The World is Round?! Racism in the Frum World

“Are they all black here?”

I get this question a lot. I work for a driving school; we take a lot of our students to The Bronx for their road tests. I get this question when we pull up on the road test line. The question is usually accompanied by a smirk, a dismissive tone, as if the student has resigned himself to ten minutes of being judged by someone clearly his inferior in both intelligence and humanity. It’s a tone that shrugs and says “waddaya gonna do, huh?”

“They are mostly black here, yes.” And then I wait for their next question.

“Are they anti-Semites?”

I roll my eyes. “Do you like black people?” I ask. You’d think I’d just asked if their grandmother was a hooker. They never answer that one. I always give them a few seconds to answer, but they never seem able to come up with anything.

May as well drive my point home. “It happens to be that they’re not, but if you’re racist against them why shouldn’t they be racist against you?”

Picture the look that must have been on the face of the first guy who figured out that the world was round. Now imagine the look on the face of the first guy he told. I get that look a lot.

Now, that’s usually where the conversation ends, but some people just push their luck.

He points at a road test examiner leaning on a wall, playing with his phone. “But he’s a lowlife, all of them are.”

I raise an eyebrow. “All of…”

“All these shvartzes. They’re all lowlives. Look how they walk around with their pants around their butts, thugs, drug dealers.”

I point at the road test examiner he’s calling a lowlife. “Do you see his pants around his butt? Is he a thug? Is he a drug dealer? What did he ever do to you?”

“He’s from Cham (Ham). Cham was cursed.”

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to not punch this guy in the face because if I do I’ll not only be facing aggravated assault, but also unemployment. And I get paid off the books. I’d be screwed.

I get this so often, and I can’t for the life of me understand it. As a human being, but especially as a Jew, I empathize with what black people went through in this country. We Jews are no stranger to racism and persecution. Two thousand years we suffered at the hands of other nations simply because we were Jews. Godwin forgive me, but less than a century ago, six million of our brothers and sisters were butchered for no reason other than one man thought we were inferior and knew how to present a compelling argument.

“What does your father do?” I ask him.

He looks a little confused. “He runs a company, why?”

“How sweaty is he when he comes home?”

He raises an eyebrow. “Not very…”

I’ve got him. “Well, I don’t know if you got this far in the Torah, but Adam was also cursed after he ate from the Etz Hadaas (Tree of Knowledge)—B’zeas apecha tochal lechem (By the sweat of your brow shall you eat your bread). Why doesn’t he come home sweaty?”

He’s starting to look a little uncomfortable. “I don’t understand…”

“Well, you’re saying it’s ok for you to be nasty to this examiner because Cham was cursed, right? Well, your father was cursed to sweat for his bread, and yet he doesn’t. Do you believe he’s obligated to sweat for his bread because he was cursed?”

“No…”

“Then why is this examiner obligated to suffer your racism because Cham was cursed? Cham may have been cursed, and believe me black people have suffered more than you can imagine. But you don’t have to be a part of that curse.”

Silence.

So I go on. “He’s the same Tzelem Elokim (image of God) you are.”

The earth is round. “I’ve never thought about it that way…”

The conversation ended, and I doubt it changed his attitude much, but it made him think. It bothered me that he had never thought about it, though. Human beings, not just Jews, being created in God’s image. It’s right there in the Torah, before any mention of Jews and Judaism. Before Shabbos (Sabbath) and Milah (circumcision), Kashrus (Jewish dietary laws) and Arayos (laws governing sexual relations), before any mention of homosexuality. Somehow, though, so many people who spend their entire lives devoted to studying the Torah seem to have missed its twenty-sixth verse.

“Nigger” is almost as common in yeshivos (religious schools) as “lemaysa (lit. in fact).” I constantly hear people talking about the “spic” in the grocery. It’s so common that I’ve spoken to people who didn’t even know the words were offensive. They legitimately thought that black people are referred to as niggers and Mexicans as spics. Their worlds turned round when I told them what those words meant. It’s always newsworthy when someone spray paints a swastika on a wall in Boro Park, or someone yells “Jude” at a guy with a beard and peyos (sidelocks), but that same guy with beard and peyos wouldn’t say peep if he heard someone yell “nigger.” Apparently only anti-Semitism is unacceptable. I guess they don’t feel it affects them if it’s targeted at a race other than theirs.

Not too long ago was Yom HaShoah, a day on which we remember the Holocaust and the people we lost. We vow “Never again.” Some people take it seriously, some roll their eyes. The vow, they feel, is pointless. Surely, it could never happen again. But it has. It does. Not to us, perhaps, but millions have been slaughtered since the Holocaust for no reason other than their skin, their religion, their address, their ethnicity. Bangladesh, 1971, between five hundred thousand and three million Hindus were murdered simply because the prime minister of Pakistan was in the mood. Pol Pot slaughtered 1.7 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979. In 1994, nearly one million Tutsis were butchered in Rwanda by the Hutus. The genocide continues in Sudan. The world watches, bored, from behind the TV sets in their living rooms, and does nothing.

Indifference starts at home. Callousness is an acquired trait. Children aren’t born racist. As we grow up, and we hear callous remarks against minorities from our parents and adults around us, those minorities become dehumanized to the point where we can read about a genocide in Africa and not get sick to our stomach simply because it involves a group other than ours. Can the Holocaust happen again? It already has. It continues to happen. Perhaps not to Jews, but the same baseless hatred, the same racism, the same callousness toward human life that killed six million Jews, continues to kill millions across the globe.

Change starts at home. In yeshivos. In driving school cars. If everyone truly saw in their fellow man the same image of God they see when they look at themselves in the mirror, then we could say with certainty, “Never again.” It’s 2014; everyone should know that the world is round.

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