We are called on to place focus toward changing the system that has greatly disadvantaged and threatened Black, Indigenous and People of Color.
Habitually in response to racial tensions American Jews will pridefully retell our part in the founding of the NAACP and reminisce about the staunch ally-ship during the fight for Civil Rights. Fifty-five years after a promise of equal rights we see more marches and protests demanding justice and equality. The most popular movement of today is Black Lives Matter.
When Soviet Jews needed our help, we acted. We didn’t distract by saying “all lives matter.” It is the same today, a spotlight has shone on Black lives. We are called on to place focus toward changing the system that has greatly disadvantaged and threatened Black, Indigenous and People of Color.
The systems in place that have created this disparity began with the European colonization of America, and with African and African American enslavement throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, then mass incarceration, added Jim Crow Laws, and presents itself today in a number of institutionalized racist practices and policies like in housing and loan discrimination, disproportionate arrest and conviction rates in the justice system, unfair education funding and voter suppression, just to name a few.
As a white-passing Ashkenazi Jew, I stand at an interesting intersection — I’m a person of generational trauma and a victim of white supremacy on one hand, and a person who is afforded white privilege on the other. Many of you are like me in this regard.
White privilege is my ability to speak to you about race and not be seen as self-seeking. It is also the fact that I don’t have to prepare or warn my children that they will be viewed as less than fully American or profiled as violent, threatening, or suspicious — just because of the color of their skin.
Today’s discourse demands we actually recognize race in order to eradicate the bigotry and prejudice that surround it. As uncomfortable as it is, begin to understand your own racial biases and prejudices because once you gain this self- awareness you can work to diminish them. Embrace this work because it will shape a better future not only for our Black family and friends, but also for the future of American Judaism — one more naturally inclusive of Jews of color — more representative of the entire Am Yisrael.
Some of you have said: “I am not a racist, but ‘Black Lives Matter’ doesn’t care about me.”
When one large, diverse, fluid movement with an overarching cause — fighting for justice and the lives of Black people — includes a point of personal tension — it is time to make more dialogue and not the time to burn bridges you didn’t help build nor the time to dismiss the reality that within this movement there are family and friends. It is because we are a moral people that we must stand up for Black lives, like we and our ancestors have in the past.
Anti-racism is the practice of identifying, challenging and changing the values, structures and behaviors that perpetuate systemic racism. I believe becoming a nation of anti-racists is our Sinai moment (God calling us to action) of today. Practicing anti-racism can be done Jewishly — in accumulative acts of heshbon hanefesh (taking personal inventory — or checking your own and your loved ones’ biases), gimmulut chassadim (the giving of loving-kindness) and in tzedek, tzedek tirdof (justice, justice, you shall pursue).
When the work becomes uncomfortable, remember it will pale in comparison to the discomfort that Black, Indigenous and People of Color feel in America under the shadow of white supremacy. Root your anti-racism work with guiding values that are inherently Jewish but intensely universal as well. It is in the ability to balance both our internal work — matters of the Jewish people and the Jewish faith — and in doing external work for those that will see us as we see them, children of Abraham. With this balance we can thoroughly heed our God-given call to do our part in creating a moral and just society.
Peruse this list for some anti-racist resources. Ariana Mentzel is the managing director of the Detroit Center for Civil Discourse, a nonprofit organization with the goal of creating a space for meaningful and effective conversation between peoples of differing ideas and experiences.