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Justice for Black America is Justice for All of America

A Message from Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

As the verdict in the Chauvin trial came down yesterday, I thought of this passage which we discussed last week in our Shabbat afternoon study group. “The famous biblical command at Deuteronomy 16:20, ‘Justice, justice you shall pursue,’ implies categorically that a Jew must engage in the continuous pursuit of a just society-a pursuit that will inevitably be connected not only with interpersonal behavior among individuals, but also with the ethical construction of larger society in which those individuals live.”  (P. 427. The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews.)  I believe that justice has been served by Tuesday’s verdict. I agree with the Floyd family attorney, Ben Crump, who stated “Justice for Black America is justice for all of America.”

If we take seriously the biblical command of Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, we should be encouraged by the jury decision in the Chauvin case. It demonstrated that our system of justice can work and that police officers, who are so important and vital to our society, must also be held accountable when they become the source of an egregious injustice. This is a deep-seated problem that requires concrete reforms in policing. (Although, I do not support defunding the police.)

Yesterday’s ADL statement summarizes my views on this issue.

“The jury’s decision to hold Derek Chauvin accountable for the murder of George Floyd is ​​​​a critically necessary first step in securing ​a modicum of justice for Floyd's family and community. And yet, no guilty verdict can change the fact that George Floyd – and Elijah McClain, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo and too many others – should be alive today. It is long past time for our country to tackle systemic racism, reimagine what public safety looks like, and create transformational change to ensure justice and fair treatment for all people. Black Lives Matter, and our society's laws, practices, and institutions must reflect that.”

We cannot remain indifferent to the pain of the black community. I recently started reading Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. Wilkerson makes a strong argument for framing American slavery as a manifestation of a caste system. She argues that blacks occupy a similar position in America as the Untouchables in India and Jews in Nazi Germany. While the origins of each of these caste systems are unique, the position and standing of Jews in Nazi Germany was very much informed by the history of blacks in America as well as American race theory and eugenics that developed in this country early in the 20th century. 

I think this book is very important. I recommend that CBI members read the book. I am planning to discuss the book at my weekly Tuesday lunch and learn on June 22nd from 12-1 which should give folks plenty of time to read and digest this important work. I will also discuss my impressions of the book at Shabbat services on June 25-26. Save these dates and look for more information in the eblasts.

I would like to share a small section of the book which serves as an inspiration to me about how we as Jews should connect and respond to the Black experience in America. 

“In December 1932, one of the smartest men who ever lived landed in America on a steamship with his wife and their thirty pieces of luggage as the Nazis bore down on their homeland of Germany. Albert Einstein, the physicist and Nobel laureate had managed to escape the Nazis just in time. The month after Einstein left, Hitler was appointed chancellor.

In America, Einstein was astonished to discover that he had landed in yet another caste system, one with a different scapegoat caste and different methods, but with embedded hatreds that were not so unlike the one he had just fled. “The worst disease is the treatment of the Negro,” he wrote in 1946. “Everyone who freshly learns of this state of affairs at a maturer age feels not only the injustice, but the scorn of the principle of the Fathers who founded the United States that ‘all men are created equal.’ ”…

A few years into his tenure (at Princeton), the opera singer Marian Anderson, a renowned contralto born to the subordinated caste, performed to an overflow crowd at McCarter Theatre in Princeton and to rapturous praise in the press of her “complete mastery of a magnificent voice.” But the Nassau Inn in Princeton refused to rent a room to her for the night. Einstein, learning of this, invited her to stay in his home. From then on, she would stay at the Einstein residence whenever she was in town, even after Princeton hotels began accepting African-American guests. They would remain friends until his death. “Being a Jew myself, perhaps I can understand and empathize with how black people feel as victims of discrimination,” he told a family friend.

He grew uncomfortable with the American way of pressuring newcomers to look down on the lowest caste in order to gain acceptance. Here was one of the most brilliant men who ever lived refusing to see himself as superior to people he was being told were beneath him. “The more I feel an American, the more this situation pains me,” Einstein wrote. “I can escape the feelings of complicity in it only by speaking out.” (Caste. P. 378ff)

Let Einstein be an inspiration to all of us. Like him, we need to speak out and support efforts to promote justice and fairness for our fellow Black citizens and for all. 

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