Looking Past Politics and Seeing Humanity

On April 17, I attended a protest outside the UN, the purpose of which was to to demonstrate our belief to the UN Security Council that withdrawing their (embarrassingly paltry) peacekeeping force from Darfur would leave Darfurian refugees with nothing to protect them from the Sudanese military. The sign I carried, which read “To NCP: Rape is not a weapon of war,” was in reference to the Darfurian village of Tabit, where the Sudanese army following government orders systematically raped over 200 women. The genocide, to date, has killed 500,000 people, and within Darfur alone, displaced an estimated 2,500,000 people. As causes go, you’d think that’s a pretty good one, right?

As we were standing there, holding our banner and listening to a speech from one of the leaders of the protests, three counter-protesters showed up and tried to shout us down. They were shouting something about western imperialism and intervention in internal African affairs, when one of them, the whitest white man I have ever seen, completely lost it. Literally shaking with anger and spitting with rage, he got in the face of the man giving the speech (a Nigerian man), and raged about how we were western imperialists who were promoting the destruction and murder of Africa and its people. So deep was his hatred of anything Western, that he wouldn’t even begrudge a protest asking for a UN peacekeeping force comprised entirely of African soldiers, because he truly believed that the UN was an American puppet organization.

But what was really incredible, was when the counter-protestor got into an argument with a Sudanese man who now lives in New York, a man who lost family to the genocide, a man who would still have that family if someone—anyone—had intervened to stop Omar Al Bashir, the political Islamic genocidal president of Sudan, and told that man that the intervention he was begging for, the intervention that would have saved his family, 500,000 people, and millions of people from being displaced, raped, maimed, and herded into displaced persons camps, was wrong because no one has any business telling an African nation what to do. Not only that, but he equated the desire and request for intervention with Hitler herding Jews into cattle cars for transport to death camps (Don’t ask me how he arrived at that conclusion; I have no idea). Godwin rolled over in his grave.

I wonder if once—just once—that idiot ever sat back, shut his stupid mouth, and really put himself in the place of a Darfurian rape victim, or the lone survivor of a family butchered by genocidal murderers. I wonder if he ever let his ideology, his political preconceptions, take a backseat for a second, and just thought about what it would mean to be in such a position. To be in the position of that Sudanese man he equated with Hitler. It may not have led him to the same conclusion, but I doubt he would have ever let himself rage like that in public against a man begging for the lives of his people.

This callous disregard for the humanity of a problem in favor of its politics is unfortunately common among discussions of social and human rights issues. I was talking to a woman who had been abused by her ex-husband. She told me that when she asked her rabbi for advice, he told her to, “Go home, wine and dine him, look good, and get pregnant.” The idea being that their marriage and relationship could be saved through the mutual bond of a child to care for. What would that rabbi have said if he had paused for a moment before responding, and put himself in that woman’s position. What would he have felt had he considered, just for a moment, what it must feel like to be beaten by the man who is supposed to love you most. Would he have told her to go back, prepare food for him, and have sex with him, if he had instead pictured himself ostensibly being told to reward his abuser for his abuse?

Would anyone tell a survivor of sexual abuse to just “get over it,” or stop “using it as an excuse to justify their sins,” or call them “attention seeking” or “drama queens” or ostracize, shun, or publicly humiliate them if they just stopped for a second and put themselves in the shoes of a boy or girl, man or woman who survived sexual abuse and is now suffering with depression, PTSD, or eating disorders, who, by necessity, became addicted to drugs and alcohol just to escape the horrifying reality of what happened to them, who daily has to fight just to give themselves a reason not to kill themselves and end the endless pain—would anyone who really empathized with a survivor ever let those words pass their lips if they really understood? Would anyone every tell an LGBT person that they were a damaged, disgusting, loathsome, unnatural abomination if they, even for just a second, truly felt the pain that LBGT people experience every day that they’re forced to deny who they are for fear of what their family and community would do if they found out?

None of this is to say that everyone must agree on exactly how to solve these problems. There will obviously always be differences of opinion on how to fix any problem, from how to solve inner city poverty to raising awareness about child sexual abuse. What does need to change is the focus on the politics of the problems rather than the problem itself. Politics need to come secondary to the needs of the people in pain. Extending or eliminating the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse might open yeshivos to more litigation? Ok, there may be a solution to that problem for yeshivos, but shouldn’t an organization claiming to have the best interests of klal yisrael in mind have as its primary focus the physical and mental wellbeing of its children rather that sacrificing them on the altars of their constituent organizations’ reputations? Shouldn’t ensuring that child sexual abuse ends and that survivors can get the help they need and bring their abusers to justice without fear of retribution take precedence over anything else?

The resulting problem is not only stagnation on finding real solutions to these problems, but a widespread refusal to even discuss problems for which solutions don’t seem readily available. Homosexuality is considered an abomination by the Torah, so why even discuss it? Never mind that our children are suffering, harming themselves, being sent to traumatic reparative therapy programs, and killing themselves when the pain becomes too much to handle. Let’s not discuss it because the Torah says that gay sex is an abomination and therefore a solution isn’t readily apparent. Let’s not discuss the plight of agunot because Halacha is Halacha, this is how it works, and there don’t appear to be any solutions that will satisfy everyone, so why even bother? I’ve encountered this attitude far too often, and it is what is holding us back as a community from coming up with real solutions to help those among us who have been ignored for years and most need our attention and support.

I’ve always been of the firm belief that even if we don’t see a solution, it is still our obligation to discuss these problems as a community, and it is still our obligation to feel the pain of those experiencing these hardships. Necessity is the mother of invention. If we truly felt their pain, we would move heaven and earth to help them. We would move mountains to ensure that not even one woman is chained to a marriage she doesn’t want. We would bend over backwards to ensure that not a single LGBT member of our community contemplates suicide. We would do everything in our power and then even more, to prevent another child from ever being raped or molested, and that if by some unfortunate circumstance they were, they would be believed, accepted, supported, and given the help they needed, and see their abuser, whether he or she be yeshivish, chassidish, modern orthodox, secular, or non-Jewish, prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

The next time you hear someone telling you that they’re in pain, instead of dismissing them—listen. Take a second to feel their pain with them; let them know that you’ll be there to help carry their burden and that you won’t rest until they have justice—until they have peace.

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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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