Opinion: Being Jewish should spur us to action for racial justice 

 

In the August edition of the Chronicle, the article, Analysis: Black Lives Matter and pro-Israel are challenged as a combination, missed the mark. Rather than focusing on reasons Jews should not support Black Lives Matter, we at Tikkun Ha-Ir are aligning our work with current calls for racial justice. 

Rebbe Simcha Bunim of Przysucha once suggested that Jews should carry two pieces of paper in their pockets. On one should be written “For my sake was the world created” (from Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5); on the other “I am but ashes and dust” (Genesis 18:27). These two passages seem to contradict one another, but the lesson of Rebbe Simcha Bunim is that we are to hold both statements as being equally true what is sometimes referred to today as “both/and thinking.” 

This moment of reckoning around America’s racism against Black and Brown people requires us to employ both/and thinking. Here in Milwaukee, the Jewish community must hold both the idea that we have felt antisemitism and have been targeted as a minority, and also the idea that most of us have been able to fit into the majority white community in the suburbs.  

Holding these two truthsthat Milwaukee Jews are a persecuted minority but are also part of the privileged majority can be uncomfortable because it creates cognitive dissonance: a feeling of discomfort that arises from conflicting thoughts. How can we live in this cognitive dissonance? We must allow the discomfort to move us in fact, to spur us to action, in pursuit of racial justice. 

A Jewish commitment to racial justice flows naturally from our time-honored Jewish values.  

The values of B’tzelem Elokim (that all people are created in G-d’s image) ,Al Taamod Al Dam Re’echa (do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor), and many other Jewish teachings have driven Jews to work for racial justice in the United States– during slavery, during the Jim Crow era, and during the civil rights movement such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama. And so many of us are pursuing this work today. 

 If we are all created b’tzelem elokim but we see some people suffer persistent abuse, disrespect and degradation, we must act to rectify it. We must identify that recognizing the humanity of all means saying, “Black lives matter.” And when we say that Black lives matter, we must keep in mind that we are speaking about the Black lives of members of other communities, and we are speaking about the Black lives of members of our own Jewish community as well. 

In June, our sponsoring organizations signed onto a Tikkun Ha-Ir pledge to commit our energy and resources to fighting for racial justice. As part of this work, we are launching a new partnership with Edot Midwest Regional Diversity Collaborative. Using the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable’s Racial Justice Framework, we will engage in a process to align our work through: 

  • Learning and internal commitment 
  • Building transformative relationships 
  • Changing our communities and the world together. 

We will then convene a community conversation in October, to establish a network for other Jewish organizations and leaders in Milwaukee who want to join us in this effort.  

This is no time for building walls and insulating ourselves from the larger community in America’s most racially segregated city. Now is the time for strengthening alliances and pursuing our common vision of justice. 

Remember Rabbi Hillel: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?  

Sami Stein Avner is the executive director of Tikkun Ha-Ir Milwaukee. Co-signers include Tikkun Ha-Ir Milwaukee board members Susan Ellman, Reesa Gottschalk, Paula Lorant and Chelsea Cross. The mission of Tikkun Ha-Ir is to build a more just community by uniting Jews of all backgrounds in study, action and civic engagement.