Friday, March 5, 2010

Hating Hate, Especially When It's In Your Own Backyard

So...I've spent the last few days kind of getting worked up about the recent events that have transpired at UCSD.  (Any UCSD students out there?  We want to hear from you!  Post your thoughts and perspectives on the blog!)

I'm going to presume that most of you have heard at least a tiny bit of what's been going on:

This article summarizes the "basics" of the first incident: a frat party that advertised itself as a "Compton Cookout."

A few days later, the UCSD administration sponsored a "teach-in" to teach against racism.  It didn't go exactly as planned: most of the students walked out of the "teach-in" in protest, convinced that the university was oblivious to their concerns about the lack of diversity and tolerance on campus.

There was the incident on the campus TV station where a racial epithet was used.

There was the discovery, last week, of a noose hanging from a bookcase in the library. (This is especially upsetting, given the symbolism that the noose carries for African Americans.)

As if all that weren't enough: just this week, a KKK-esque hood was found on a statue on the UCSD campus.

How are people reacting? 

The NAACP has weighed in.

Governor Schwarzenegger has weighed in.

And yet - surprisingly - the organized Jewish community of San Diego has been largely silent.

Honestly, I cannot figure out why.  It seems to me like it's a no-brainer.  American Jews and African Americans are seemingly natural allies.  We should be looking out for each other.

That's especially true as we move ahead into the spring season, and recall once again the lessons of the Passover story.  Year after year after year, we re-read the story of our ancestors, who were enslaved in (and then freed from) Egypt.  One of the reasons that we return to the story over and over again is because we are supposed to learn something from it. 

We're supposed to learn empathy: the ability to identify with (or imagine) the struggles of others.  We recall the slavery of our own past, and in doing so, we should be moved to stand up and fight against the slavery (or mistreatment) of others (like African Americans) now, and in the future.

This theme is echoed in this week's Torah portion, Parshat Ki Tisa.  The parsha includes the story of the Golden Calf incident.  You may remember that, in the story, when Moses sees that the Israelites have built an idol (while he was up at the top of the mountain getting the Ten Commandments), he destroyed the original tablets out of anger and frustration.

Once the Golden Calf thing blows over, Moses gets God to forgive the Israelites, and returns to the top of the mountain...and comes down with a new set of tablets - the text of which is recorded in this week's Torah portion.

The commandments inscribed on the tablets here in Exodus 34 are not the "official" Ten Commandments that we read in Exodus 20.  This is an 'alternative version.'  And the second of these commandments, right after the one about not making "molten gods" (duh, after the Calf incident is over), reads as follows:

"You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread — eating unleavened bread for seven days, as I have commanded you — at the set time of the month of Abib, for in the month of Abib you went forth from Egypt."

I know - it doesn't seem like much on the surface.

But, for me, the simple reminder to observe Passover (and the requirement to eat matzah) says it all: we remember our own suffering from the past, so that we might open ourselves up to the possibility of using that empathetic knowledge to help those who suffer today.

Yeah, there are interesting reasons why Jews and African Americans have had significant disagreements during the last four decades or so.  (You can read an abbreviated history of Black-Jewish relations in America here.)  But, in my opinion, it's time for us to put all of that behind us.

Instead, I think we should seize the moment, and embrace it as an opportunity for these two important minority communities to come together and support one another during a time of need.  Here's what we can/should do:

1) Get a little angry.  These acts of racism at UCSD are despicable.  We should be upset about them!

2) Spend a moment meditating on the famous photo below, of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching hand in hand with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  If they could figure out how to be allies, then surely we can as well.

3) If you're on a campus, consider stopping by the "Multicultural Center" or the "Cross-Cultural Center."  These days, almost every campus has one.  The students and professionals that work there are committed to making sure that your campus is a tolerant and open-minded one - diverse with students of many different backgrounds.  See if they are co-sponsoring an upcoming program that interests you.  Consider working with them to jump into campus politics - perhaps by marching or protesting somewhere.

4) Finally, consider writing a friendly email to the San Diego chapter of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).  The ADL is an amazing organization, devoted not only to speaking out against anti-Semitism, but about all kinds of hatred and discrimination.  According to their website, it looks like the San Diego chapter of the ADL has not yet made a statement about what is going on at UCSD.  It seems to me that it would be meaningful if it did.  (The ADL does great work, so go easy on them if you write to them!)  You can submit an electronic message to them here.

I'm going to end with music from John Lennon.  Yeah, it's a little on the cheesy side.  But who has ever said it better, in terms of imagining the day when we'll all figure out a way to get along...

Shabbat Shalom.

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