The American House Is Burning
I have witnessed things this week that beggar the imagination. Tens of thousands of demonstrators marching through the streets of New York outraged at the senseless murder of George Floyd by police. Endless shops in Manhattan boarded up against looters. Broken glass at stores near our organization’s townhouse on the Upper West Side.
An African-American activist speaking to hundreds of marchers while addressing the police standing in front of him: “You know you’re all murderers. And especially shameful are those of you who are black cops and other cops of color. How can you disgrace yourselves by being members of the NYPD?” He said this as two African-American female cops in riot gear stared at him in stony silence.
The original American sin is racism. It can be hard to believe that just 150-odd years ago, black babies were still sold on the block like cattle, ripped away from their mother’s breasts in the slave markets. It can be hard to believe that after nearly 700,000 Americans died in the civil war, we then went through 100 years of Jim Crow and blacks being lynched, sent to the back of the bus, or beaten with lead pipes for trying to integrate America’s schools. And it can be hard to believe that 50 years ago, the greatest American of the 20th century, Martin Luther King, Jr., was felled by an assassin’s bullet for marching peacefully in Memphis demanding rights for sanitation workers.
Yet all these are painful American truths.
But we dared hope that it was part of our past. We dared hope that after a majority-white America elected an African-American as president, the terrible race struggles that have convulsed our nation would be something of the past.
That’s what’s so utterly shocking about the Floyd murder and the unbelievable aftermath. Can this all be happening? Are African-American men and women being shot by the police because of the color of their skin? Are stores and shops really being burnt to the ground in paroxysms of violence? And is this all happening while a global pandemic has killed more than 100,000 Americans in only three months? Is this not all some terrible nightmare from which we’ll all awake?
I have long had a relationship with the African-American community — including working with Cory Booker when he was a student at Oxford and bringing Rev. Al Sharpton to Israel on a solidarity mission with the Jewish community after the 9/11 attacks. I have believed that blacks and Jews are united not through a shared history of mutual suffering, but a shared commitment to mutual values. We are two communities who, through centuries of suffering, have forever retained hope in physical redemption through spiritual promise.
Both communities have largely been led by religious figures — rabbis in the Jewish community and reverends in the African-American community. Both Jews and blacks have looked to the Bible, and especially the story of Moses standing up to Pharaoh, for inspiration in enduring subjugation to tyranny. And both communities have emphasized how attachment to community and family, even while passing through the valley of the shadow of death, will eventually bring us to the promised land.
The United States is the most righteous and just nation on earth, and humankind’s last great hope. I don’t believe that the overwhelming majority of Americans are racist. To the contrary. I believe Americans are loving, benevolent, and good. I believe that the police are heroes who risk their lives for their communities every single day.
And yet — there are Americans who are undoubtedly racist and there are bad cops who have committed abuses and murder based on abominable bigotry and prejudice.
But how can we create healing? How can we bridge the divide between these two Americas? For God’s sake, who will stop the American house from being burned to the ground as we are gripped by racial hatred, increased lawlessness, a killer disease, and growing hopelessness? Are people now really talking about defunding the police? Is America losing its mind? I have a friend who is a Jewish leader, highly educated, incredibly savvy, and professionally successful. He is also a left-leaning Democrat. He actually wrote to me that he plans to buy a gun to protect his family and protect his synagogue if cities defund the police.
Where will healing come from amidst this insanity. In my opinion, it will not come from politics. Now is the time for religion to rise and bring healing to America. Let rabbis and pastors and priests and imams join in once voice with a declaration of principles.
1. Every human being is created equally in the image of God. We are all equally God’s children and no person is more or less valuable than another.
2. Skin color is by far the least important of all human qualities and it’s an abomination against God to believe in anything other than one human family or to ever divide the human family into more than one human race.
3. Racial injustice and especially murder based on race, like the killing of George Floyd, is an abomination before God and a sin of incalculable evil.
4. Individuals must be judged based on their individual actions and never as part of a collective. This means that demonizing all police because of the actions of racist cops is an affront to decency and goodness.
5. Forgiveness is the cornerstone of all world religion. From Yom Kippur being the holiest day on the Jewish calendar to the Christian belief that Jesus died for our sins, real spirituality calls us to rise above hatred and find healing through repentance.
6. We are all one family and are redeemed through loving one another.
7. Violence in the name of religion, or the pursuit of racial justice, or correcting other social wrongs is unacceptable. The path to social change, as Martin Luther King, Jr. so emphatically pledged, comes through peaceful protest and shaming the perpetrators into permanent change.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s Holocaust memoir, Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell, written with historical contributions by Mitchell Bard, will be published later this year. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.