In Judaism, we know the power of the spoken word.
We will shortly be recognizing the 50th anniversary of Mississippi Freedom Summer, the historic campaign to register as many African-American voters in Mississippi as possible. As was the case in many elements of the march for civil rights, Jews played a prominent role. As Cheryl Greenberg writes in Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century, “It is significant that…a disproportionate number of white civil rights activists were [Jewish]...Jewish agencies engaged with their African-American counterparts in a more sustained and fundamental way than did other white groups largely because their constituents and their understanding of Jewish values and Jewish self-interest pushed them in that direction.” In what was ultimately referred to as Mississippi Burning, during Mississippi Freedom Summer three civil rights workers, including James Chaney, a local Black activist, together with Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, two New York Jews, were murdered by Klansmen for their participation in the organizing efforts.
While there were certainly remarkable moments of Jewish opposition to slavery and many instances of historical solidarity, if one can speak of a high point for Black-Jewish relations, the period of the 1960s would certainly be that moment: freedom rides, voter registration drives, marches, the leadership of Abraham Joshua Heschel and the address of Rabbi Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress, at the 1963 March on Washington. While certainly there were also many Jews who opposed Jewish (and most often Northern) intervention in Southern affairs (often for practical rather than ideological reasons), this summer we can think back to a time when both individual Jews and the organized Jewish community often stood shoulder to shoulder with African-American friends and strangers, sometimes risking their own wellbeing in the process.
It is with this anniversary in mind that I was deeply troubled by the comments ascribed to Donald Sterling, who by the time this goes to print will likely be the former owner of the LA Clippers. As was widely reported in the press, Sterling, who is Jewish, was recorded making racist about African-Americans.
While I was appalled, I was not surprised. Though I think it is with lessening frequency, it is not uncommon in our own Jewish community to hear racially insensitive epithets. Sometimes we excuse the language on account of the age of the individual using the offensive term (although the issue is not limited to the older population) and sometimes we assume the term is used in jest and that deep down the individual is not bigoted. It may be true that our friends and family who use these terms don’t in fact harbour prejudice. Yet, in Judaism, both from our history and our texts, we know the power of the spoken word. On the negative side, we know that our darkest moments began not with the raising of the sword, but with the utterance of words. More positively, we understand that words create worlds. It is with the speaking of words that God creates.
In one of my most memorable programs at Beth Tzedec, a few years ago, together with our youth director Andre Ivory, I brought a bus load of teens to the American South. One of the trip’s themes was Black-Jewish relations. Led in conversation by Andre, who is African-American, our group was able to explore the sometimes wonderful and sometimes tragic relationship between these two communities. The conversation was difficult. However, it was clear to me that these kids understood that, despite differences, we must speak of the other with respect and without ever resorting to the kinds of names that when directed at us we reject. I can only hope that the rest of our community learns to speak in the same way.