An Eloquent Message About Race That Jews Need to Read
The publication of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s stirring and pained “Between the World and Me” might just provide the kind of watershed moment for redefining the Black-Jewish relationship in the United States. Jewish leaders should seize it by encouraging their communities to read the book and talk about its implications for us both as Americans and Jews.
As the leading black voice in American journalism today, Coates’ book is a letter to his teenage son, explaining race, identity and America in the wake of the Michael Brown case in St. Louis. Bearing witness to the police killing of another unarmed black man prompted Coates to pen what we might call an ethical will to his child. It reads as sermonic jeremiad and epic confession — a soul-baring the likes of which is virtually unknown to the current generation of Jewish readers. He says to his son after the lack of indictment in the death of Brown, “What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.”
Though America is a relatively safe place for the Jewish body, recent surges in anti-Semitism in Europe and ongoing conflict in the Middle East means that broadly speaking, the Jewish body isn’t safe either. But while well into the mid-twentieth century the black-Jewish alliance was built upon a shared struggle for equality, in the past generation those partnerships have faded.
We are reminded by Coates, and others like Bryan Stevenson and Michelle Alexander, that there are systemic injustices toward blacks in many American cities, in schools, in the workplace. These facts, combined with an alarmingly high and disproportionate incarceration rate for black men (“60% of all young black men who drop out of high school will go to jail”) demand a Jewish communal response.
He is brutally honest in his analysis of the American economy, with its twisted roots in slavery, an institution whose rejection is the very foundation of the Jewish story of freedom and justice. “As slaves we were the country’s first windfall,” Coates writes, “the down payment on its freedom.” What would it mean for us Jews as a community, so fortunate in our relative success within one century of a mass migration between 1880 and 1920, to begin again at the beginning by acknowledging who in fact built this country? We were slaves in the land of Egypt. If it’s true for us each year at Passover, how much more so must it be true in America for our black neighbors?
But if it is true that in broad terms American Jews have achieved admirable success, taking advantage of the many privileges and opportunities American democracy offers, we also know that we are never far from the Exodus narrative told each year at Passover. “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” This commandment, paired with the mandate to be kind to the stranger precisely because we were strangers in the land of Egypt, ought to serve as the moral underpinnings for a new American Jewish engagement with the most urgent issues in the African American community.
For Jews as for blacks, the Book, and reading, along with the subversive power of the pursuit of learning, comprise the fulcrum of identity formation.
Like generations of Jews, Coates’ own redemption was in education. “I shared…a deep belief that we could somehow read our way out,” he wrote, recounting for his son the transformative and liberating powers of learning. “My history professors thought nothing of telling me that my search for myth was doomed, that the stories I wanted to tell myself could not be matched to truth.” Education, in the fullest expression of its potential, cleared the mind for action. “History is not solely in our hands,” Coates tells his son. “And still you are called to struggle not because it assures you victory but because it ensures you an honorable and sane life.”
I read the book while boarding a plane to Israel earlier this summer. I left behind a growing and gentrifying Brooklyn in which young millennials were examining their own sense of responsibility to the neighborhoods they were moving in to; President Obama had just delivered his extraordinary eulogy at Emanuel AME Church; and news reports of revived anti-Semitism in Europe collided with troubling stories of internal Israeli discrimination against Ethiopian Jews. The self, identity and nation, it seems, are all the rage. For younger Jews there is a particular urgency.
Jewish history, it turns out, has something to teach us. Most broadly, the mass of our ancestors who came to America fled classic European anti-Semitism and pursued economic opportunity. America represented that chance to get ahead, along with the shocking reality that at least here, blacks had it worse.
And since the early years of the twentieth century, many American Jewish organizations and Jewish philanthropists were committed to alleviating the scourge of racism and discrimination against blacks, in part as a bulwark against anti-Semitism and in part as building a shared platform in support of equality and civil rights for all Americans. The Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress (to name a few) all shared a commitment to defending black civil rights and Jews were among the early founders and funders of the NAACP.
Civil rights activists, Freedom Riders, crusading rabbis like Joachim Prinz and Abraham Joshua Heschel fill in an almost mythic narrative of a once golden age of the black-Jewish alliance that in recent decades has fallen away from the center of the American Jewish communal agenda. Given recent events, it ought to be clear to us as Jews that now is precisely the right moment to start again.
And so I want to propose that American Jewish communities take up the challenge.
Coates’ story of growing up black in America is both nuanced in its exploration of the self in the face of a hostile collective and an account of one man’s refusal to turn away from racism’s dehumanizing face and to testify for the need to be present and to respond — not with violence but with the mind and soul.
Just as one might travel to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington or the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, Jewish communities across the United States should commit this year to read Ta-Nehisi Coates “Between the World and Me.” If a prior generation of Jews saw its own American redemption bound to the civil rights struggle of American blacks, our current age, reclaiming the urban habitats once left by our predecessors, will find in Coates a brotherly manifestation of the Jewish condition since Emancipation — between the world and the self.
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me; and if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”