Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Nutritious content

I recognize that up to this point, the blog has been mostly an exercise in vanity.

That is my fault, I apologize. That's not to say that there won't be excessive ranting or attempts to make ourselves look cool in the future, but I'll try to ensure that actual social/political/cultural content gets added as well.

First, check this out: CEO's for Cities's CEO blogs about Cincinnati, my hometown, and another post-industrial declining city.

In that vein, I want to write about something that continues to be an issue of both great pride and consternation to me. That issue is the relationship between the Jewish community and the African-American community, specifically the descendants of Africans who were brought to America to be slaves.

This is an important distinction to make, as a side note, because there are very large splinters in the African diaspora community within America. Generally this tends to revolve around the relative economic mobility that more recent African immigrants have had as opposed those aforementioned descendants of slaves.

In fact, it might be argued that the only thing that unites the Black community (and perhaps the only shared aspect of identity) is racism and prejudice, real or perceived. I direct your attention to Amadou Diallo.

So here we are in 2008, with Crown Heights acting up again, world image of Israel at a low point, young Jews in America struggling to figure out where we fit in the whole equation.

Let me reign this back in with a thesis statement:
Although Jewish- and African-Americans have historically had higher levels of interaction and often cooperation than either group had with any other ethnic minority, the 'golden age' of this relationship has been allowed to pass, and without focused attention the issue, the two groups face mutual alienation and further antagonism.

When I was in Chicago, Elena, one of the more interesting people I am fortunate enough to know was talking to me about Black-Jewish relations in this country.

She broke it down as follows:
Why care? Really, why should African-Americans trust that Jews in America are any different than the rest of the white population, purveyors and enablers of slavery and rape, prejudice, racism, and humiliation?

Why should Jews care about African-Americans, with whom they currently seem to have little in common?

She was basically pointing out that Jews became bougie, that with the economic mobility that we have enjoyed, we have forgotten from whence we came, save a few Holocaust remembrance days and Yiddish-colloquialisms. In a sense, Elena is saying that we became white, trading in our identity for a ticket on the bus, or in this case, a suburban house in a quiet (white) neighborhood, a big (goyish) SUV, and private schooling.

If this is true, than it is truly frightening, clearly for the wider implications, but specifically in regards to Black-Jewish dialogue. Jews have succeeded wildly in America, despite having come (mostly) as poor immigrants and refugees while African Americans have been plagued by high incarceration rates, low incomes, and poor outcomes.

The only remaining point of contact seems to be popular culture. What can explain the fascination of generations of American Jews with American African culture, the Beastie Boys, Mattisyahu, Scott Storch, back to Benny Goodman and Irving Berlin?

Perhaps the core explanation is an identification with suffering, at least from the Jewish perspective. The ideas that A. we were slaves in the land of Egypt and B. we have an obligation to heal this imperfect world are essential to the psyche of the American Jews who fought in the civil rights movement. The oft-referenced Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner murders are constantly used as evidence of the sacrifices of Jews for the Black struggle for equality in America, and is a personal point of pride for me (and AEPi, to whom both Goodman and Schwerner belonged).

Another, perhaps less altruistic, perspective is that Jews understood that African Americans were one of the few groups lower on the ethnic pecking order and were effectively a canary in a mine shaft. That is to say that Jews recognized that they had better improve the situation for Black folk in America, because the same racism that was targeted at Blacks, could just as quickly and easily be shifted in the Anti-Jewish sentiment (antisemitism includes other Semitic peoples).

In any case, the great strides that Jews and Blacks had made together, as embodied by Rabbi Heschel walking arm and arm with Dr. King, Jr. was shattered and we have a responsibility to pick up the pieces.

There is so much more to write on this topic, but really, we just need to be out there in the community, we have created a physical distance between ourselves and the black community, and only proximity will force us to improve that relationship.

Which is why we moved to the sanctuary.

--edit-- Rosh thinks I need to provide more solutions instead of diatribes, so here we go.

1. Live in a neighborhood in which you come into contact with people who don't look, talk, or believe what you do.

2. Take some time to read about the history of civil rights in this country, learn about some of the challenges still faced by African-Americans.

3. Turn the radio off. The 'Blazing Hip Hop and R&B' on the radio today is an extension of Blackface and Minstrel shows. This is clearly a personal diatribe, but that's what the internet is for right?

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