There is a warzone in America’s heartland. Most of us are far from the armored police vehicles rolling down the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. But the battle there is being fought all over this country, and just because it is not the Jewish community under immediate attack doesn’t mean that we, as people of faith, don’t have a moral responsibility to stand with the residents of Ferguson. Indeed, all communities of faith have an obligation to speak up when we see injustices perpetrated against our fellow citizens.
Let’s start with the hard truths. The police action in Ferguson is not about protecting small business owners from petty theft. It’s not about quelling chaos or keeping order. It’s about racism. It’s about the fact that, as a country, we have never truly grappled with the lasting effects of slavery and the multiple iterations of Jim Crow. As Ta-Nehisi Coates eloquently explains in his recent article in The Atlantic, “What came before this was a long bloody war—enslavement—against black families, black communities and black bodies. What came after was a terrorist regime which ruled an entire swath of this country by fire and rope. That regime was not overthrown until an era well within the living memory of many Americans.”
Simply put, there is an undeniable connection between the deep, unhealed scars of slavery and the fact that no one called an ambulance as Michael Brown lay dying in the street. It is the blasphemous and offensive philosophy that says some wounds matter more than others, and some wounds are best left ignored.
Many Americans, especially those of us in the Jewish community, are descended from immigrants who came to these shores generations after the Civil War. That does not absolve us of our responsibility to wrestle with this horrible history. In fact, as Jews—many of whom are white—we are bound to face these issues head on.
As night falls on August 26, Jews across America will enter the month of Elul, a period of profound reflection and repentance leading up to the High Holidays. On Yom Kippur we ask for forgiveness from God, but for the next month we will ask for forgiveness from each other. That the Jewish calendar has a month dedicated to this type of searching is recognition that meaningful understanding, repentance and transformative justice require hard work and effort. That the cycle repeats every year means we are never done learning from our past.
We ask for forgiveness because Jews believe we are all accountable to one another, and our fates are bound up with those around us. Yet it is not just the act of asking for forgiveness that matters. It is the process of intense searching that precedes it where we experience the most learning and growth. It’s through that confrontation with our history where we become aware of how our actions or inactions affect the lives of others. Only by confronting our history are we able to move forward in a way that does not ignore the injustices of the past, and therefore creates a pathway for justice in the future.
It is not only America’s Jewish community that is at a moment of profound searching. All who watched on TV as hundreds marched in Ferguson amid tear gas and flash bombs must be at minimum compelled to search our conscience and wrestle with the question of how we got here. How did we get to the point where the police can fire six bullets into an unarmed teenager and leave his body in the streets?
For those of us who are not targets of systemic racism, for those of us who do not get stopped and frisked and have never had to stare down the barrel of an officer’s gun because of our white privilege, the police action in Ferguson might seem like a rare and violent overreaction to a community’s protests against police brutality. But if we look just a little bit outside ourselves and beyond our own community, we may begin to understand Ferguson as the latest abuse in a centuries-long history of the US government and its citizens terrorizing African Americans.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Dr. King in Selma, reminds us that, “Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings… In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Every spiritual community has their own particular traditions and practices that help give shape and structure to daily life. But we all build these practices around common values that give us direction and meaning. Among the crowds in Ferguson are reverends and pastors who are helping to transform their community’s outrage into a constructive and steadfast conviction that things must change. As Jews, entering this month of repentance and reflection, we must ask ourselves: What am I doing to heal the wounds of racism our country still bears? What am I doing to create the world we want? All of us must ask of ourselves what we can do, specifically, intentionally and immediately, to break the cycle that led us to Ferguson in the first place.
Stosh Cotler is CEO of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice