Over 3000 years ago, on the 15th of the Hebrew month Nisan, the Egyptian Pharaoh releases the Israelites from centuries of bondage as all of Egypt cries out in the wake of God’s deadly plague. They march out in song and jubilation before their masters. The brutalities and indignities of slave life finally come to an end. The Israelites are free to follow their God into the wilderness.
Over 150 years ago, on the 1st day of January, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared, after two centuries of African American enslavement, “that all persons held as slaves” within the states that had seceded from the United States “are, and henceforward shall be, free.” The brutalities and indignities of slave life, the whippings and sexual assaults, the selling and forcible relocation of family members, the denial of education, wages, legal marriage, homeownership, had finally come to an end. African Americans celebrated their newfound freedom both privately and in public jubilees.
When Pharaoh changes his mind and his armies give chase to the Israelites, God divides a sea for safe passage, and closes it to drown their pursuers. God provides water and bread from heaven along the way. Within a few months, they arrive at the mountain of God.
Two and a half years later, on June 19th, 1865, the slaves of Galveston, Texas received their emancipation from their masters. Some emancipated slaves quickly fled from their owners, while others who couldn’t imagine any feasible alternative remained to become wage laborers for their former owners. As the Civil War came to a close, Southern states began to pass a series of discriminatory state laws collectively known as ”black codes.” Slavery had been a pillar of economic stability in the region before the war; now, black codes ensured the same stability by recreating the antebellum economic structure under the façade of a free-labor system.
At Mount Sinai the Israelites receive their constitution from God, a roadmap for building community, for establishing law and order, for promoting equality, equity and justice, and for creating a physical, social and spiritual space worthy of God’s presence.
The newly freed slaves were treated by some of their former masters with fair wages. Many former slave owners treated the freedmen with contempt, disdain and fear. One freedman, Houston Hartsfield Holloway, wrote, “For we colored people did not know how to be free and the white people did not know how to have a free colored person about them.”
When the time comes to realize God’s promise, ten of the twelve scouts who had gone into the Promised Land report to their community that the plan is not feasible. The residents, from their perspective, are giants. “We were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.”
The Reconstruction implemented by Congress, which lasted from 1866 to 1877, was aimed at reorganizing the Southern states after the Civil War, providing the means for readmitting them into the Union, and defining the means by which whites and blacks could live together in a nonslave society. The South, however, saw Reconstruction as a humiliating, even vengeful imposition and did not welcome it.
God and Moses are deeply disappointed, to say the least, that the community chooses to heed the report of the ten, as opposed to the more optimistic report of Joshua and Caleb, who believe that it is within their power—with God’s help—to take what has been promised. God decides to punish the Israelites for their lack of faith to forty years of wandering in the wilderness, such that the generation of slaves will die before they enter the Promised Land.
In 1877, the “Exodusters,” blacks who fled the south, established the settlement of Nicodemus on the arid plains of northwestern Kansas. However, because of several crop failures and resentment from the county’s white settlers, all but a few homesteaders abandoned their claims. A rising population of 500 in 1880 had declined over the next 40 years to less than 200.
Forty years later it is the Israelites’ children, raised in the wilderness within the parameters of the new constitution and under the eyes of a protecting God, who enter Canaan to reclaim their ancestral homeland.
In the former Confederacy and neighboring states, local governments constructed a legal system aimed at re-establishing a society based on white supremacy. African American men were largely barred from voting. Legislation known as Jim Crow laws separated people of color from whites in schools, housing, jobs, and public gathering places. The laws proved very effective. In Mississippi, fewer than 9,000 of the 147,000 voting-age African Americans were registered after 1890. In Louisiana, where more than 130,000 black voters had been registered in 1896, the number had plummeted to 1,342 by 1904. The children born to former slaves may not have known the whip as their parents did, but they suffered continuing marginalization and dehumanization at the hands of those who did not consider the 14th amendment to the Constitution–that “all men are created equal”–to include black Americans.
We, in our mostly white and Ashkenazi-centric (“Ashkenormative”) Jewish communities love to assert how we have fought for the civil rights of Black Americans through the decades, and that we are uniquely equipped to understand the experiences of people of color. There is no doubt that Jewish Americans have disproportionately supported progressive causes with their presence and their resources. But neither our historic experience of enslavement in Egypt nor our experience of anti-Semitism in all its forms through the centuries have given us unique insight into the suffering of Black Americans at the hands of a society that was created by whites for whites, and only begrudgingly made space to incorporate the “others” already in their midst. Moreover, even our immigrant experience as seekers of religious tolerance in a new world, as fraught as it may have been and continues to be, fails to educate us sufficiently to the historic and institutional inequities faced by people of color in this country.
Claims that we are not racist–that we can relate, that anti-Semitism is a problem too, that all lives matter–only serve as impediments to ridding ourselves of the systemic racial injustices and the privileges that benefit us. If we are to be ANTI-racist, allies to those who are disproportionately negatively impacted by too many systems in our country, we must listen to and we must believe the voices of those who say that they face a daily exhausting battle. We must turn within our own communities to hear the voices of Jews of color and how they have been marginalized. And we must face ourselves and our loved ones and friends honestly to confront uncomfortable truths, to engage in hard discussions, about our own attitudes and biases.
“It shall be unlawful for a negro and white person to play together or in company with each other in any game of cards or dice, dominoes or checkers.”
—Birmingham, Alabama, 1930
Our most senior community members were born into a world where humans were marginalized for the color of their skin. Many of our parents were raised in communities where such attitudes persisted. There are those of us who felt the sting of the word “shvartze” in our homes, even if we would never use it ourselves. Few of us knew that Jews of color existed. And if we did, we questioned the authenticity of their experience or chalked them up to being Sephardic, an “otherness” of a more acceptable yet still not-as-authentic Jewish ilk.
When a person of color walks into our synagogue, do we think “What’s their story? What are they doing here? Are they Jewish? Did they convert?” These questions reflect a racist bias, regardless of our intentions. Yet, as we remind those who equate Jewish with whiteness, we are a multiracial people and we are becoming more so. We must thus begin by asking ourselves the question: As a Jewish community that is almost exclusively white, where are we? Why are we? What must we do to enter the 21st century, to create an environment where Jews of color are comfortable and safe with us? Can we assert to Jews of color that, indeed, Black lives matter, so that they no longer need to feel marginalized or denigrated in their own spiritual homes?
Perhaps home is where we can and must begin to do the arduous work of becoming anti-racist allies. I welcome the difficult conversations that will hopefully follow.
Rabbi Craig Scheff