Why racial issues matter to the Jewish community

A man holds a sign reading “Black Lives Matter More Than Property” as members of the community work to clean up a recently looted and burned CVS store in Baltimore, Maryland, United States April 28, 2015. Photo by Jim Bourg/Reuters

My brother-in-law is from Mexico and he jokes with his brothers about the “crime” they commit when getting in the car: they call it DWB, driving while brown. They have all been pulled over a variety of times for no apparent reason. My brother-in-law has never been ticketed in any of these police stops because he has never been in the wrong. However, it is the reality of his life, and the lives of many people of color in the United States, to be judged by his skin color.

Racial profiling has been in the news consistently for the past year. From the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York, to the more recent death of Walter Scott in South Carolina, the country is in a volatile place regarding race relations and law enforcement practices. The National Institute for Justice defines racial profiling by law enforcement as targeting individuals for suspicion of a crime based on their race, ethnicity, religion or national origin. This may lead officers to create a profile about the kinds of people that commit crimes, causing law enforcement to make decisions based on these profile generalizations rather than actual behaviors. Police stops are the easiest way to track racial profiling.

Research about racial profiling supports the outrage felt by so many: Amnesty International has compiled data that indicates 32 million Americans report being the victims of racial profiling. In California, many police departments, such as San Francisco, say they lack the funding and personnel to track their stop data and other information related to racial profiling. Specifically in Los Angeles County for every 10,000 residents, the LAPD stops Blacks at a rate 3,400 times higher than the White stop rate and the Hispanic stop rate is 360 times higher. The Oakland police department just released a report admitting that while Blacks make up only 28% of the city’s population, they comprise 62% of the stops made by police.

While these numbers are all shocking, why should Jews care? For Jews of color living in the United States, and for me on behalf of my brother-in-law, it is personal. For Jews as a community, however, issues of race matter because Jews know what ethnic injustice feels like. Over the course of history, Jews have experienced systematic persecution based on being different: in medieval Europe Jews were forced to live in ghettos with curfews; in the United States Jews were banned from universities; during the Holocaust Nazis methodically attempted to wipe out Jews and other “unfit” minorities; and in the Former Soviet Union, like other religious groups, Jews were punished for keeping rituals.

This does not even include the biblical story of Jews serving the Egyptian pharaoh as slaves. Whether or not one believes that the Torah is an historical document, Jews today celebrate Passover more than any other holiday, commemorating this journey from slavery to freedom. Familiarity with injustice, either directly or indirectly, should be enough for Jews to want to take a stand for those affected by racial profiling.

The familiar phrase from Leviticus 19:18 to “Love your neighbor as yourself” urges Jews to care for our fellow brothers and sisters of color. Jews have a history of working towards civil rights: Rabbis such as Abraham Joshua Heschel and many others marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed at the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, DC. Where are today’s activists? Who is upholding Leviticus 19:16 “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” amidst today’s racial profiling and deaths.

In 2001, the California penal code outlawed racial profiling. Why is it still a problem? As both American citizens and as Jews we have a responsibility to ensure that our criminal justice system actually serves to uphold just treatment for all. In February, State Assemblywoman Shirley Weber introduced promising new legislation, AB 953 and AB 619. AB 953 would update the definition of racial profiling and require all law enforcement departments to collect, analyze, and report data on police stops in order to identify and eliminate unjustified racial disparity. AB 619 would increase police transparency.

Jews as a religion and ethnic culture are a minority in the world and, at the same time, are generally considered part of the white majority voice. We can use this unique position to improve conditions of racial minorities: Politically, we can urge our state assembly members to pass AB 619 and AB 953 and lobby national representatives for better federal legislation.

On a more personal level, we can recognize our vital role amongst white peers and friends to inform them of these issues and treat law enforcement with respect while holding these groups and ourselves accountable for systemic and structural racism. We have a responsibility to build relationships and form partnerships with individuals and groups of color to amplify and give public strength to their voices. By doing this with humility we can underscore the fact that we are not willing to live in a place where the lives of people like my brother-in-law are considered less worthy than others.

Erin Goldstrom is a dual degree student pursuing a Masters in Social Work at the University of Southern California and a Masters in Jewish Nonprofit Management at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

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