What George Floyd’s killing means for American Jews

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As an American, witnessing the repeated police killings of black Americans in this country has been horrifying. As a Jewish American deeply committed to the tenets of Judaism, I believe our faith calls us to fight this continued racial injustice with the same determination, outrage and focus we would if we were its target.      

I don’t need to tell my Jewish brothers and sisters that we share a history of suffering, whether the many ancestors we lost to the horrors of the Holocaust, or the everyday offenses we incur due to antisemitism. This shared experience of struggle and mistreatment has created a common sensibility between American Jews and black Americans that goes back decades to the Civil Rights era in this country. 

Judaism is an activist faith. Our scripture focuses us on our responsibility to heal the world, Tikkun Olam. This phrase literally means “world repair,” and dictates that we join the fight to attain social justice. That means we must take on, in our own lives, the responsibility to perfect God’s creation.  

What does that mean in the case of the recent police killings of black Americans? We are called to always be on the frontlines. To sit back in silence while black Americans are terrorized is the opposite of the Jewish faith. “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation,” Elie Wiesel famously said. “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”  

No two groups suffer in the exact same way, and it would be unwise to compare the Jewish experience with that of black Americans. However, it is safe to say that Jewish fidelity with the black experience is borne of a shared sense of historic suffering and our faith-based charge to seek justice for those who are victims of injustice. 

A core Jewish theology is that when one person suffers, the world suffers; when one person is enslaved, the world is enslaved. With this in mind, we must act as though the murder of George Floyd by the police in Minnesota is a murder of us all. If a racist authority targets a black American, we must respond as if that authority has targeted us. This is what being an ally is all about. 

Judaism is also a religion borne of a deliverance theology. As we recognize each year during Passover, God delivered us from slavery in Egypt. As one of our most holy holidays honors our freedom from bondage, this remembrance is central to not only our religious experience but our understanding of good and evil. Embedded in Judaism is that we were once slaves and for most of our history we have been foreigners in strange lands. We never forget that as recently as 75 years ago, a world power harnessed its industrial complex to attempt to eliminate us from the planet.

Deuteronomy 16:20 calls us to “justice, justice shall you pursue so that you may live.” In this case, the suffix (“so that you may live”) is as important as the predicate (“justice”). The failure to pursue justice is a failure to live. To live as a Jewish person requires us to pursue justice. 

We have a long history of doing this. A Jew, Henry Moskowitz, joined many civil rights leaders to help found the NAACP in 1909, and the organization would later be led by Kivie Kaplan, a vice chair of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Another Jew, Arnold Aronson, helped found the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. In fact, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was partially  written in the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, under the banner of the Leadership Conference.

During the Civil Rights Movement, Jewish activists made up a large portion of the white allies involved in the struggle. Half the young people who participated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964 were Jews, and several were arrested in 1964 fighting racial segregation with Dr. Martin Luther King in St. Augustine, Florida. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously marched arm in arm alongside him in the March on Selma.

We must continue this Jewish tradition today. We must express our outrage at the brutal killing of black lives and say unequivocally: Black Lives Matter. And then we must join the battle in solidarity —  by listening, reflecting, improving, working, loving and fighting alongside our long-time allies. 

Joe Sanberg is the co-founder of Aspiration, chair of Working Hero Action and a leader in the Jewish community

Tags African Americans American Jewish Committee Black Americans Black Lives Matter BLM Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elie Wiesel Inequality Jewish communities racial equality racial injustice

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