Shlach 2020: Beginning With Ourselves

What does it mean to live in a generation of transition? How can Jews today who have benefited from systems of racial oppression in America honor their history while moving forward with dismantling whiteness?

Progress is hard. Moving onto new stages and situations that are alien and intimidating might even feel dangerous. Progress is accomplished through plodding steps forward, often accompanied by painstaking steps backward, until after much time and effort, new ground is covered. History has taught this well to the Jewish people.

This week’s Torah portion is one of those awful steps backward. Not so long after leaving Egypt, the Israelites are encamping upon the border of the Promised Land. Moses sends spies, one from each tribe, to survey the land. 

Ten of the twelve spies come back with a negative report, saying: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size...and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”

After hearing this report, all the Israelites rail against Moses and Aaron. “If only we had died in the land of Egypt,” the whole community shouted at them, “or if only we might die in this wilderness!”

Moses has to, once again, convince God not to wipe out the Israelites entirely. They instead make a deal - God would wait until the entire generation of Israelites who lived in Egypt had died in the wilderness before allowing their descendents to enter into the land.

We, in this moment in our country’s history are like the Israelites, standing at the precipice of a promised land which has yet to be entered. Ours is being revealed in the new rhetoric, vocabulary, and theory of racism which have taken center stage in our country’s discourse. In its current manifestation it is a completely alien experience for many. When confronted by the terms racism or white supremacy, many imagine the most overt forms: signs barring Black people from private and public establishments; the violence of the KKK; newly brazen white nationalism. 

I understand the term white supremacy is very difficult to hear. I, too, have been shocked and dismayed at the resurgence of its most virulent public expressions. But the term also refers to something much more ubiquitous and much less obvious. It also refers to the way in which our country’s institutions have been structured to favor whiteness.  In order to fight it, we must confront our discomfort and investigate how whiteness goes beyond skin color. Historically, in America, many groups have moved from not-white to white, including many subsets of Jews, as will be discussed at length at the Streicker Center’s event this Monday evening featuring Dr. Karen Brodkin, author of How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race In America.

In a recent article in Ha’Aretz, April Aviva Baskin, a Black Jewish communal leader, reflected on the way that contemporarily white Jews have internalized American systemic white supremacy.

According to Baskin, somewhere in the process of fleeing antisemitism in Eastern Europe and assimilating in the United States, the country’s history of white supremacy and racism “got woven into the fabric of the American Jewish community – not necessarily intentionally, but by joining that status quo and trying to protect themselves.”

The questions white Jews increasingly need to ask themselves, she says, are: “What was the price your family paid to get conditional access to whiteness? Was it changing your name?...Was it moving the mezuzah inside the house door? Those are options. Black people don’t have those options.”

April Baskin is pointing to a very clear and present issue within the white Jewish experience. In facing this issue we may feel, just like our ancient Israelites ancestors felt, as if we are but grasshoppers in the eyes of white supremacy. That we are not up to fighting it. After all, many White Jewish folks still remember a time when Jews were openly discriminated against in mainstream America. College quotas, exclusion from social clubs and neighborhoods, excused violence, and ceilings on careers. 

But, according to Mark Dollinger in Black Power, Jewish Politics, his history of the Black-Jewish alliance,“By the 1950s, American Jews enjoyed the privileges of inclusion in the White middle class. Even as they boasted a disproportionate presence in liberal reform, Jews had already separated themselves from blacks, both physically and sociologically. Restrictive housing covenants eased...Quota restrictions...all but ended.”

So, at the same time Black people were fighting for civil rights in the 60s, (with white Jews disproportionately present in support), white Jews had overwhelmingly assimilated into white America. This is where our moment of change comes in. The Israelites in our Torah believed the next step towards the promised land was too much for them, and they bemoaned their sense of powerlessness. It cost them their dream, and deferred it an entire generation. 

We too have a challenge before us today, as our Black neighbors struggle once again for equality. We, who feel we only so recently gained access to this equality, fear that by standing up to systemic racism we may lose what we gained through assimilating. Our own assimilation is a tricky issue for us. We have sought to blend in with our neighbors just enough while still trying to maintain distinctive Jewishness. April Baskin’s questions show us, though, that this striving in and of itself was a way of entering into the institutions of our country that are steeped in systemic racism and white supremacy. Have we, in the pursuit of our own equality, internalized Whiteness as supreme? Each step along the way we adapted ourselves in order to fit into these systems, but, as April Baskin asks, at what cost?

New York Times bestselling author of “How to be an Antiracist,” Ibram X Kendi wrote: The White body defines the American body. The White body segregates the Black body from the American body. The White body instructs the Black body to assimilate into the American body. The White body rejects the Black body assimilating into the American body—and history and consciousness duel anew. To be antiracist is to emancipate oneself from the dueling consciousness.

We have gone deep into the wilderness of whiteness in America, and must seek to emancipate ourselves from the dueling consciousness we have feared for the past millennia. We have been standing at the border of our promised land for too long. Our own dueling consciousness has kept us aware that we have only just recently gained equality, just as the Israelites had only recently left Egypt. We must not balk in fear at the challenges ahead, as the Israelites did at the border of the promised land, but instead must have faith that our next steps are part of our sacred mission. This begins by us taking a hard look at how we, individually, have benefited from Whiteness, even if it is conditional and new to white Jewish people. We must also take a hard look at what it would mean to cease benefitting from whiteness. 

How can we as individuals and as a community work to make our lives, our institutions, and eventually our country one in which whiteness is no longer an idol to which all things bow? 

The Israelites in this week’s Torah portion bemoaned the hard work, the difficulty, even the danger they were facing to enter the promised land - and this led to their dream of freedom and liberation being deferred until the following generation. We, today, stand facing a promised land that many dreamers have seen before us. There are hazards, to be sure, and difficulties to overcome along the way, but if we begin with ourselves, if we look within our own minds, our own homes, our own institutions, and decide we have had enough, we may enter into this promised land in our own days. We may, along with our brothers and sisters of color, overcome the giants of white supremacy and systemic racism, and find a land flowing with milk and honey. We must only begin with ourselves. Shabbat shalom.