Our Torah portion is Shemot. Names. These are the names of the children of Israel who went down to Egypt, our parsha begins. And it tells us that then they multiply, and the Israelites lose their names. They became a group, a mass of people. We are told a certain “son of Levi” takes to wife a “daughter of Levi.” The baby in the Nile is nameless, and so is his sister from afar. It is not until later we find out their names: Amram. Yocheved. Miriam. Slavery has taken away their personhood, their individuality.
There is something about this story that makes many of us comfortable. Maybe it’s familiar. Maybe because we learned it as children. Maybe because we had family gatherings around it. Maybe because the Prince of Egypt is so darn good.
There is a midrash that the Israelites did not become slaves overnight, and it didn’t happen in a cruel or frightening manner. When it says, “The Egyptians enslaved them with harsh labor,” the word for “harsh labor” is “peh rach,” a soft mouth. That is, Pharaoh did it gently, and softly. He went to build, and the Israelites saw him and said, ‘We should go build, too.’ He asked them for some more help, and they agreed. And soon, they were slaves.
But it shouldn’t.
Today I want to address some myths, some oversimplifications, that many white folks and many white Jews all too often make on Martin Luther King Day.
One is the romanticization of the past, of overemphasizing the involvement of white Jews with the civil rights movements and connections with Black folks, of holding up Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s picture walking with Martin Luther King and others. This false sense of גאווה, ga’avah, pride, coupled with the much lower amount of white Jewish support for Black causes over the years, paints the past incorrectly and broadly. Indeed, the Israelites from Egypt sometimes romanticize their own past, remembering the “dainties of Egypt” that are absent in the desert.
It’s true that in the civil rights movement there was an unusual amount of support from Jews, as opposed to other people either seen as white or in the category of “white ethnics.” Southern Jewish leaders, rabbis, and institutions were much more hesitant to do this, fearing the backlash of local white people.
Even with the large amount of support from many in the Jewish community, it began to lessen in the ’60s, as more and more Jews stepped higher onto the socioeconomic platform, moving into the suburbs. Fewer Jews became supportive, and many in the African-American community saw this as being left behind, being hypocritical. Many Jews tried to encourage black Americans to be quieter, nicer, more patient, and then they would see progress in their lives, too, just as Jews had seen in theirs.
Another element that complicated this rosy picture was that while Northern and Western Jews in theory supported many elements of civil rights, historian Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz pointed out that the number of non-Southern Jews who went to the southern states only numbered a few hundred, and she also points out that the “relationship was frequently out of touch, periodically at odds, with both sides failing to understand each other’s point of view.”
Political scientist Andrew Hacker wrote: “It is more than a little revealing that whites who traveled south in 1964 referred to their sojourn as their ‘Mississippi summer.’ It is as if all the efforts of the local Blacks for voter registration and the desegregation of public facilities had not even existed until white help arrived…. Of course, this was done with benign intentions, as if to say, ‘we have come in answer to your calls for assistance.’ The problem was… the condescending tone…. For Jewish liberals, the great memory of that summer has been the deaths of Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and — almost as an afterthought — James Chaney. Indeed, Chaney’s name tends to be listed last, as if the life he lost was only worth three-fifths of the others.”
As more and more Black folks began to move into the North of America, and school desegregation began to potentially actually happen, Ashkenazi Jews, along with other white people, moved away from them. Hence things such as the division of Essex County, NJ, where I grew up. “Our” newspaper was called the West Essex Tribune. Newark was right down 280, but it was no longer the Newark of Philip Roth. East Essex was black, Latino, and poor.
The second myth is that Eastern European Jews achieved the American dream, but Black folks did not. It’s true there had certainly been certainly discrimination against Ashkenazi Jewish Americans in education with Jewish quotas, limits on immigration for refugees from the Holocaust, and discrimination in housing. However, Eastern European Jews had never been subject to Jim Crow Laws as Blacks were in the South. And all the various repeals of officially racist laws, including overt redlining and housing discrimination, creating segregation between cities and suburbs, took place in the ’60s.
And there was one thing that dramatically widened the racial wealth gap, which largely white Jewish Americans were able to take advantage of, but largely not African-Americans. The GI Bill of 1944 aimed to provide a number of benefits for returning veterans of World War II. It provided low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans to start a business or farm, one year of unemployment compensation, and dedicated payments of tuition and living expenses to attend high school, college, or vocational school. Black veterans were largely denied any of the benefits of the GI Bill. Banks often outright refused loans to Black people. This is not the only thing that helped Ashkenazi Jews as a group rise in our socioeconomic class, but it was a major factor, one that allowed us to be seen as “more white,” white enough, or even just white.
One of the overarching problems was that the expression of the motivation for many white Jews to help Black Americans was problematic. Still today, among many of us, we are inspired to fight for human wellbeing and rights because we were oppressed… and so we knew what it’s like.
But the problem is that last line. Not all oppression feels the same. For white Jews who tell Black folks, “We know what oppression is. We know what you’ve been through. Our hearts are with you.” They have entered into the conversation on false assumptions. In Sefer Mishlei, the book of Proverbs, 14:10, we learn, “The heart knows its own bitterness; and no stranger shares its joy.” לֵ֗ב י֭וֹדֵעַ מָרַּ֣ת נַפְשׁ֑וֹ וּ֝בְשִׂמְחָת֗וֹ לֹא־יִתְעָ֥רַב זָֽר׃ Lev yodea marat nafsho, u’v’simchato lo yitarev zar. It is critical that we understand the difference between appreciating the importance of fighting against oppression, and understanding that not all oppression looks the same. This assumption has led to the problematic assumption that if white Jews and Black folks are the same, and white Jews mostly “succeeded” in America, but Black folks have not, there must be something wrong with the Black folks — which I addressed a bit before.
Lastly, that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. just wanted everyone to get along. That he only wanted little Black children and little white children to hold hands. This upcoming week marks the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
But Dr. King didn’t want just peace. He wanted justice. Dr. King didn’t want us to ignore race. He wanted us to see it, name it. For white people to say, “I don’t see race” with good intentions is not enough. We must see race.
Dr. King was not someone who made white people feel good and comfortable. From Time magazine: “The FBI described King as ‘demagogic’ and ‘the most dangerous’ … to the Nation … from the standpoint … of national security.” Attorney General Robert Kennedy signed off on intrusive surveillance of his living quarters, offices, phones and hotel rooms, as well as those of his associates.
In 1964 — a year before the passage of the Voting Rights Act — a New York Times poll found a majority (57%) of New Yorkers said the civil rights movement had gone too far. “While denying any deep-seated prejudice,” the Times reported, “a large number of those questioned used the same terms to express their feelings. They spoke of Negroes’ receiving ‘everything on a silver platter’ and ‘reverse discrimination’ against whites.”
Fifty-four percent of those surveyed felt the movement was going “too fast.” Nearly half said that picketing and demonstrations hurt the Negro cause, and 80% opposed school pairings to promote school desegregation in New York City public schools.
I’ll leave you with a quote from MLK: “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice, who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
So, this Shabbat, let us begin to practice the quality of anavah, humility — to be able to learn from the past, to know that we have a ways to go. That we must hear others’ stories, and bear discomfort for the sake of justice. We must believe peoples’ experiences and be brave in speaking out, supporting them. White Jews must be open to learning more, to listening to Black folks and their experiences, and not equating our own with theirs, even with the best of intentions.