fall after she wrote this book. She is a player in the film industry in Los Angeles, a very successful 50 year old woman who arranges funding for the movie industry. Here she was, an author and a presenter at the Biennial, the big Reform movement convention, a place that sees itself as color-blind and fully embracing all the possibilities of the diversity of Judaism today. And yet, in spite of the fact that she was wearing a neon-pink “Presenter Badge” because she was giving sessions at the convention, she was consistently asked to bring up towels to people’s hotel rooms, or asked, “What are you doing here?” or “Do you belong here?”

Look, there’s no comparison between being treated as the help and being killed on the street. Still, it makes you wonder: just how many of us have some racism still within our make-up?

So I ask you tonight: do you harbor some element of racism in yourself tonight? Do you see those of different races or ethnicities as so different as to be inferior to good old white Jews? Do you retain a vestigial discomfort with people whom you perceive as alien?

Because until you recognize that element in yourself, you probably can’t do enough to change the troubled character of America in this area.

I used to think that because I grew up in multi-cultural, multi-ethnic Los Angeles that I didn’t have any racism. And then I realized that my home-town had two major race riots in my own lifetime, big ones with killings and looting and the National Guard called out. And that perhaps I didn’t have right to criticize racism until I acknowledged that I probably had some myself.

You know, maybe it’s appropriate for us to talk about this at Shavu’ot after all. Because the great Jewish teaching is that all of us stood at Mt. Sinai, every Jew born and not yet born. And that means every Jew who became Jewish, of any and all races and ethnicities, accepted this great covenant with God. All of us are equally responsible to create justice in this world, truly color-blind justice. Within ourselves. And then to work to create that in our troubled society.

May this be God’s will; but most importantly, may this be our will. And may we begin this process right now.

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