By Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz June 14, 2020 , 9:49 am
But Hashem said to Shmuel, “Pay no attention to his appearance or his stature, for I have rejected him. For not as man sees [does Hashem see]; man sees only what is visible, but Hashem sees into the heart.” I Samuel 16:7 (The Israel Bible™)
Since the murder of George Floyd by a member of the Minneapolis police department, the Jewish communities in the United States, Israel, and around the world have been more proactive in searching for ways to help the Black community address the issues they face with law enforcement. Some Jewish organizations have condemned what occurred and have called on leaders in all levels of government to provide alternative policing strategies. Some Jewish leaders have joined the peaceful protests occurring in major cities in the United States. Rabbis are asking black leaders to educate their congregations on the issue.
David Nekrutman, the Executive Director for Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, has a long history of interfaith work, building meaningful bridges of understanding and cooperation between Jews and Christians. In recent weeks, he has been working hard at connecting with Black faith leaders in an effort to repair the tear racism has created in society. Breaking Israel News asked Nekrutman for his understanding of the crisis and how the Jewish community fits into the tikkun (fixing) that must be made. He began by framing the answer in a historical context. “There is a long history of partnerships between Jewish and Black leaders in addressing the U.S. sanctioned discriminatory policies and practices against African Americans,” Nekrutman explained. “At the turn of the 20th century, Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald established over 5,300 schools to help educate Black children during the period of Jim Crow. The founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) included Jewish leaders such as Louis Marshall, founder of the American Jewish Committee, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and banker Jacob Schiff. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, we witnessed Jews joining the Freedom Riders and protest marches to advocate for equal voting rights and change the segregation laws in public institutions, eateries, and places of entertainment. The iconic image of Dr. Martin Luhter King, Jr and Rabbi Abraham Heschel marching together in Selma with a Torah scroll between them will be forever seared in our minds as the prime example of the Jewish-Black alliance of history. “One should not walk away from the Civil Rights Movement with a sanitized image of Jewish-Black relations. When the goals were clear-cut that Blacks should have the right to vote and to use public bathrooms, then Jews were able to become the fiercest allies with the Black community. However, when it came to dividing the economic pie and protesting other U.S. government decisions such as the Vietnam war, advocating for affirmative action, tensions arose in the alliance.
“In the 1960s & 70s, the Jewish community rapidly entered the middle and upper-middle classes. Fearful of the city’s deteriorating school system and neighborhoods, Jewish communities moved to the suburbs. At the same time, some Jews continued to have a powerful economic presence in Black neighborhoods. Some Jews operated with ethics contrary to human decency and the negative image of the stereotypical Jewish slumlord began to emerge within the Black community. “Also, powerful and influential voices within the early days of the Black Power movement, after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, advocated that allying with whites (Jews included) would not advance their cause. Shocked by these voices along with certain Black leaders meeting with Arab leaders whose sole intention was the destruction of Israel, issues relating to teacher unions and other domestic issues caused organizational Jewish communal world to turn inward involving themselves in causes such as Jewish identity, the security of Israel, and the plight of Soviet Jewry during the Communist era. “Jewish leaders and organizations faced a hard decision as to whether or not to ally themselves with the movement. Some completely distanced themselves from BLM while others took a more nuanced approach by condemning this aspect of the movement and continuing to stand with BLM on seeking justice for Blacks in America. “The landscape of proactively advocating for justice for Blacks in America completely transformed two weeks ago when the world witnessed an 8:46 video of an African American male begging for his life under the knee of a person sworn to protect and serve. The use of aggressive force by police is not going away any time soon even after Derek Chauvin was eventually charged with second-degree murder.”
According to Nekrutman, there currently exists a major opportunity to create a real rapprochement between Jews and Blacks. “It begins with language, empathy, and action,” Nekrutman told Breaking Israel News. Nekrutman observed that while Jews and Blacks share in a narrative of suffering, the Jewish community should not use its past history of suffering as a way to completely understand the African American experience today via the police. “I will never truly understand the emotional and psychological experience of an African American when he or she is pulled over by a member of law enforcement,” Nekrutman noted. “The worst-case scenario for me is will I get a ticket or not. However, in my conversations with African Americans the last several weeks, the feeling for many is ‘will I make it out alive.’”
Nekrutman is uncomfortable in using the term “race” as a way to begin the healing process between the two communities. For him, the term “race” is a modern-day social construct that contains too much historical baggage of bigotry as well as immoral & reprehensible justifications of removing the image of God from human beings. Nekrutman noted that there is no Biblical Hebrew term for “race.”“God created Adom (Adam) since the first human being was created from the adama (earth),” Nekrutman said. “Adam was called ‘ish’ (man) after the creation of woman ‘isha’ (woman) since they are created from the divine fire and God. After Adam and Eve (Chava – the mother of all living) humanity became families (mishpachot), tribes (shefatim), nations (amim), and peoples (goyim).” “What we witnessed in the 8:46 video of George Floyd was the literal suffocation of the Nishmat Chayim (God’s living breath) from an adom,” Nekrutman commented, emphasizing that the use of race in describing the Black community means “buying into the modern-day social construct.” ““Words have meaning and history and since the term ‘race’ was hijacked to be used to describe Blacks as inferior, I shouldn’t use it.”,” Nekrutman insisted. “We need to move from a race language paradigm to a biblical approach that views humanity from one physical and spiritual source – bnei Adom. We are all created in the image of God and all of our souls have the divine breath within us.
We need to create sanctified moments by letting the Black community know that we care about them and we are with them during these challenging times. To heal, they need for their family, the family of Adam, to empathize with them just by saying ‘I am with you’.” “You can’t go to action until you first fix the language. Everyone is talking about racism which is Darwinian and not Biblical.” “I may have some common goals as those who claim the problem is racism but the basis is different. I don’t think cops should use a chokehold but my reason is based on the image of God and the soul being breathed into human beings. My reason is not based on battling racism. Using terms like police perpetrator allows for dehumanization to take place, allows for seeing the other as not a son of Adam. This is bad for the police and the person they are dealing with. If I see them both as a son of Adam, part of my family in the image of God, then dehumanizing and distancing cannot happen. This would affect the actions of both sides and influence the perception and reaction of the public.” “Not all of the negative encounters between cops and the Black community should necessarily be framed in terms of racism but many of these encounters are due to not seeing each other in the image of God.”