Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Thought Experiment

This blog post is a modified version of an article that has been circulating around quite a bit. I do not believe anything written within the quoted area below -- I am simply presenting a simple modification of it to underscore the immoral and unprincipled "logic" behind it.

See if you can spot the substitutions.

Ending Jim Crow's Southern American bias

The right to vote does nothing to address the problems faced by victims of the Holocaust.

I am a perfect example of why the fight against Jim Crow laws, which maintain government racial segregation, failed to win Jewish support.

I am Jewish. I am a political activist who cares deeply about social justice issues. I am a gay man. This year, I canvassed the streets of Brooklyn and Mount Airy, knocking on doors, talking politics to passers-by and working as I never had before to ensure a large voter turnout among Jews. But even I wasn't inspired to encourage Jewish people to vote to end Jim Crow.

Why? Because I don't see why the right for blacks to vote should be a priority for me or other Jewish people. Black voting? Please. At a time not long after most Jews were murdered by the Nazi regime, where Jews are more likely to be killed by a suicide bomber than black Americans, more likely to be targeted abroad than blacks, more likely to live at or below the poverty line in most of the Middle East, I was too busy trying to get Jewish people registered to vote, period; I wasn't about to focus my attention on what couldn't help but feel like a secondary issue.

The first problem with Jim Crow repeal was the issue of the repeal itself. The black community never successfully communicated to Jews why it should matter to us above everything else -- not just to me as a gay Jewish man but to Jews generally. The way I see it, the black community is banging its head against the glass ceiling of a room called equality, believing that a breakthrough on voting will bestow on it parity with whites. But the right to vote does nothing to address the problems faced by Jews. Does a Jew who is a survivor of the Holocaust or mangled by a suicide bomber, or newly out of the gulag, really benefit from the right of blacks to vote?

Maybe blacks could afford to be singularly focused, raising millions of dollars to fight for the luxury of ending segregation. But Jews were walking the streets of the shtetls and reaching out to small businesses, Holocaust survivors, and the spectrum of an entire community to ensure that we all were able to just survive in the face of European anti-Semitism.

Second is the issue of civil rights. Blacks often wonder aloud why Jews, of all people, won't support their civil rights. There is a real misunderstanding by the black community about the term. Proponents of ending segregation and allowing blacks to vote fling it around as if it is a one-size-fits-all catchphrase for issues of fairness.

But the Jewish civil rights movement was essentially born out of and driven by the Holocaust; social justice and religion are inextricably intertwined in the Jewish community. To many Jews, civil rights are grounded in the Torah and the Shoah -- not something separate and apart from recent history but synonymous with it. To the extent that the issue of desegregation seemed to be irrelevant to Holocaust survivors, it was going to be a losing battle in my community.

Then there was the poorly conceived campaign strategy. Opponents of Jim Crow relied on an outdated civil rights model, engaging the Anti-Defamation League to help win Jewish support on the issue of desegregation. This happened despite the warnings of Jewish leaders that it wouldn't work. While the ADL definitely should have been included in the strategy, it shouldn't have been the only group. Putting nearly a quarter of a million dollars into an outdated civil rights group that has very little influence on the Jewish vote -- at least when it comes to black issues -- will never work.

Likewise, holding the occasional town-hall meeting in the Elie Weisel Center -- the one part of the Jewish community where they now feel safe thanks to mainstreaming -- to tell Jewish people how to vote on something black isn't effective outreach either.

There's nothing a black person can tell me when it comes to how I as a Jew should talk to my community about this issue. If and when I choose to, I know how to say what needs to be said. Many Jews just haven't been convinced that this movement for desegregation is about anything more than the blacks who fund it (and who, we often find, are just as antisemitic and clueless when it comes to Jews as they claim Jews are racist).

Some people seem to think that racism trumps antisemitism, and that winning the battle for desegregation will symbolically bring about equality for everyone. That may seem true to blacks, but as a Jew, let me tell you: There are still too many inequalities that exist as it relates to my people for that to ever be the case. Ever heard of Hamas? Ever looked at the difference between the survival of Jews in the Middle East versus other groups? Or Louis Farrakhan? Or rates of survival in the 20th century? Or under-representation outside of a few urban US enclaves? Or Jesse Jackson referring to New York City as "Hymietown?"

And in the end, Jewish voters in the South voted against repealing Jim Crow by more than 2 to 1.

Maybe next time around -- because we all know this isn't over -- the black community can demonstrate the capacity and willingness to change that America demonstrated when it went to the polls on Nov. 4. Jews are depending on their black counterparts to finally "get it."

Until then, don't expect to make any inroads any time soon in the Jewish community on this issue -- including with this Jew.


Several times a month, I count my blessings that my Jewish grandmother -- one of the few survivors of her family in Germany thanks to immigrating to this country prior to Hitler's rise -- didn't take this point of view. She could have easily trivialized riding in the back of the bus or separate entrances to restaurants for black people and segregated schools as "trivial" compared to the treatment of Jews in Nazi Europe.

And that would have been as immoral and despicable as the position taken by the author of the original article I modified slightly in this post.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

What a distortion of history! I was around during the civil rights movement and was surrounded by Jews supporting the effort. All those organizers who traveled south to work with groups, majority were Jews.

You say ever heard of Hamas? I say ever heard of Gazan's! You need to do a google on Bernard
Freedman also a jewish man to get your history straight.

Brian Miller said...

Wow, someone missed the point.

Try clicking on the original link.