The natural reaction that I think we all felt was utter revulsion as we heard the news from America of the murder of George Floyd and many of us watched the video. But as the protest spread and the accusations of institutionalised racism and societal racism, I could not help but wonder what does that have to do with me? What does that have to do with us as Jews. After all no race or ethnicity has being persecuted more in their history than the Jewish people.
In 1958 Martin Luther King himself at the JC convention declared that “my people were brought to America in chains, your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is borne of our common struggle for centuries not only to rid ourselves of the bondage but to make the oppression of any people by others an impossibility. In fact, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who had personally experienced the horrors of prejudice through the Holocaust became a central figure in the struggle for civil rights. He worked closely with Dr Martin Luther King, lecturing, and famously marching with him in the fight for civil liberties.
It occurred to me as I watched the horrific video that recorded George Floyd being murdered, that somebody had chosen to film instead of attempting to stop that murder taking place. It got me thinking we also bear witness to statements and prejudice is that acceptable?
There was a statement delivered by Martin Luther King that troubled me and made me reconsider that perhaps we all are responsible for prejudice and racism in our society. He was once asked about whether it was correct to endanger the lives of innocent bystanders when he led a march that he knew would encounter violence as occurred in Selma in 1965. His answer was quite simple and direct yet astounding he said – the term is an oxymoron if you are a bystander you cannot be innocent. On reflection our passivity arguably makes us complicit with the racism being experienced.
The Torah tells us “do not stand idly by the blood of your brother” passivity and inactivity makes one culpable and responsible and in fact in Jewish law there is a further Talmudic statement referred to as “Shetikah Kehodah” silence is deemed acquiescence .
However much we pride ourselves that we do not hold prejudices and we are not racist; we certainly must consider what if anything we as individuals and as a nation are doing to actively eliminate racism.
Sadly a number of years ago I worked on a summer programme with Ethiopian new Olim in Israel and it quickly became apparent that they were not being treated equally and this was followed later by protests expressing frustration and anger by the Ethiopian new residents many of whom felt they were being treated as second class citizens. There is by all accounts work to be done to eliminate the inequalities that exist in Israel between the diverse nation that we are.
In Britain we are all aware of instances of racism, discrimination and inequality that are prevalent. From sporting events for instance at football matches which too often have been overshadowed by racist chanting to elitist societal events many are felt as off limits to segments of society that may come from different backgrounds.
In the same fashion as we would expect and hope that other ethnicities would stand up and to speak out against anti-Semitism it is not enough, and it was never enough to remain silent in the face of prejudice. Merely to post images and comments on social media or attending a protest in the current climate does not stop racism or any type of prejudice.
The story is told of a man who wanted to change the world so he tried to change the world and he realised very quickly that he couldn’t succeed on his own, so he then he tried to change his city and he still couldn’t so on his own, then he tried to change his family and he recognised that he also could not succeed in changing them by himself. Finally, he recognised that the only real change he could bring about was changing himself. Real change, lasting change can only come about when we start to make changes in our behaviour. When we are no longer prepared to sit on our hands and to be indifferent to the plight, prejudices, and discriminations that we bear witness to regularly in our society.
It is imperative now that we stand in solidarity with black communities both in America and in Britain. We must make the commitment to ourselves to confront and stamp out racism and prejudice wherever we encounter it ensuring the dream of Martin Luther King at long last will become a reality.
(Published Times of Israel 5/06/20)