I’d like to begin my remarks today where I left off on Rosh Hashanah:
Because of our diverse, multi-racial nature, Jews must necessarily embrace anti-racism as a sacred value. The Jewish Diaspora is a microcosm of the world we seek to create. If the term Ahavat Yisrael means love of your fellow Jew, it must also affirm that love crosses all lines and borders and boundaries.
“Jews must embrace anti-racism as a sacred value” – it must be a mitzvah if you will. At Tzedek Chicago, we’ve actually articulated this as one of our congregation’s core values. If you go to our website, you will read: “We promote a Judaism rooted in anti-racist values and understand that anti-Semitism is not separate from the systems that perpetuate prejudice and discrimination.”
Like all of our other values this one has very practical implications. It will necessarily guide the choices we make as a community: the issues we work on, the groups we stand with, the public statements we make. And in general it will mean we must always foreground the question: “what does it mean, as a Jewish congregation observe anti-racism as a sacred value?”
I’m sure most liberal Jews wouldn’t find this question all that controversial. After all, American Jewry has a long and venerable history of standing up for racial equality, particularly when it comes to our participation in the civil rights movement. But I’d suggest this question presents an important challenge to the Jewish community of the 21st century. And it was actually put to the test this past summer, when a the Movement for Black Lives released their policy statement, “Vision for Black Lives.”
I’m sure many of you are very familiar with Movement for Black Lives. It’s a coalition of over 50 organizations from around that country that focus on issues of concern to the black community. One year ago, their Policy Table began an extensive process, convening national and local groups, and engaging with researchers and community members. This summer they published their Vision for Black Lives: a comprehensive policy platform that focuses on six main areas: Ending the War on Black People, Reparations, Invest/Divest, Economic Justice, Community Control and Political Power.
I will say unabashedly that I believe the Vision for Black Lives platform is one of the most important American policy statements of our time. It’s both an unflinching analysis of the institutional racism against black people in country as well as a smart policy statement about what can be done (and in some cases already being done) to dismantle it.
What makes Vision for Black Lives platform particularly unique is that it wasn’t produced by the usual method, namely by a think tank or special interest group. Rather, it was developed by a coalition of national and grassroots organizations that reflect the communities most directly affected by these particular issues. Moreover, it serves both as an ideological manifesto as well as a practical hard-nosed policy statement that lays out a path toward achieving very specific legislative goals. In so doing, as many have observed, it is moving Black Lives Matter from a structureless network of local organizations toward becoming a genuine political movement.
To quote from their introduction:
We want this platform to be both a visionary agenda for our people and a resource for us. We take as a departure-point the reality that by every metric – from the hue of its prison population to its investment choices – the U.S. is a country that does not support, protect or preserve Black life. And so we seek not reform but transformation…
Our hope is that this is both an articulation of our collective aspirations as well as a document that provides tangible resources for groups and individuals doing the work. We recognize that some of the demands in this document will not happen today. But we also recognize that they are necessary for our liberation.
This platform is also important because it doesn’t limit its concern to issues facing the black community alone. It understands that the systemic racism impacting people of color in this country is but a part of many interlocking systems of oppression that affect communities the world over. As the platform puts it: “We are a collective that centers and is rooted in Black communities, but we recognize we have a shared struggle with all oppressed people; collective liberation will be a product of all of our work.”
If you haven’t read Vision for Black Lives yet, I highly recommend it. I’ll warn you it’s not easy. It’s very long and heavily referenced, so really reading and integrating it will take commitment. I’ve read it three times now and every time I did, I discovered something new and challenging that I hadn’t considered before. But in the end, I found it profoundly inspiring – and that is not something you often say about policy platforms. I would go as far as to call it a prophetic document. As I quoted earlier, it seeks “not reform but transformation.”
Like me, I’m sure many of you have read innumerable books and articles that analyze the institutional racism inflicted on people of color in this country. Usually they leave us pent up with frustration or else just a sense of abject hopelessness. The problem is just so vast and pervasive – how on earth can we ever hope to dismantle it? But this is first time I’ve read such an analysis along with extensive prescriptions toward political solutions. It lays out the problems then it puts forth real solutions. But it has no illusions about the daunting task ahead. As the report says. “We recognize that some of the demands in this document will not happen today. But we also recognize that they are necessary for our liberation.” (When I read this, I can’t help but recall the famous ancient dictum by Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”)
Is Jewish community ready to observe anti-racism as a sacred value? I think one important test would be to judge by its response to the release of the Vision for Black Lives platform. And in this regard, I’m sorry to say that the American Jewish establishment failed the test miserably.
Almost immediately after its release, every mainstream Jewish organization responded with statements that ranged from critical to outright hostility. Why? Because in the Invest/Divest section there is one section that advocates diverting financial resources away from military expenditures and investing in “domestic infrastructure and community well being.” And in that section there were some brief references to Israel – one that referred to “the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people” and another that called Israel “an apartheid state.” And as you might expect from a section entitled Invest/Divest, there was a statement of solidarity with the nonviolent Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
The first official Jewish response to Vision for Black Lives came from the Boston Jewish Community Relations Committee, just two days after it was released. The Boston JCRC said it was “deeply dismayed” by the report and denounced the use of the word genocide and its support for BDS. It had nothing more to say about this voluminous, wide-ranging platform. It spent seven paragraphs on this one issue – and most of that was devoted to this one word.
Over the next few weeks, one Jewish organization after another denounced the platform for its statements about Israel with only a glancing nod to its analysis, its conclusions and its policy recommendations. Jonathan Greenblatt, the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League called its reference to Israel “repellent” and added patronizingly, “let’s work to keep our eyes on the prize.” Even liberal Jewish organizations such as J St., the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and T’ruah, an American rabbinical organization devoted to human rights, responded with criticism and chastisement.
These responses tell us all we need to know about the Jewish communal establishment’s commitment to the value of anti-racism. But it really shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Jewish institutional community hasn’t been in real solidarity with black Americans and people of color for decades. Most of what we call solidarity is actually nostalgia. For far too long we’ve been championing the role of Jews in the American civil rights movement, invoking the memory of Jewish martyrs such as Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman and Jewish heroes such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. But those days are over – and it is disingenuous of us to wield its memory as some kind of entitlement when it comes to issues of racism in the 21st century.
There was a time that being a Jew in America meant being part of a discriminated minority, but that has no longer been the case for generations. Today, white Jews are part of the white majority – and as I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah, since white Jews are racialized as part of the majority, we enjoy all of the privileges that come along with it.
I know for many American Jews, particularly young Jews, it might seem downright silly to ask whether or not white Jews are white. But it is actually a subject of debate – at least among white Jews. In fact it’s become a something of a cottage industry. (If you doubt me, just Google “are Jews white?” and see how many hits you get.)
There’s actually a very simple way to answer this question: ask a Jew of color. Let Lina Morales, a Mexican-American Jew, who recently wrote a powerful article on the subject explain it to you:
With all due respect to my white Jewish friends and colleagues, people of color in the United States don’t need to take a course on critical race theory to understand the nuances of race. Anti-Semitism exists, and I’ve received a fair amount of it from fellow people of color, but its impact and extent doesn’t compare to the systematic racism of American society. White Jews simply don’t face the criminalization that black and brown people in this country do. They are not locked up or deported in record numbers. Nor is their demographic growth or struggle to not be capriciously murdered by police considered a threat by a large and reactionary part of our population.
It should be mentioned that thankfully, there were some Jewish organizations that did in fact welcome and endorse the Visions for Black Lives. Not surprisingly, all of them came from outside the Jewish institutional establishment – organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, and Jews for Economic and Racial Justice. For me, the most trenchant and powerful response came from the Jews of Color Caucus, which works in partnership with JVP. Among the many important points made in their statement was this one that was sent directly to the Jewish communal establishment:
Recent statements by the Boston JCRC, Truah: the Rabbinic Council for Human Rights, and The Union for Reform Judaism condemning the BLM Platform also send the message that the lives of Black Jews (along with Black gentiles) directly affected by US police brutality are less important than protecting Israel from scrutiny. We reject this message and call on these groups to commit themselves to honor the leadership of Jews of Color, including those critical of Israel…
We are appalled at the actions of the white US institutional Jewish community in detracting and distracting from such a vital platform at a time when Black lives are on the line, simply because the organizers chose to align their struggle with the plight of Palestinians. US Black relationships to Palestine and Israel have never been monolithic, but there are deep historical ties between Black and Palestinian struggle that go back to the Black Power Era. Any attempt to co-opt Black struggle while demeaning these connections, is an act of anti-Black erasure.
Their reference to the Black Power movement of the late 1960s is critically important. This marks the time in which white Jews were leaving cities for the suburbs to become part of the white majority. It also marks the time, following the Six Day War, in which Israel began to become central to American Jewish identity. For many white American Jews, this new relationship between Black and Palestinian liberation movements was experienced as a betrayal of former allies. Many American Jews looked to Zionism as the “liberation movement of the Jewish people” and considered it downright anti-Semitic to claim that Israel was actually a settler colonial project that militarily expelled and displaced indigenous people.
Of course, many American Jews still identify deeply with Israel. And that is why the Jewish institutional responses to the Vision for Black Lives resonate with a strong sense of betrayal. That is why the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt wrote we must “keep our eyes on the prize.” There is this yearning for a coalition that no longer exists – and a refusal to accept, as the Movement for Black Lives does, that Israel is part of this system of oppression.
So many otherwise liberal American Jews will insist: Israel is different. Don’t compare Israel to the racist system that oppresses blacks and people of color in this country. Don’t compare Israel to apartheid South Africa or any other state where one ethnic group wields power over another. It’s not the same thing.
Of course every nation is different in many ways from one another – but it’s time to admit that when it comes to systems of oppression, Israel is not different. And this is precisely the place that so many in the Jewish community, even those who are otherwise progressive in every other way, are simply unwilling to go. To admit that in the end, Israel is by its very nature an oppressor state: a system that privileges one ethnic group over another. And that this system is fundamentally connected to a larger system of oppression.
In fact it plays a very integral role in that system. The very same tear gas canisters that are used daily against Palestinians are the ones that were used against protesters in Ferguson. The same security apparatus that is used on the West Bank separation wall is the one that is used on the border wall that the US is building on our southern border with Mexico. The same stun grenades that Israeli soldiers use against demonstrators in Bil’in or Nabi Saleh are the very same ones used by American SWAT teams in Cincinnati and Oakland and St. Paul.
Here in Chicago, as in so many cities around the country, there is a new recognition of how the militarization of police departments is being used in ways that target communities of color. Those who say that we can’t compare this systemic racism to Israel should know that Chicago’s Jewish Federation regularly sponsors “police exchange programs” – trips that take the CPD to go to Israel to learn the latest military techniques from the IDF.
Regarding these exchange programs, the JUF’s Executive VP Jay Tcath has said this:
Helping connect and thereby improve the work of both Israeli and Chicago police is a natural role for JUF, committed as we are to the safety of the entire Chicago community and the Jewish State. From advising us on ways to enhance the physical security of our Jewish community’s institutions to helping us ensure the safety of JUF events – everything from dinners to pro-Israel rallies – we are grateful for the extraordinary commitment of CPD, Cook County’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management and our other public law enforcement partners. These missions to Israel both reflect and help deepen these valued relationships.
So we can’t have it both ways. The Jewish establishment cannot simultaneously empower the systems that oppress people of color in this country and at the same time say we stand in solidarity with them. If we are going to be anti-racist, we can’t make an exception for Israeli militarism or rationalize away its critical place in these systems.
Some of us have already made it clear where we stand. But sooner than later all of us in Jewish community will have stop dancing around this issue and make a decision. When it comes to Israel, we cannot continue to cling to a two state solution that Israel has already made impossible. As I’ve said before, the real choice we will have to face is a choice between two one-state solutions: one apartheid state in which a Jewish minority rules the non-Jewish majority or a state where all have equal rights and citizenship, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.
But on still deeper level, we must also reckon with the separatist assumptions behind the “two state solution.” What are we really doing when we advocate for a Jewish state that must have a demographic majority of Jews in order to exist? The same liberal Jews who cling to the notion of a two state solution would recoil at the suggestion of solving Jim Crow by separating black Americans from white Americans. That the only way two peoples living in the same country can co-exist is to physically segregate them from one another.
So to return once again to my original question: how can we, as Jews, embrace anti-racism as a sacred Jewish value? I’d like to offer a few suggestions in conclusion:
1. It would mean that the white Jewish establishment must embrace the concept of solidarity. Specifically, that means we cannot make it about us. The objects of oppression are the ones who must dictate the terms of their struggle. If we have issues with how they articulate their vision, we must raise these issues with them face to face in genuine relationship – not through public chastisement.
2. It would mean letting go of our reverence of a civil rights era that is long past and take an honest look at our complicity in the current reality in which white Jews are part of the privileged white majority. Anti-Semitism does exist in the US today, but it is not institutionally imposed upon us the way it is upon communities of color.
3. It would mean letting go of the old paradigm of “Black-Jewish relations.” According to some estimates, 10% to 20% of Jews in this country are Jews of color. Estimates of black Jews in the US range from 20,000 to 200,000. And unlike white Jews, Jews of color are impacted by institutional racism. Any new anti-racist paradigm must reject Jewish white supremacy and center the experience of Jews of color.
4. It would mean subjecting Israel to the same analysis we use when it comes to our own country. Israel is not separate from the systems that oppress people of color at home and abroad. We must be willing to identify these connections and call them out as we would any other aspect of institutional racism.
Finally, and perhaps most difficult, it would mean to letting go of a Zionist dream that never really was. To recognize that the Zionist dream was realized on the backs of Palestinians – just as the American Dream was realized on the backs of indigenous peoples and blacks who were brought to this country in chains. Yes, it painful to give up on dreams, but it is even more painful to hold onto them until they turn into a nightmare for all concerned.
After all, on Yom Kippur we vow to let go of the dreams of what might have been, but have led us down the wrong path. But it is also the day in which we can dream new dreams. We can dream of a world in which systems of exploitation and oppression are no more. As Sarah Thompson reminded us in her guest sermon last night, we must begin the year by focusing on the end – even if we know that by the end of the year we will not have arrived at the ultimate end we seek. To paraphrase the Vision for Black Lives, we recognize that some of these dreams will not happen today – or even in our lifetime. But we also recognize that they are necessary for our liberation.
May we realize this dream bimheyra beyameynu – speedily in our day.
On Yom Kippur, journalist Max Blumenthal delivered this powerful presentation during the afternoon program at Tzedek Chicago, where he discussed what he witnessed in Gaza during Israel’s military onslaught last summer. He wrote about his experiences at length in his recent book, “The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza.”
Max attended our services for the duration of Yom Kippur and remarked to me on more than one occasion how important it was for him to be invited to speak in a Jewish congregation for the first time.
For my part, I could not think of a more appropriate presentation for the Jewish Day of Atonement.
Please watch and share…
Here is the guest sermon that was delivered by Tzedek Chicago member Jay Stanton at our Erev Yom Kippur service last Tuesday night:
Why is this night different from all other nights? I know – wrong holiday. Bear with me. Why is the Day of Atonement different from all other nights?
I] Asking permission
Tonight is the only time we ask permission to pray with other wrongdoers. When actively atoning, we easily acknowledge our wrongdoings. Each of us has transgressed. Today is the most obvious day to pray with transgressors. So why ask permission? Acknowledging our capacity to inflict harm could render us speechless, unable to continue repenting. Giving ourselves permission, having God grant us permission, gives us the courage to confront our failing selves. Is not confronting the self the goal of Yom Kippur?
In our Tzedek community, we face two major obstacles to achieving this goal. The first is feeling we have little merit. A few months ago, my friend Kelvin and I came to an intersection while walking. A car was coming, but there was a stop sign, so I stepped into the intersection, and Kelvin followed hesitantly. After we crossed, Kelvin confessed that, as a Black man, he cannot assume cars will stop for him even at a stop sign. I acknowledged my white privilege and thanked Kelvin for alerting me to this instance of it, of which I was previously unaware. Kelvin thanked me for being aware of my privilege.
From this interaction, Kelvin gained an ally; I gained guilt. How could I, someone actively engaged in antiracist work, be so oblivious to this white privilege? But my awareness of my privilege was enough for Kelvin that day. Our sense of immense guilt over our sins, collective and individual, could paralyze us. How do we move forward with teshuvah when the task is so great?
The other major obstacle we face is potential denial. We created our core values of a Judaism beyond borders, a Judaism of solidarity, a Judaism of nonviolence, a Judaism of spiritual freedom, a Judaism of equity, a Judaism beyond nationalism. We value these just ideals, so we could easily say: therefore, we practice a Judaism beyond borders, a Judaism of solidarity, a Judaism of nonviolence, a Judaism of spiritual freedom, a Judaism of equity, a Judaism beyond nationalism. We did teshuvah for the harms of border-obsessed Judaisms, insular Judaisms, violent Judaisms, coercive Judaisms, oppressive Judaisms, and nationalist Judaisms. We’re done now: we put justice on the agenda and only act justly. Anyone complaining of injustice in our ranks is wrong.
The fear of that outcome weighs heavily on many of us. Are we destined to abandon our values, or, worse, to become some dystopian entity talking justice while perpetuating injustice? I don’t share this fear, and my reason is not because I optimistically see Tzedek as a utopia immune from injustice or a meritocracy of the most righteous folks in the Chicago area. I do not think we can adhere to our core values completely. We will miss the mark. Even behaving our best, we were socialized in systems of oppression which we cannot leave at the door because we wish. We are still unlearning Islamophobia, racism, sexism, transphobia, classism, ableism, heterosexism, Ashkenormativity, militarism, capitalism, and nationalist exceptionalism, to name a few. We cannot completely unlearn these biases. So we will be wrong; we know that. That’s the best possible news for us going into Yom Kippur.
We are practiced at calling out harmful behavior. The Rev. Stacy Alan teaches that defining sin abstractly is impossible, but that we all get the concept of “messing up.” Tokheja, rebuke, is the prerequisite for meaningful teshuvah. Understanding our wrongs is the only way we can amend our behavior.
We are also committed to becoming more just. As a new community, we are in danger of creating margins. Some people are in the center and some pushed to the edges. Tzedek, however, has another structure in mind. Brant asking me to speak tonight demonstrates this structure. No one would begrudge Brant speaking. We might learn something more interesting, and, we, most of all me, might prefer it. At Tzedek, we each have a say. How many Jewish communities are being addressed tonight by a young, less-than-able-bodied, Sephardic, transgender recovering addict who grew up in an interfaith household? In any other community I would be on the fringe, as I am also here. At Tzedek, Brant is on the fringe, too. We will function best if all at the margin, mimicking this garment, this tallit, evening wear traditionally only this night. The tzitzit, the fringes, are the parts that remind us to engage in mitzvot. At Tzedek, we strive to live at the edge, on the fringe of the community. We are not creating an insular circle, but facing outward, like tzitzit. That way, we avoid a power and oppression dynamic, and we have enough of a marginal perspective that we can call out injustice within our walls. The edge here defines the center, not the reverse.
III] Jacob and Esau
A good structure means little without substance. We need not to only identify injustice but also work to correct it. We need to do our part. We need to take Yom Kippur seriously; we need to take the project of teshuvah seriously.
Again, we face obstacles. Traditionally, the Yom Kippur liturgy dances between two problematic theologies of an authoritarian deity: one, a strict adherent of reward and punishment, and the other, a completely arbitrary megalomaniac. How can we reconcile our knowledge of justice with these concepts of the Divine?
So we are doing liturgy differently at Tzedek. Tomorrow, we will not read from the passage in Leviticus which describes the ancient practice of transferring our sins onto goats and arbitrarily killing one and sending the other away. We know we cannot make teshuvah by putting our sins onto any scapegoat. Instead, we will read the passage in Genesis about Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau. With themes of generosity, transformation, and moving forward from wrongs done without revising or denying past harms, this text reflects the kind of teshuvah we wish to do. It provides hope for intractable conflicts to be resolved justly. We will read about a moment so transformative it turned Jacob from a conniving person into a gentle one. We want that for ourselves. Why is this Yom Kippur different from all other days? Because we can find an example of teshuvah in our text we wish to emulate.
Many say we can’t do this. We can’t establish a Jewish community beyond borders or nationalism, and we certainly can’t change the liturgy or Torah reading for the day. After all, hasn’t it been that way for thousands of years? To them, and to those of us who might be wondering if we should hedge more, I offer this history. Amram Gaon, a 9th century Spanish sage, called the recitation of kol nidre a minhag shetut – a foolish custom. Why? Even though the prayer was already beloved, it encouraged problematic thinking that we can escape responsibility for transgressions with a contract rider on the Covenant. Amram Gaon knew sins don’t transfer to goats and a string of words doesn’t negate injustice we cause. Changing ritual to conform to Jewish values isn’t new.
In tomorrow’s text, we identify with both twins. Jacob victimized Esau. He erred when he stole Esau’s birthright. But we root for Jacob in this reconciliation – not because of lineage but because we know a deep truth. God is the ally of those who seek forgiveness. The story makes us more inclined to forgive and to believe we can be forgiven. Because we are forgiven, for the record. The biggest spoiler in Jewish liturgy is vayomer Adonai salajti kidvarekha. God says I forgive you as I promised. But Jacob messed up. We get the guilt that lives in Jacob’s heart because it lives in ours. Even after we make amends or especially if we cannot, we need God’s help letting go. If our part is making teshuvah, the Lady Magnificent must forgive.
IV] Ne’ilah as protest
Normally, we view Yom Kippur as an end to a process of reflection. This year, Yom Kippur is a beginning. We can use the day of prayer to take stock of our sins. What would we say about our behavior if we had a marginal perspective? What needs to change for us individually and collectively to help us decrease injustice in the coming year? How will we respond when we mess up? When others do?
When we come to ne’ilah tomorrow as the sun sets on this Day of Atonement, let’s be radical. We usually take the idea that the gates of repentance will close as the impetus to finish faster, higher, stronger – to be Olympic penitents. Instead, we should see it as a call to action. When we read:
פתח לנו שער בעת נעילת שער כי פנה יום. היום יפנה השמשה יבוא ויפנה נבואה שעריך.
Instead of reading it as a lament about the gates closing: Open the gate for us even though the gate is closing because a day turns. Today will pass, the sun will come and set, before it does, please let us enter the gates. Otherwise we’ll be stuck outside – guilty. Instead of reading it that way, let us read it as an exhortation to a Powerful Boss holed up in a gated estate. Ne’ilah is a sit-in, and this is our chant: Keep the gate open for us even at the imposed curfew time, when the day turns to night. We don’t care that today will pass, that the sun comes and goes, we will enter the gates!
When the sun sets tomorrow, we need to occupy Heaven. This won’t require occupying the Luther Memorial Church, but it will require calling out God to make repentance and transformation Her foremost priority not only on Yom Kippur but every day. Our covenantal benefits are not enough. Guaranteed forgiveness on one day a year out of more than 300? That’s less than 1% of the time. We need a better contract. We need better working conditions for creating God’s justice on Earth. We need a more involved, more present, more compassionate boss! We need fewer arbitrary injustices. Life outcomes for teenage boys in Chicago depend on whether the boy is Black. In the West Bank, they depend on whether the boy is Palestinian. And how about less injustice? We didn’t meet our own expectations this year, but why didn’t God soften the hearts of the Pharaohs, free the captive, uplift the fallen? When Jacob wrestled with the man the night before reconciliation with Esau, he did not let the man go until the man gave him a blessing. Similarly, we can’t let God go until She accepts everyone’s teshuvah, which might be until some people are ready to change. So tomorrow night, let’s occupy Heaven.
Strike that (pun intended)! The gates are open now. Let’s move in with our permission to pray with sinners, and let’s extend the opportunity for repentance until those with blood on their hands (literal or symbolic) repent. Let all who lost hope they can change, that those around them can change, enter the gates! Let all who are hungry for justice enter the gates! Let all who are thirsty for forgiveness enter the gates! We transgressors will keep them open until God grants the pardon She promised.
Tzom kal. May your fast be physically easy and spiritually meaningful.