Juxtaposing ancient biblical texts with the recent police shootings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, Rabbi Amy Small told a gathering of about a dozen people just two days after Martin Luther King Day that despite the similarities characterizing the persecution and subjugation of Jews and blacks throughout history, “our oppression was not the same.”
At the Jan. 21 evening meeting, in the living room of a private home in Montclair, the Reconstructionist rabbi pointed to parallels: “Blacks were oppressed; Jews were oppressed. We’re all in it together because we shared a historical experience. It says in the Torah we were slaves and we should never forget what it felt like to be slaves,” providing an obvious source of empathy for the black experience in America.
For the Jewish community, Small said, “the civil rights movement dovetailed with a messianic urge. We as Jews were mesmerized, even intoxicated, by the idea that we were no longer a humiliated passive people. We could stand up and we could protest…using our bodies in protest to actually bring about transformational change.”
But differences between the two communities’ oppression emerged. Unlike the economic gains made by succeeding generations of Jewish Americans and the subsiding of much overt anti-Semitism in the United States, Small said, “the African-American community has still suffered in large measure poverty and deprivation more than any other group in America.”
The presentation was part of her recently launched venture, Deborah’s Palm, an organization designed, according to its website, to help “Jews and fellow travelers access Jewish wisdom for meaningful spiritual living.”
Citing racial disparities in poverty rates, Small noted that “over the past 25 years, the wealth gap between blacks and whites has nearly tripled.” She told her audience, “This is where the Jewish experience and the black experience are different, because we made our way up the ranks of power and money, and this is why there are tensions between our groups.”
Another factor contributing to the rift, she said, is that “many Jews who saw themselves contributing to freedom and justice for African-Americans tried to take over a movement that wasn’t ours.”
While millions of Americans are concerned about police shootings and incarceration rates and racial segregation, Small said, millions of others “not only have no understanding of what blacks are experiencing but they themselves feel alienation, dislocation, and rage.”
Speaking of recent Supreme Court decisions and new state laws that have made it more difficult for inner-city people to vote, Small said, “The disenfranchisement of blacks has insidious new forms of legislation today.”
“Some 25 percent of African-Americans do not have a government-issue voter ID. They don’t drive a car. They may not have a driver’s license. For many people that may mean they can’t vote,” she said, agreeing with a member of the audience who said charging for such identification cards “is a new form of poll tax.”
“Racism may have gone out of style for those of us who live in educated, progressive America. But for those of us who like to think we are not racist, the insidious unconscious presence of racism continues,” Small maintained.
She said the nonviolent struggle led by King “has a biblical sense to it, a great optimism. That is what the Hebrew Bible teaches us, especially now that we are in the cycle of reading the story of Exodus. Anything is possible. Slaves can become free. Unbelievable.”
Quoting the words of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a close ally of King’s who marched with him in Selma, Ala., she said, “The ultimate expression of God is justice. Justice is God’s too.”
Small said readings from Isaiah after Tisha B’av, a commemoration of the destruction of the First and Second Temples, were echoed millennia later in King’s “I have a dream” speech.
“People who didn’t know the Hebrew Bible wouldn’t know it, but that is where he got it from…. The Hebrew Bible teaches us to be comforted and have hope, and that is exactly the same thing Martin Luther King was trying to teach America and the black community in particular, whose suffering had been so deep,” she said.
Small said there is “a crisis of leadership in this country, in the Jewish community, and in the African-American community, too…and that gives me a lot of distress.”
Asked by NJ Jewish News whether she believes Jews are any more or less racist than other white people in America, Small said, “It is hard to answer that question without having done a study to know whether I am right, but my gut feeling is Jews are less racist. We were very engaged by the civil rights movement, and it has for us something we consider to be our cause.”