I’d like to do a little “What if” with you tonight.
What if, following the Pittsburgh shooting in October of 2018, there had been a series of other killings of American Jews every month, or every few weeks? What if, instead of hardened anti-Semites, though, the assailants had just been people who got angry with or frightened by a stranger and ended up killing them, but their victims -- time after time -- just happened to be Jews? And what if law enforcement showed a reluctance to arrest the killers in these situations, and juries always seemed to find them “not guilty” because they were convinced that the assailant had no choice but to kill the Jew?
What if it just kept happening, even when the news media and the public outcry made it clear that the killings were somehow linked to a general bias against Jews in our society? What if, when a few prominent Jews – say a famous Jewish actor – tried to protest the killings in a peaceful way, she ended up being blackballed by the television networks and the movie studios where she previously had worked and was out of job because she said that killing Jews is wrong?
What if after this had been going on for a few years, with the death toll going up, up, up, there still had not been a single conviction of any of the killers? What if the reaction to the killings from a sizable portion of the country was something like, “Well, those Jews probably deserved it,” or “Well, why should we be focused so much on the death of Jews? What about all the non-Jews who are killed every year?" How would the American Jewish community respond? What would we do about it?
Would synagogues offer trainings on how to dress and behave in public in ways that are the least threatening and the least likely to incite someone to kill? Would we worry about our children and warn them to be extra careful not to do anything in public that could make someone angry or scared of them? Would we expect the string of killings to be the number one issue in the nation all the time until something was actually done about it -- and would we be deeply disappointed and frustrated when the media quickly turned to other issues, and the public forgot about our torment, just a few days after each killing?
Would we have arguments among ourselves over whether Jews should start carrying firearms for protection, or whether that itself would just cause even more killings? Would we demand that our elected officials do something about the problem, and seethe when those officials did nothing? Would we scream at the top of our lungs, only to be told that we were being self-pitying and unrealistic? Would we be marching in the streets? Would we?
Now, I’m not offering this “what if” to scare you. The scenario I’m describing, yes, does sound like things that have happened to Jews in the past, but it does not look like something we are seeing happening now, or anytime soon – at least, we’re not seeing it happen to us.
However, this is what is happening, right now, in the American Black community. It is unfolding right before our eyes.
On Monday of this week, George Floyd, a Black man, was taken into custody by four Minneapolis police officers. According to the police, the officers were responding to a call about a “forgery in progress” at a convenience store. We don’t know why the officers left that store a few minutes after arriving to go to a van parked across the street. We do know that they removed Floyd from the drivers seat, handcuffed him and told him to sit on the sidewalk where they questioned him. We do know that they then walked him across the street back to their squad car. The police say that, at this point, the officers called for an ambulance when they saw Floyd in “medical distress.”
We know that Floyd fell to the ground behind the squad car, but we don’t know why. We know that one of the police officers held him down with a knee on his neck. We know that Floyd was forcibly held in this position for about eight minutes, during which he pleaded with the officers saying, “I can’t breathe.” We know that he then stopped speaking. The ambulance arrived, Floyd was placed in it, and he was pronounced dead a few minutes later.
The four officers who made the arrest were fired from the Minneapolis Police Department after the incident was publicized by the news media. One of them, the officer who pushed his knee down on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter just today – four days after the incident. The other three officers on the scene have not been arrested or charged.
While there is still much that we do not know about the incident, the name of George Floyd has already joined those of Trayvon Martin, who was killed by a community watch volunteer in Florida in 2012, Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer in Missouri in 2014, and Eric Garner, who also said, “I can’t breathe,” before being killed by a New York City police officer in 2014. These are the high profile examples that have gained much national attention of Black people being killed without explanation and without a criminal conviction for the killer. But there have been many other cases. In fact, there have been at least two other cases revealed in just the past two months.
On March 13th in Kentucky, three police officers forced their way into the home of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman, and shot her. This month, it was revealed that Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, was shot and killed while jogging in Georgia by the son of a retired investigator for local law enforcement. In that case, the local police covered up the killing for months before the new media broadcast an eyewitness’ video of the incident.
And the list of Black victims goes on and on. The fact that so many of these victims were killed by police or people related to law enforcement does not make the situation any better – in fact, it makes it far worse. Who do you turn to for protection when the people who are killing young men and women in your community are among those who are sworn to “protect and serve”? We see how these incidents make the hard work of law enforcement even more difficult. We see how the public’s trust in the police is eroding badly when we see the terrible and unjustifiable violence that is gripping Minneapolis right now.
We cannot pretend that we don’t have an obligation to do something in these cases. Jewish tradition commands us, “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). There is nothing just about a nation where people are killed in the streets and in their own homes because of their race. There is nothing just about a nation where the killers are left unpunished. We would never stand for it if it were happening to us, and – remember – it has happened to us. So, the question is not really “What if?” or “What would we do?” The question ought to be, “What will we do?”
First and foremost, we should make ourselves allies with the Black community, listen to them and respect them, show them our support, offer them our help, and speak loudly against the continuing killing of Black men and women in crimes of bias against them. We should demand justice. We should demand that prosecutors take swift action in crimes like the killing of George Floyd. Our tradition demands no less than that from us.
Second, we should use the position and status that we have to make a difference. It is not our fault that the white skin that most American Jews have gives us some privileges that are not enjoyed in our society by people of color. You know what I’m talking about – the privilege of not being presumed to be a criminal, the privilege of being seen. It’s not our fault, but it is also not something we can take for granted. When white people speak up for the rights of people of color, it gets more attention than when it’s only people of color speaking for themselves. People of color don’t often hear the hurtful and hateful things that white people say when people of color aren’t listening – but if you are white, you do hear it. When you hear racism, speak up. Interrupt the nasty jokes and deprecatory comments. Say something to let people know that hate is wrong.
Third, we need to look at ourselves and confront our own bias. We have all grown up and we all live in a society that is filled with racial bias and discrimination. It would be a wonder if some of it didn’t rub off on us. Be self-critical about your own assumptions and prejudices. Be honest with yourself and notice it when you act fearfully or suspiciously about people who look different from you. Notice when you see and hear others blaming people based on their race or ethnicity, and notice when you do it yourself. It’s okay to admit it. It doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you human. But being a human being – being a mensch – also means being responsible for your own thoughts and behavior.
Our tradition teaches “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). We know what if feels like to be the victims of a society that regards our lives as being worth less than those of others. We have been there. It is up to us to stand up for those victims, just as we would stand up for ourselves. It is up to us to say that their lives matter.