A View from the Bleachers: Looking through eyes of historical experience

'Our history as North Americans, and as Jews, urges us to look at recent events with the eyes of our historical experience of racism, both personal and communal.'

By Rabbi Steven Garten

While many of us have been fixed on the news emanating from the United States, it would have been easy to miss a recent story from Jerusalem. Iyad Halak, an unarmed autistic Palestinian was shot to death by an Israeli policeman on May 30.

The events are never the same, the circumstances are never the same, but the results are. An unarmed person of colour is shot by the people assigned to protect society. Some Israeli leaders have sought to respond with empathy and concern. There have been peaceful rallies in major Israeli cities calling on the government to respect the rights of the disenfranchised, the poor and the ‘other.’ Our history as North Americans, and as Jews, urges us to look at recent events with the eyes of our historical experience of racism, both personal and communal.

On April 4, 1968, the night that Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, I was studying with six fraternity brothers in the home of one who happened to be African American. Our fraternity was an experiment. The brotherhood was composed of non-practising Christians, non-practising Jews (I was the lone exception) and African Americans. We were the only fraternity on campus that chose to mix the elements of race and religion. As the news poured forth, the anger in the room became palpable. We, whites, were precipitously asked to leave the apartment. We only saw our friends one other time. That evening they resigned from the fraternity. It was made clear to us all that that they could no longer find any comfort or friendship among white privileged Americans who, no matter how hard they tried, would never truly comprehend the pain and historical angst that permeated the soul of African Americans.

As U.S. cities burned in 1968, I remember seeing neighbourhoods I knew well incinerated and destroyed by looters and angry protesters. I devoured all the news reports and the read the Kerner Commission report of the 1967 riots. I read voraciously trying to understand the unique history of oppression which could ignite such anger. I thought I understood it all.

Nearly 30 years later, I arrived in Los Angeles mere days after the Rodney King riots. The synagogue I was to serve was on the border of Koreatown, one of the areas most impacted by the riots. Once again, I immersed myself in the history of the community, attempting to understand what events could force a community to turn to self-destruction as an expression historical frustration. One more time I thought I could comprehend Black anger and angst.

Now, once again almost 30 years later, I watch American cities erupt in violence. This time the precipitant is not the assassination of the person most associated with nonviolent protest, it is the latest in a long line of innocent Black men and women murdered by the men-in-blue who pledge to protect and to serve every North American city. Now I know there is no way for me to comprehend what it means to be Black in America.

Will there be a national feeling of distress or guilt? Will the violence and thuggery galvanize the will of the American people and establishment to respond in new and creative ways? There is no reason to believe that America can ‘fix’ itself. These past 50 years have taught all who look and listen carefully that systemic racism is so deeply imbued in society that governments have no idea of how to cure its ills. Platitudes and funds will not do more than act as a sop. The current political climate and divide in the United States makes it mere wishful thinking that even platitudes will emerge to sooth the furrowed brow.

As Jews, this pattern should be familiar to us. The church antisemitism of the Middle Ages paved the way for the racial hatred of the modern era which saw the Shoah as the natural outcome of Western Europe’s ‘Jewish question.’ With few exceptions, ingrained societal hatred and racial biases made it possible for six million Jews to be murdered. Though western democracies offered words of moral indignation, they offered little in the way of saving actions. With rare exceptions, they fiddled while our people burned. The recent incidents of powerful uncontrolled rage should be reminders of how our meek public protests and calls for a boycott of German products in the 1930s and ‘40s were met with derision, laughter and inaction. It never struck us to strike out in anger and violence to protest the murder of our people. Perhaps if we had acted differently, we would better understand rioting in U.S. cities or Indigenous blockades of railway tracks.

Since the creation of the State of Israel, new proponents of antisemitism have joined forces against us. Left-wing anti-Israel hatred joins with right-wing white nationalism to create a two-punch blow that, at times, seems to overwhelm our organizations of self-protection. Events in Mumbai, Paris, Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere, are reminders that our white privilege will not protect us from racial hatred.

We may pride ourselves on our reasoned and rational responses to murderous hatred. We may feel calmed by the occasional soothing interfaith outreach during moments of crisis, but these days it seems like burning and rage would be more appropriate responses to the murder of our people. If western democracies cannot do more than offer kind words and an occasional ‘hug’ while our ‘white’ people die, why should Black Americans expect real change.