If we want to live in a more equitable society, we have to confront the reality of systemic otherism.
Every spring, on the first night of Passover, Jewish families all over the world gather around the dining room table to reenact and reexperience the exodus from Egypt. This year will mark the 3,333rd anniversary of the Jews’ emancipation from slavery.
According to rabbinic tradition, the Jews were enslaved for 116 of the 210 years they dwelled in Egypt. And for the final 86 years, they were subjected to backbreaking, spirit-breaking, soul-crushing labor.
Even after the exodus, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. The Jews were sentenced to wander through the wilderness for 40 years because they failed to live up to the responsibilities that come with freedom.
And then, once they settled the land of Israel and established self-rule, the nation was constantly embattled against the surrounding nations — the Canaanites, the Moabites, the Midianites, the Philistines, and more.
Further still, in the waning days of the Jewish monarchy, the Israelites were conquered by the Assyrians, and later by the Babylonians, after which they were ruled over by the Persians, the Greeks, the Syrians, and the Romans, who scattered them across the face of the earth. Their persecution continued at the hands of Crusaders, Almohads, Inquisitionists, Cossacks, Ottomans, Tsarists, Soviets, and Nazis.
Without question, the Jews are the most persecuted people in the history of the world.
Leave the Past in the Past?
But what effect does all that history have on the life of a typical Jew today? What does any of it have to do with me? The isolated outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence are hideous and deeply disturbing. But they are isolated. Most Western Jews go about their lives feeling secure and comfortable with their place in the modern world.
Nevertheless, remembering the exodus remains of paramount importance. Because if we don’t learn the lessons of the past, we won’t find our way from the present into the future.
This is a mindset deeply embedded in Jewish tradition. It is part of the prophecy revealed to Abraham, the first Jew, and revisited by generations of prophets across the centuries:
Your descendants will be small in number, scattered to the four corners of the world, despised and persecuted among the nations.
In other words, it was foretold from the earliest times that the Jews would suffer at the hands of systemic anti-Semitism. Which has led countless observers, historians, and social scientists to ask:
How have the Jews survived for over 3000 years?
It’s not by dwelling on the persecution of the past. It’s by retaining a knowledge and understanding of history that produces an awareness of identity, an awareness that has empowered Jews throughout the generations with a sense of purpose and mission. We only look backward so that we can find our way forward.
Except when we don’t.
During his run for president, Senator Bernie Sanders was asked what his Jewish identity meant to him. He answered with one word — the Holocaust. And the sad irony is that there’s a term for exactly that: Holocaust Jew.
It’s not a compliment. It means a Jew who has forgotten everything about who he is except the most recent episode in a seemingly endless history of attempted genocides. It means a Jew who has accepted upon himself the status of victim. And that’s exactly the opposite of the outlook Judaism teaches.
What is freedom? Freedom means empowerment and responsibility. It calls on us to reject slave mentality and victim mentality. Yes, the Almighty saved us from oppressors. But now it is our job to save ourselves. It’s a job we have to face every day of our lives. And If we continue to think of ourselves as victims, we will never succeed in our pursuit of a higher calling.
A Common History
The story of African Americans, though not as long as the story of the Jews, is every bit as oppressive, every bit as dehumanizing, every bit as soul-crushing and spirit-crushing. Kidnapped from their homes and their homelands, sold like chattel, worked like animals, treated like second-class citizens even after they were freed — it’s a stain upon European and American history. And, as we know, the effects weigh upon the black community to this day.
The question is, what can we do about it now? Do we hold great-great-grandchildren responsible for the sins of their white ancestors? Do we exempt great-great-grandchildren from personal responsibility because of the mistreatment of their black forebears?
What about whites and blacks who came to the shores of America long after slavery had ended? Are they and their children considered victims and oppressors merely because of the color of their skin? Isn’t that a formula for perpetuating victim mentality, for fanning the flames of resentment and tribalism that threaten the stability of our society?
Do we still believe in Dr. King’s dream of a better future in which all people are judged by the content of their character? Or has that kind of colorblindness become politically incorrect?
If we want to move forward, we have to face two very inconvenient truths:
First: we can’t fix every problem. There will always be racists, anti-Semites, misogynists, and people who hate. Second: the bigger the problem, the harder, slower, and more complicated, the solution. There is no quick fix.
The great sage Rabbi Tarfon taught: It is not incumbent upon you to finish the job, but neither are you free to neglect it. Since we have to start somewhere, perhaps the first step should be to carefully define our terms. What do we mean by systemic racism?
By Another Name
We can’t mean that the legal or governmental or economic system is intentionally racist. If it were, the United States would never have had a two-term black president, a black vice president-elect, two black secretaries of state, a black national security advisor, attorney general and UN ambassador, two black supreme court justices, black college presidents, black CEOs, and on and on.