A Jewish Perspective of Racial Justice

Rabbi Immerman delivered this sermon at Temple Emanuel in Denver, CO on Rosh Hashanah morning 5777

Four hours. For four hours we let Michael Brown’s body lay in the hot sun on a St. Louis street in 2014. When I started reading the news that night, the next day, weeks and months afterward, and still even today, I had to confront an ugly truth – race is still a major issue in our country. Honestly, I did not understand that race was still such a problem. Even though the courts determined that the individuals in the police department had done no wrong, eighteen months later the Justice Department ruled that the Ferguson judicial system continues to violate black residents’ civil rights. Until we change our culture and eliminate racial bias, we – not the police, not the judges and not the politicians – we are responsible.

Let me tell you what happened one time when I was pulled over.

I was a senior in college and I was the designated driver as my friends and I went to a bar in a small town in upstate New York. Around 11 p.m. one of my friends needed to go home. As I drove back to the bar, alone, with the windows down and the radio turned up, on a cool spring night, I approached a red light in the middle of a deserted intersection, came to a complete stop, saw no one, and turned right.

Immediately I saw lights flashing and heard sirens blaring behind me. My heart rate shot up. I turned off the radio and pulled over. I panicked for a moment, what did I do? Without telling me why he pulled me over, the policeman said “Give me your license and registration and get out of the car. I know you’ve been drinking.” I pleaded with him, my voice shaky with nerves, “Please just give me a breathalyzer, I haven’t had anything to drink all night.” Instead, he made me touch my hand to my nose and walk a straight line, which I completed easily. After a few minutes he let me return to the car, wrote me a ticket for turning right on red, and I drove on into the night. Eventually my heart rate slowed, and my fear subsided. Then I got angry – he gave me a ticket after the entire ordeal and he humiliated me.

As I reflect back, I’m no longer angry. I understand that the policeman was just doing his job– making our community safer. Even if that officer had been in a vindictive mood that night, the entire time I felt safe in the presence of the police. I never thought for one second that my life might be in danger. I didn’t understand at the time that perhaps this is because I’m white.

We have a problem with race in our country. This does not mean our policemen are the problem, even though that’s what currently dominates headlines. I’m not anti-police, I have never been scared of the police and I feel safe when a police car drives past me on a dark street. We have police officers here who are protecting us today and this makes me feel safe and secure and I am grateful for their presence. Issues of race in policing policies are a problem, not the problem. The problem is that racial bias, the ingrained way in which we act differently toward people of other races, is not limited to the police force. It permeates most parts of our communities, from the way we see each other as humans to every part of the judicial system.

When we look at our judicial system, the evidence is very clear that, based on percentage of population, people of color are arrested more than White people, they receive harsher sentences or are coerced into plea deals, they face juries where most people of color have been dismissed, and face much higher levels of incarceration for the same crimes as White people. These disparities mean that a disproportionate number of Black men in our country have been convicted of a crime and that one third of African American males will serve a prison sentence sometime in their lives. This means that children grow up without fathers in the home, without positive role models, and that their wives are left to work multiple jobs to support their families. This creates an endless circle of poverty and despair.

And it gets worse for those who have been in the system.  Once you have served your time in prison, it is nearly impossible to get a job because most job applications require you to check a box if you have ever been convicted of a felony. When we take a broad look at the state of race in our country, we see that people of color continue the struggle to climb out from centuries of subjugation, from slavery to Jim Crow to this current racially biased judicial process. In order to change the system to be more equitable and just we must explore how our own identities influence how we see the world.

My racial identity was built upon my experiences growing up in Shaker Heights, Ohio. One of the legacies of the great city of Shaker Heights was the effort to self-integrate in the sixties, without the necessity to bring in the National Guard – thus avoiding many of the tragic and ugly confrontations that took place in other urban centers in our nation.

We talked about race a lot in our school and we shared what we felt was a heartfelt hope for equality. Yet, as each year progressed, my life became more segregated. By the time I finished high school my AP classes were almost entirely White even though my high school was 51% Black. Unlike the utopian vision of a fully integrated school, the truth was that our school segregated into race and class due to forces deeply rooted in society. Growing up in the Midwest the nineties were a time filled with immeasurable hope – post-cold war threat and pre-terrorism – and we talked about the possibility of sustained world peace. In my idealized and protected bubble, I was oblivious to the fact that, just a few blocks from my house, the War on Drugs was wreaking havoc on families and entire communities of color.

As more and more racial issues are reported we cannot escape the fact that we have a problem. Thus three years ago I began working with interfaith clergy in Denver toward the goal of achieving racial justice. Our work began with dialogue and discussion, and eventually produced a statement on what must happen to see real change. When we broke out into groups by religion and began discussing racial issues with only rabbis, we quickly realized that in order to participate fully in these conversations, we had to dive deeper to understand how our Jewish identity influenced our perspective of race.

We had to unpack our Jewish identities because Judaism is more than a religion. Judaism is also a people, culture and a race unto itself. This means that Jews are connected to and feel responsibility toward other Jews for more than just our shared religious beliefs. At the same time, as we embrace this racial component of our religion, other people have exploited it in order to further agendas of hatred and anti-Semitism. Nazi propaganda attempted to identify Jews by physical characteristics and even the most secular of Jews who had “Jewish sounding” names. This same bigotry persists today.  When people target Jews for their Judaism they do an injustice to the complex identity of Jews.  “Jewish identity is so complex that in order to talk about race in our country we must first unpack our own identities.

While our Jewish community is still primarily White and originates mostly from Eastern Europe, our community is growing more and more diverse. As we look around this room, we see so many faces and distinctive features – skin color, hair color, styles of dress, and other physical features. Our community is comprised of Black, Hispanic, White, Asian and Sephardic Jews, as well as non-Jewish spouses and friends. And we value everyone who is here. Everyone is a vital and important member of our community.

Our community comes together more than any other time during the High Holy Days. Our essential task during this sacred time is to examine our own lives from the past year and explore our identities to figure out who we want to be in the future. We engage in introspection and commit ourselves to self-improvement. In order to be our best selves we need to know who we are and how each part of our identity affects our actions.

None of us are immune to negative racial stereotypes.  Some of us, sitting here together this morning, have been discriminated against because of who we are, our skin color, our national heritage, our culture or our religion. Jewish history is filled with anti-Semitism, slavery, exile, and genocide. Jewish identity is formed around a narrative of oppression: we were slaves in the land of Egypt. Our cultural narrative of oppression impacts how we approach the world.

In order to respond to racial issues from this unique Jewish perspective, several local rabbis gathered this summer to create “Colorado Rabbis for Racial Justice.” We challenged ourselves to understand how our Jewish identity influenced our world-view as it applies to issues of race in the United States. We learned that many of us felt discriminated against simply because we are members of a minority people living in a predominantly Christian society. Anti-Semitism caused us to feel more connected to the plight of people of color.

The perception that Jews and Blacks are connected in the struggle for justice is strengthened by the shared historical experiences of Jews and people of color during the civil rights movement. My grandfather, like most Jews in the US, was subject to 1950’s covenants that forbid Jews and Blacks, from living in the nicest areas of Shaker Heights. Rabbi Foster and many Jewish leaders marched with those from Selma, and in 1965 the civil rights act was signed at the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center in D.C. I have always felt that the struggle for racial equality was equivalent to the fight against anti-Semitism in America.

Through dialogue, however, I learned that perhaps all of this was my own perception. Even though I felt a deep connection to racial justice, perhaps people of color do not see the same connection with their Jewish brothers and sisters. Those years of shared struggle might be forgotten by the Black community or even exaggerated in the Jewish psyche. Furthermore, most White Jews haven’t engaged deeply in conversations about race in the last thirty years and were not subjected to the same discrimination as Black people. It is possible that when people of color see me, a White Ashkenazi Jew, they only see a White man and not a Jew whose people have suffered for 2000 years.

When Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray or Terrence Crutcher were tragically killed, our country began to once again discuss racial issues in a national conversation. Just as when I realized that the police may have treated me differently because of my skin color, many in our country re-awakened to the fact that race is still an issue. In order to learn more about the racism that I didn’t even know existed, I listened to my Black friends about their lives with new ears, and read books detailing the experiences of people of color in the United States, such as The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

Alexander writes the current state of Blacks in America is “defined by marginalization via mass incarceration… Extreme marginalization, as we have seen throughout world history, poses the risk of extermination. Tragedies such as the Holocaust… are traceable to the extreme marginalization of racial and ethnic groups.[1]”  Marginalization of an entire group of people means that they don’t matter.

Decades of marginalization led to a social media hashtag, now a movement, called Black Lives Matter. The organizers used this phrase because the institutional racial bias pervasive in our criminal justice system leads Black people to believe that they do not matter in our society.

We need to join with them in saying that their lives matter. Saying Black Lives Matter is not a referendum on other peoples. Of course everyone’s lives matter.  But when we say “all lives matter,” a phrase coined only after the phrase “Black Lives Matter” became a part of the cultural milieu, we join with 250 years of oppression by marginalizing Black people. It is time for us to declare that Black Lives Matter. To tell people of color that we see them and their holiness. To tell and show them that we love them, just as our lives and everyone’s lives matter.

Since Black Lives Matter became a movement, its leaders have published a formal platform outlining their demands for change in order to create a just and equal society. This multi-faceted platform calls for our society and government to take many important steps to eliminate racial bias and racism in every aspect of society, from our own actions to our greatest institutions. Unfortunately, in what seems to be de rigueur for progressive and liberal causes, the platform calls Israel an apartheid state and accuses Israel of genocide towards Palestinians.

When I first read the platform, I was stunned, hurt, angry and confused about how to move forward. With all of the complex issues surrounding the Israel/Palestinian conflict, a situation that must be solved for the sake of Israel’s future, Israel is not an apartheid state nor does Israel commit genocide against Palestinians.

Just as I perceived a connection between Jewish persecution and racial justice, we now witness the perception that the Palestinian struggle for freedom aligns with the plight of people of color.

The leaders of the Reform Movement responded immediately to this controversial platform by declaring that even though Israel is unjustly vilified, the Reform Movement is still committed to racial justice.[2] Even though our perceived overlapping social histories might compel Jews to fight for racial justice, we must not let others disenfranchise us from engaging in this important work in the United States. Racial justice is about so much more than Israel. We cannot let those who seek to conflate these two issues remove Jews from this important conversation, nor can we use this language as an excuse to remove ourselves from action and dialogue.

In order to stand up for racial justice and fight for equality we need to confront our discomfort with the Black Lives Matter movement. When we name our discomfort and commit to working together, we move towards making a dent in the racial issues of our time. As Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.[3]

The time is now for us to challenge our assumptions about race and strive for equality. My conversations about racial justice have shown that we need to stand up at moments both big and small to show that we care about people of color and to say that Black lives matter. This November we have a chance to stand together. Our state legislators worked to eliminate language in our state constitution that still permits slavery in cases of criminal conviction. Given the racial bias in our judicial system, the fact that we still allow slavery is a hateful eye staring at people of color in our state. The State Senate and House unanimously approved this constitutional amendment which will appear on our ballots. Amendment T will amend the Colorado State constitution to remove the provision that still allows slavery in Colorado and make everyone feel more valued in society.

On Yom Kippur our congregation will welcome Reverends Tawana Davis and Amanda Henderson from the Interfaith Alliance to lead us in a conversation during our afternoon study session called “Peeling Away the Layers: Facing Racism in our Community.” We will explore the issues of identity and community that unite and divide people of faith in Colorado and have an opportunity to discuss how the values of the High Holy Days challenge and clarify our perspectives on race.

We won’t achieve true equality until we all work together for tolerance and acceptance. Our role in this era of racial issues will be defined by the actions we take outside of this building, by the relationships we build and by our ability to show up in an authentic way.

Each of us is entering the New Year with our own ideas about who we are and who we want to become, and we will encounter people who are different than us. All human beings were created in the image of God and each of us reflect the image of God differently than the next. We must work to see the divine image in everyone. I encourage you to understand how your own racial identity impacts the way in which you see and act in the world.

The rabbis teach us that we are all responsible for the welfare of our community and therefore we must act to ensure that everyone is treated with dignity and respect. We should all be able to live free from the fear that a traffic stop could end our lives because of our skin color or religion. We should be able to live free from the fear that any aspect of our identity could lead to discrimination. As we begin our new year, may we all dedicate ourselves to creating better world.

Shana tova u’mituka. May everyone in the coming year taste the sweetness of equality and justice.

[1] Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, pg 86. 2010

[2] http://www.rac.org/reform-movement-leaders-reaffirm-commitment-racial-justice-condemn-movement-black-lives-platform?utm_source=press&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=israel

[3] http://www.thekingcenter.org/blog/mlk-quote-week-times-challenge-and-controversy, accessed 9/6/2016