I returned from burying my father in Israel to an America on fire. Mourning a parent is soul-destroying. Doing so while you mourn the downfall of civility in a country you love can make it nearly impossible.
I witnessed things this week that beggar the imagination. Tens of thousands of demonstrators marching through the streets of New York, outraged at the senseless death of George Floyd by police. Endless shops in Manhattan boarded up against looters. Broken glass at stores near our organization’s Townhouse on the Upper West Side. An African-American activist speaking to hundreds of marchers while addressing the police standing in front of him: “You know you’re all murderers. And especially shameful are those of you who are black cops and other cops of color. How can you disgrace yourselves by being members of the NYPD?” He said this as two African-American female cops in riot gear stared at him in stony silence.
The original American sin is racism. It can be hard to believe that just 150 odd years ago, black babies were still sold on the block like cattle, ripped away from their mothers’ breasts in the slave markets. It can be hard to believe that after nearly 700,000 Americans died in the Civil War, we then went through 100 years of Jim Crow and blacks being sent to the back of the bus or beaten with lead pipes for trying to integrate America’s schools. And it can be hard to believe that 50 years ago, the greatest American of the 20th century, Martin Luther King, Jr., was felled by an assassin’s bullet for marching peacefully in Memphis, demanding rights for sanitation workers.
Yet all these are painful American truths.
Yet we dared hope it was part of our past. We dared hope that after a majority-white United States elected an African-American as president, the terrible race struggles that have convulsed our nation would be something of the past. That’s what’s so utterly shocking about Floyd’s death and the worst race riots to convulse America in half a century.
Can this all be happening? Are African-American men and women being shot by the police because of the color of their skin? Are stores and shops really being burnt to the ground in paroxysms of violence? And is this all happening while a global pandemic has just killed more than 100,000 Americans in only three months?
Is this not all some terrible nightmare from which we’ll all awaken?
I have long had a special relationship with the African-American community. Beginning with making Cory Booker – now our senator in New Jersey – my student president at Oxford in 1992 to becoming the first white radio host on America’s legacy black radio station, WWRL 1600 AM, in New York City, I have always cherished the ties between the black and Jewish communities. I believe blacks and Jews are united not through a shared history of mutual suffering, but a shared commitment to mutual values. We are two communities who, through centuries of suffering, have forever reposed hope in physical redemption through spiritual promise.
I BELIEVE blacks and Jews are united not through a shared history of mutual suffering but a shared commitment to mutual values. We are two communities who, through centuries of suffering, have forever reposed hope in physical redemption through spiritual promise.
Both communities largely have been led not by politicians but by religious figures: rabbis in the Jewish community and reverends in the African-American community. Both Jews and blacks have looked to the Bible, especially the story of Moses standing up to Pharaoh, for inspiration in enduring subjugation to tyranny. And both communities have emphasized how attachment to community and family, even while passing through the valley of the shadow of death, will eventually bring us to the Promised Land.
Which is why it’s been so painful for me this past week, while I grieve for my father, to feel so helpless as I grieve for America.
The United States is one of the most righteous and just nations on earth, and humankind’s last great hope. I don’t believe the overwhelming majority of Americans are racist. To the contrary. I believe Americans are loving, benevolent and good. I believe the police are heroes who risk their lives for their communities every single day.
And yet, there are Americans who undoubtedly are racist, and there are some bad-apple cops who have committed murder based on abominable bigotry and prejudice.
But how can we create healing? How can we bridge the divide between these two Americas? For God’s sake, who will stop the American house from being burned to the ground as we are gripped by racial hatred, increased lawlessness, a killer disease and growing hopelessness?
Are people now really talking about defunding the police? You mean that a robber will be able to hold up a bank and walk away scot-free because there will be no cops? Is this not insanity?
Is America losing its mind?
I have a friend who is a Jewish leader, highly educated, incredibly savvy and professionally successful. He is also a left-leaning Democrat. He actually wrote to me that he plans to buy a gun to protect his family and protect his synagogue, once the police are defunded.
Where will healing come from amid this insanity? In my opinion, it will not come from politics. Now is the time for religion to rise and bring healing to America.
Let rabbis and pastors and priests and Imams join in once voice with a declaration of the following principles:
- Every human being is created equally in the image of God. We are all equally God’s children, and no person is more or less valuable than another.
- Skin color is by far the least important of all human qualities, and it’s an abomination against God to believe in anything other than one human family or to ever divide the human family into more than one human race.
- Racial injustice, especially murder based on race, is an abomination before God and a sin of incalculable evil.
- Individuals must be judged based on individual actions and never as part of a collective. That means demonizing all police because of the actions of racist cops is an affront to decency and goodness.
- Forgiveness is the cornerstone of all world religions. From Yom Kippur being the holiest day on the Jewish calendar to the Christian belief that Jesus died for our sins, real spirituality calls us to rise above hatred and find healing through repentance.
- We are all one family and are redeemed through loving one another.
- Violence in the name of religion, or the pursuit of racial justice, or correcting other social wrongs is unacceptable.
The path to social change, as Martin Luther King, Jr., so emphatically pledged and for which he was martyred, comes through peaceful protest, shaming the perpetrators into permanent change.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s Holocaust memoir, “Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell,” written with historical contributions by Mitchell Bard, will be published later this year. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.