Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Our Challenge

From RRW
Guest Blogger 
Rabbi Aharon Frazer :

via his brother-in-law's brother
Rabbi Ben Kohanim

I write this with trepidation, it is deeply personal and will undoubtedly upset many people. But it needs to be said and there has never been a more opportune time.

It is heartening to see many Jewish people showing solidarity with black Americans in their struggle to end mistreatment by the police. 

But to be honest, I think it is a relatively easy cause for the community to support. We are not the police, so it doesn't force us to do introspection (heshbon nefesh). Why not jump on the bandwagon with this popular cause - what do we have to lose?

However, there is another disgraceful situation in which we are complicit if not personally responsible. I am referring to the persistent casual racism in the Jewish community. 

It is not victimless and it is not harmless - it is exactly  the biblical prohibition of Onaat Dvarim - hurtful speech. As a child of a black convert to Judaism I have been personally traumatized by this many times. So many refined people have been wonderful friends to me personally and to my family, and I would never want to seem ungrateful for that. Yet there are also far too many incidents of racism for me to ignore. I will share some that come to mind. 

In our elementary school we had a rabbi who, when telling stories, would invariably play the role of the "bad guy" in his parody of black american english. 

In my high school, we had a rabbi who was "more religious" than our local community, he was from the Chofetz Chaim tradition, which places a special emphasis on "purity of speech". This did not stop him from telling jokes about "shvartza"s to the class. He was never held accountable. To this day I don't know if anyone besides me saw a contradiction in his behavior. 

During my first year as an american yeshiva student in israel, friends joked about how they would take pictures of themselves with an ethiopian girl posing as their girlfriend, to "give their parents a heart attack". 

At Yeshiva University, I was in the class of the most prominent rabbinic leader in the institution, he spoke derisively about the hispanic residents of washington heights while I was in his class, and years later was recorded making crude remarks about "shvartza"s. He was never held accountable. He continues to be the most revered figure for the modern orthodox Jewish community in NY. 

(This is not exclusively about black people, and not exclusively an American phenomenon. In our synagogue in Alon Shvut the rabbi regularly speaks about Arabs as inferior beings in his sermons. I am not aware of anyone besides myself who ever walked out in protest from such a sermon. Far from being an outlier, our rabbi is probably within the mainstream in Israel.)

These are just some examples that come to mind. They are very far from an exhaustive list of what I have heard firsthand. While I don't appear black, I consider myself enough a part of that heritage to be personally hurt by such comments. To wonder whether the speakers might view me as inferior. To feel I don't belong in a place where such language goes unanswered. One can only imagine what "fully" black people might feel if they heard such remarks. 

Our community needs to hold people accountable for this outrageous, disgraceful and hurtful speech. We have no business marching to protest the police, before we hold ourselves to our own standards, to kavod habriyot (respect for all people), to derech erets (being civil). 

People are in denial about how destructive such comments are. About how much pain it inflicts on marginal members of their own congregation or on their neighbors when they cover for prominent people who speak this way. About what it teaches their students and children when they look the other way. I can never fully respect the rabbis and teachers who speak this way. I can never feel fully welcome in places where they are admired. One of the traits that drew me to Yeshivat Har Etzion was that this type of racism was an anathema to its founders, Rabbis Lichtenstein and Amital. But unfortunately, they stood out as exceptional among some of their peers. 

This is something I have carried inside my whole life and never spoken about publicly in such a direct way. I write it with great pain, as someone who loves our community, and has been loved by it, and who is not, on balance, a victim. But having said all that, there are things which are unacceptable and need to change. 

Please, I beg you, if you agree, don't just read this post and throw on a like. Act on it. Ask uncomfortable questions about your congregation, your yeshiva, your rabbi's sermon. Call people out on it when they speak this way, or when they invite people who do to be guest lecturers. Keep pushing until you get satisfactory answers.

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