Conversion Process and Personal Stories
043 | The Jewish Call for Social Justice: Black Lives, Our Failed System, & Tikkun Olam

043 | The Jewish Call for Social Justice: Black Lives, Our Failed System, & Tikkun Olam

It’s taken me a moment, as it often does, to gather my thoughts on what all is happening.

I’ve long supported, studied, and given to social justice movements. I was a gay rights activist and studied black history, the civil rights movement, queer studies, and worked with the women’s resource center in college. And I’m also a privileged cis white male, so usually I’ve learned to listen and question my thinking and assumptions on issues other than those affecting gay men.

Bayard Rustin, gay black activist

I see parts of America awakening, beginning to listen, and others realizing we haven’t fully been listening. Things changed so rapidly for LGBTQ people due to tireless work. We worked in and alongside the civil rights movement (like Bayard Rustin), learning from it, and were able to go from de facto criminals and “degenerates” to winning civil marriage equality in a few short decades. There was a confluence of factors here:

The queer community had whiteness as its leadership, more money, and crosscut every culture, city, and state in the country. Put another way: If a black person were in every extended family in America, maybe we wouldn’t have the divide and violence and systemic issues we have now. It wasn’t until the push to widely come out that the rest of the culture realized they all knew someone queer.

For people of color, the reality is we not only live in different households but different spheres, neighborhoods, and social contracts. That social contract is broken.

Never Again Is Now

Jewish social action circles invoke Never Again, the mantra after the Shoah—The Holocaust—that not only will this never again happen to Jews, but Jewish people have a specific obligation to prevent any such atrocity against other peoples.

This is what first drew me into Judaism a year ago: seeing Jews Against ICE march. (And if Israel-Palestine comes to mind, two things: 1) it did for me, too, 2) if you’re wanting to call progressive Jews and other social activists hypocrites, check your antisemitism: not all Jews support Israel as a Jewish state, including its own citizens and many progressives, and yes: many on the left veer into antisemitism with that. AND—because this shit is so complex, 3) Jews don’t have to defend and certainly can not be held responsible for Israel any more so than I can be held responsible for the actions of Ireland, Scotland, and England, and Germany, where my people are from; I’m appalled by what ICE and Trump are doing, so I speak out on it, but I’m not personally responsible for it, nor does it mean America and its people are always bad).

See The Struggle to Build a Loving, Accepting, and Ethical Israel, Reform Judaism

Tikkan Olam Means Black Lives Matter

Never Again combined with another Jewish teaching gives us a channel and call for action; we are drawn to do, not just talk/blog/meme/Instagram:

Tikkun Olam – the Jewish call to action – means a couple things. Tikkun in Hebrew means “repair” and connotes healing oneself, others, and the world. Combined with Olam, “the whole world,” it becomes social action and the pursuit of social justice.

Tikkun Olam continues below

Graphics: Tikkun Olam means Black Lives Matter on a Star of David; Justice for George graphic

Continued from Tikkun Olam above

But what does that mean? What does “repair” mean and how do we go about it? For me it means a wide variety of things, all of which feel like shifts and refocusing. These things—and this larger moment, this revolution—feel possible to me because:

  • Donald Trump is president;
  • Coronavirus happened, locking us down and giving folks lots of extra time
  • The lockdown causing huge economic injustice in a system that already favored a few wealthy elite; and:
  • Donald Trump did nothing to address or alleviate these crises and has taken concrete action to make them worse.

What’s interesting about this confluence is that it was all preventable; were Trump not a clueless, self-serving grifter, we could have a competent federal response to a pandemic like most our allies and saved scores of lives. Most our allies, too had a strong economic response to help people in need. He could have also addressed the nation in an impactful way to draw people together and call for racial justice. But LOL, can you see him doing that in any meaningful way? Even if he did, we know who he is and what he really believes.

A perfect shit-storm seemed to appear at once overnight and yet decades, centuries overdue: Leadership that doesn’t care about the common person, which is increasingly a person of color, and telling us to sacrifice ourselves to go back to work jobs that weren’t paying the bills anyway.

Then the latest horrific videos came, and millions rose to left the house again. We realized our power in this moment; folks decided that No, they weren’t all going to go back to work—it was the same week California storefronts and restaurants were reopening only to be boarded up as some looters overshadowed the daytime protests.

We’d been idle really for decades, especially as white allies, and Americans everywhere had been idle for 2 months. We have power we didn’t realize we still had.

What is that power? What can we do, especially in the Jewish community?

This has been the first I’ve seen since my college days a mass movement that seeks to show Washington that this younger generation sees them, sees that they don’t see us and especially don’t see our most at-risk people, and really bridges something that’s been a huge issue in American politics since the civil rights era.

For too long the Republican Party has succeeded in selling white people that they have more in common with rich white people than they do with other people in their same class and community who happen to be a different color, race, or religion.

And that’s bullshit. That’s how we’re still here, 99 years after Tulsa, 55 years after Selma, and 12 years after first electing a black man President. Electing Obama made a lot of white people, myself included, feel really good about ourselves, but one president can’t change an entire 400-year old culture across a huge landmass.

So here’s what we can do.

  1. Call other people on bullshit. The average white American has more in common with George Floyd than with Donald Trump. Distraction and division sow discord.

  2. Call ourselves on our bullshit. What are my racist thoughts? What was I raised with, consciously or not? How is that showing up in my interactions?

  3. Be aware. What do I have that black people and other people of color do not? Such as assumed innocence, safety in most situations, and a voice? Better access to voting, healthcare, education, jobs, loans, and unfettered personhood?

  4. March and cause ripples. We pray with our voices and our feet. Get out. It shows the government they can’t ignore systemic racism and violence and it’s getting results! It shows allies that they can and must show up with us, and it shows the people we are supporting that we see what’s happening. It’s also a Jewish tradition.

  5. Speak up in person and in writing. Write and call your leaders; there are numerous lists of specific actions locally and nationally to support. But also speak up in defense of people who need it; if you have privilege, use it. That doesn’t mean I’m a white savior, it means I’m potentially saving a life, or at least helping someone go about their day if they’re being targeted or harassed. (I’ve recorded police interactions in LA when it seemed a black person was being treated vastly differently than I would be) (Google for orgs to support; see below, Instagram post from Arielle Geismar with calls to action)

  6. Give. Especially if you’re able, and especially if you can’t march, donate. (Again, google organizations in your community)

  7. Be accountable. I know I’ll fuck up, and already have. A friend called me out for something I posted that was going around; I thought it was supportive, and it depicted something created by the black community. But the wrong people would see it the wrong way, and it hadn’t even occurred to me that the optics of “about time for a revolution” will be taken by racists as an excuse for violence.

  8. Be anti-racist. I love this bourgeoning term. Everything else in this list is encompassed by it. It means it’s not enough to just say you support racial equality in our systems and culture. It means you have to fucking do something about it already. If I say I’m against racism yet nothing changes for decades and I don’t encounter more and more black people in my daily life, it probably means they don’t have access and safety that I do.

What are some things you’re doing?

Never Again Action (immigration and deportation)

More reading:

Must View:

The Jewish Call: Tikkun Olam means Black Lives Matter

June 11, 2020 by Bobby Apperson

Times of Israel