Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Barack Obama, racism, and the frum community

I rarely get angry about politics, but I am getting angry now.

Yesterday, Barack Obama made a speech about race in America that was nuanced, treated the listeners like thinking people, and made important distinctions.

But many in the Jewish community focused only on what Obama had to say about his former Pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

Admittedly, some of the sound clips of Wright’s that have come to light in recent days are disturbing. But Obama isn’t Wright. He made that abundantly clear in his speech yesterday:

“…the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

"As such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems…”

But all many Orthodox Jews seem to be able to focus on is that fact that he didn’t reject Reverend Wright himself. No matter that Obama has been a steadfast friend of Israel’s.

Over a year ago, he said:

“My view is that the United States' special relationship with Israel obligates us to be helpful to them in the search for credible partners with whom they can make peace, while also supporting Israel in defending itself against enemies sworn to its destruction,"

Over 2 years ago, he said:

"I flew on an IDF helicopter to the border zone. The helicopter took us over the most troubled and dangerous areas and that narrow strip between the West Bank and the Mediterranean Sea. At that height, I could see the hills and the terrain that generations have walked across. I could truly see how close everything is and why peace through security is the only way for Israel,"

"We must preserve our total commitment to our unique defense relationship with Israel by fully funding military assistance and continuing work on the Arrow and related missile defense programs. This would help Israel maintain its military edge and deter and repel attacks from as far as Tehran and as close as Gaza."
In his speech yesterday, he said that Reverend Wright’s comments expressed:

“a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.”

Yet, many Orthodox Jews focus only on the fact that he has a relationship with Wright. Obama's support for Israel doesn’t count. And the fact that much of his speech was an important and honest assessment of race relations in America doesn’t count either. That doesn’t seem to be on frum Jews’ radar.

But that’s not the main reason why I’m angry. Parochial, narrow minded members of the electorate who focus on only their pet concerns have always been there. The Jewish community is no exception.

But the tone taken by many frum commentators and bloggers goes beyond simple concerns. Many specifically evoke Obama’s middle name, “Hussein” as if to point to something sinister and Arabic about him. The blatantly false emails claiming that Obama is a radical Muslim still make the rounds in the frum community. And the fear that many in the frum community have of Obama’s former pastor’s influence on the candidate betrays an irrational fear of Black Americans by many frum Jews.

For far too many frum Jews, black people are still “shvartzas”. They are spoken of distastefully, many times from the pulpits of shtibels and yeshivas. The fear of them and their supposed lifestyles, that they are all “vilda chayas”, committing crime and impregnating women, is rampant. I have heard it from relatives, friends, and Rabbis.

Do I reject those friends, relatives, Rabbis? No, I try to correct them, or simply tune it out. I firmly reject what they say. But I will not cut them out of my lives.

Obama hit the nail right on the head yesterday when he said:

“I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.”
Can anybody who has spent time in the frum community really tell me that he’s wrong?

Here is a collection of Wright’s statements. They are blunt, and some are ignorant & biased, especially the ones about Israel, but do they really rise to the level to cause such hysteria? I see no blatant racism in it. I see no calls of “death to Jews”.

There is an anger towards America, yes. But what do you expect in a county where racism still rears its ugly head in subtle and not so subtle ways every day? Has America really been a land of perfection to black people?

Much of it is simply the way in which it was said. The clips of Reverend Wright have been played over and over again on the radio and TV. And white America fears angry black men, no matter what is being said. It could be a grocery list, and still white America would tense up. But what’s especially disappointing is that that cringing is intensified in the frum Jewish communities of America.

In his speech, Obama, while condemning much of Wright’s rhetoric, also tried to go beyond that and eloquently explained the reasons and background for some black anger:

“Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, ‘The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.’ We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
"Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.

"Legalized discrimination - where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments – meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.

"A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families – a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods – parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement – all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.”

But most of the frum community doesn’t seem to want to understand any of this. Most of them want to focus their growing hysteria on how an Obama presidency will treat Israel, despite Obama’s steadfast support of Israel, in word and deed, over the last several years.

There is a great fear of the “other” in the insular frum community. And black Americans, especially urban ones, are a particularly strong representation of that “other”. Most frum Jews still live in urban neighborhoods that are shoulder to shoulder with lower income black neighborhoods. Many remember the days in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s when old Jewish neighborhoods became more and more black, crime rose, and shuls became churches.

Especially in these urban areas, yeshiva students watched the minority urban youth hanging out on the street corners and formed negative stereotypes that stayed with them for the rest of their lives.

But the old stereotypes no longer hold. Barack Obama is a well-spoken, Columbia and Harvard educated US Senator. But too many frum jews look at him and automatically think “shvartza”. “Will he be good for the Jews? Will he be good for Israel?” And despite all the evidence of his positive views on both those topics, they conclude that the answer is no.

That is why I am angry. Because an affluent frum community, whose members are doctors, lawyers, and businessmen shouldn’t be carrying around such racism in this day & age. We are better than that. Or at least we should be. Especially Jews, who 60 years ago were being loaded into the gas chambers of Nazi Germany simply for being Jewish.

But far too many friends who should know better have sent me emails claiming that Obama is a Muslim, that he sympathizes with Hamas, that he will champion black power and only cares about the black community.

This candidacy was a chance for frum Jews to show that they are above expressing the same kind of discrimination that has followed them for centuries. That they can sympathize and help another community try to overcome the bigotry and inequality as many did in the 1960’s when they marched with Martin Luther King Jr. That they can try to hear the words of Senator Obama yesterday and understand the racism, troubles and hardships that have kept many black Americans from succeeding.

It was a chance for a Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s name).

Instead, my community has caused a great Chillul Hashem, a desecration of G-d’s name. We have shown the whole county our irrational fear and dislike of African-Americans. Senator Obama keeps coming back to the Jewish community, again and again, to allay their irrational fears that would never exist for white candidates with similar records. And the whole world sees those fears and that racism.

THAT is why I am angry. And disappointed and embarrassed.

I ask all of you who are reading this; please take a few minutes to watch, listen, or read the whole of Obama’s speech yesterday. You’ll see his attempt to heal, not divide. And listen to the whole thing, not just the part about Reverend Wright. Support Senator Obama in this election or don’t, as your conscience dictates, but do it for the right reasons.

With some effort, we have a chance to do better and make a Kiddush Hashem after all.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Women's ritual roles

On DovBear's blog, LadyKaye wrote a post on whether women can lain from the Torah in public and discussed the reason given in the Talmud against it, that of "Kavod HaTzibur" (respect to the congregation). She discusses the 2 explanations generally given for Kavod HaTzibur. One is that women were simply held in lower regard. The other was a convoluted apologetic that involved women's educational opportunities (see her post for a full explanation.)

I thin there's no question that it's the lower regard for women that accounted for Kavod HaTzibur. Women were deemed inferior. That's OK, since most of the world deemed women inferior at the time the halachot were written & codified. (Mishna & Talmud.)

Actually, Judaism was more respectful of women's rights and status than the surrounding society. They were deemed inferior, but not property. Since the episode of B'not Zelafchad in the Torah, Judaism has had a tradition of working within the halachic system to make things better for women as times demanded.

Unfortunately most of the Orthodox community today has forgotten the elasticity of halacha. Women who can be CEO's, doctors, lawyers, and college professors in the outside world are relegated to sitting behind the mechitza and taking no public role in tefilla.

It is no longer OK to treat women as inferior by appealing to outmoded ways of thinking that happened to find its way to some halachic standards.

Shuls like Shira Chadasha & Darkhei Noam have taken up the ancient tradition of stretching (not breaking) halacha to enable women to expand their roles. It's a shame that most of the Orthodox world has created only one innovation - the concept that halacha cannot change.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Reporting child abuse

Emes Ve_emunah on reporting of child abuse in the Orthodox community:

Important reading. I can't agree with Harry M more.