A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. You can read more posts by Marvin here.
We are in the season of the Jewish year when it is customary to reflect on our actions for good or ill in the twelve months prior. I find that this process is particularly intense for me this year, in part because of the impending conclusion of my eight+ years at JMM and my 32 years as a museum manager. While I am proud of many things I have helped enable my teams to accomplish, I am especially mindful of what I’ve failed in as a leader.
My personal reflections occur in the context of the very trying times we’re going through… I speak not only of the pandemic and its economic consequences but also the rising tides of antisemitism and race hatred. As it happens I attended webinars on both these topics at the end of August
For me, these discussions are really two sides of the same coin. The fight for human dignity embraces the struggle against prejudice towards both Jewish and Black people (as well as women, LGBTQ, immigrants and others who have been the objects of historic oppressions). In one instance our most important objective is to keep Anti-Jewish hatred from being normalized in the community around us; in the other, I would argue, the most important task is to address the vestiges of racial “othering” within our own tribe.
The difference is that while it is relatively easy for Jewish leaders to stand up and declare our own citizenship and humanity, to speak up for the fundamental humanity of our neighbors of color (both Jewish and non-Jewish) is fraught with complications.
1. It means acknowledging a certain degree of complicity both in historic events and contemporary disparities… it takes uncommon skill and courage to “correct” a major donor when they say that “Jewish slave owners were more kind to their slaves than gentiles” (I admit to failing this test).
2. It means threading the nuance between “racism” and “racist”… when a great friend of the Museum tells you that his wife is afraid to come with him to the Museum – but she’s no racist… it is finding a way to get them to understand that you don’t have to be a “racist” to hold prejudices which result in social harm (another test that I haven’t yet passed).
3. And perhaps, most difficult of all in our politically polarized world, it means being able to distinguish victim from victimizer. I think we all had similar visceral reactions to the President’s comments about Charlottesville… that there “were good people on both sides.” It wasn’t that we knew for a fact that no one carrying a tiki torch had cared for an elderly relative or rescued a stray cat or performed some other good deed. What we knew is that there was no moral equivalence between people trying to tear down Confederate monuments and those yelling “Jews will not replace us”. But what’s easy to spot in someone else’s house is harder to perceive in one’s own.
In recent weeks, I’ve heard the refrain with respect to antisemitism that “there are bad people on both sides.” Now I have no doubt that this is true, that there are purveyors of anti-Jewish hate on both the left and right. I don’t have access to an evil-meter to weigh the pronouncements of Steven Miller v. Louis Farrakhan. But I do know that though they both might echo slurs from the Protocols of Zion, the threat they pose to our community is not equivalent. One has enormous power and the levers of the state, the other is limited to the waxing and waning of his followers.
At this moment in time I think we should be able to distinguish between the type of rhetoric and lies that inspired the tragedies in Pittsburgh and Poway and the deplorable, but ultimately less damaging, insults in the remarks of a progressive Congresswoman. We should figure out a way to condemn both, but not condemn both equally. I am able to make a distinction between an officer (who is sworn to uphold the law and is armed at public expense) shooting a citizen in the back seven times, and an individual looting (stealing) under a cloak of social justice. Both are criminal acts, but the first also subverts the continuance of a democratic and civil society and merits more severe condemnation.
Genuine t’shuvah requires the penitent to undertake some concrete action to demonstrate the sincerity of their commitment to change. So, I share my “al Chet” about my lack of courage in difficult discussions in the spirit of someone who acknowledges the price of silence and commits to remaining silent no more.
In my view, the real test of our anti-racism efforts lies in convincing the majority of the community that racism and antisemitism are kindred problems, and that equalizing blame for either, undermines our efforts on both fronts.
We invite you to join us for our special partner series with Chizuk Amuno Congregation,Jews of Color, Jewish Institutions, and Jewish Community in the Age of Black Lives Matter, which kicks off on October 18, 2020 at 4:00pm with Who We Are: Identity and Diversity in Our Jewish Community.