Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Crossing Racism in the Jewish Community

I was overall impressed with R' Yaakov Menken's open letter to the NY Jewish Week in response to an article called Straddling the Color Barrier. Excerpt:

In particular, your friends’ warnings that the Orthodox “are rigid and racist” caught my eye. You repeat it twice, but then go on to recount your personal experience as you began dating: “Orthodox rabbis and congregants were veritably welcoming, with one prominent Orthodox rabbi promising to find me a wife as he encouraged me to move into his Brooklyn community.”

My expectation, at that point, was that you would reflect at least momentarily upon the disparity between the misinformation you were universally given about the Orthodox by non-Orthodox friends, and your own first-person experience with Orthodox Jews themselves. [I must add that the other black Jews with whom I am acquainted all share similar positive experiences.]

The comments section on Cross-Currents is interesting; while my own rabbeim decried racism in all forms, and I recall one being shocked by one student's racist comments almost to the point of anger at the very idea, I've heard way too many racist comments from individuals and even rabbeim in the Orthodox community. I don't think that most are racist, but to say a sizable minority are - particularly in the more yeshivish community - is not a stretch. It's hard to gauge if those percentages are much larger than the world at large, but my own guess would be that it is - though it's possible that because people feel they're in a "safe", closed environment they are simply more prone to expressing that which others might keep to themselves.

Either way, I've found that the easiest way to combat racism in the Orthodox community seems to be head-on. It generally is children - particularly teens - who will make comments, and when adults don't react, they think their comments have tacit approval. Speaking out strongly whenever hearing such comments has a strong effect, particularly to kids who have simply never heard much about other races (or religions) other than jokes or mocking. They simply don't know better.

Oh, and obviously welcoming black Jews into the community a little better would go a long way as well, though the ones I've met or seen in places such as Harrisburg and Cleveland seem to be pretty comfortable within those communities.


  1. There is absolutely way too much racism within Orthodox Jewish communities - and it doesn't matter whether the targets of racism are Jewish or not. When you teach a child negative stereotypes about people of different races, they don't differentiate whether those people are Jewish or not, and they shouldn't. Whatever happened to looking at a person for who they are, rather than the color of their skin or their religion? I'm sorry, but there is way too much looking down upon anyone who is not exactly the same as oneself (and this applies just as well at looking negatively at non-Jews as it does to looking negatively at non-observant Jews as it does to looking negatively at those who are less/more-"frum" than you are).

    The difference that I see in the Orthodox world than the more general population is that it is so easy for people to not be used to anything that is unlike themselves - because of the insular nature of the community - Orthodox people tend to shop at Jewish-run stores, go to shul and school and work and restaurants, etc. with other Orthodox people - there is not exposure to people of other races and religions. In the general population, people do mix and have to interact, and that in itself is bound to make a difference.

  2. It's an unfortunate reality that racism exists everywhere...even in the Orthodox community.

    I find it interesting that the author of the original article was warned against the Orthodox community when as a Chinese woman and a convert, I have found the Orthodox community to be very welcoming and accepting of my "Jewishness".

    I wholeheartedly agree with you that if we would educate our children, this would be less of an issue.

  3. One of the things that has always bothered me about the frum community is the liberal use of the word "schvartza" to denote someone of African-American descent. I find it unnecessarily demeaning and am quite shocked when I hear even adults using it. I think that the fact that my peers use it is indicative of their parents having used that word at home, and so, like you said, Ezzie, the "tacit approval" of racist terms teaches kids that it's okay to refer to other groups using derogatory terms.

    It's ironic - you'd expect a group of people that has been the butt of anti-Semitism throughout history to at least understand the awfulness of being treated as second-class citizens, and to *not* think of other groups/minorities in a derogatory way as well.

  4. My experience has been that way too many orthodox are openly racist...And way too many of those who decry racism loudly, presume holding strong opinions about the inferiority of intellect, culture etc is NOT racism as much as fact.

  5. I know of a few openly, extremely racist frum Jews, who so shocked and disgusted me when I heard them using racial slurs like it's going out of style that I can barely look at these people anymore. But there are far, FAR more who are not conciously, openly racist, but have been brought up with the worldview that Orthodox Jews are better than everyone else, and therefore everyone else is...well, inferior. This view extends to non-Jews of all colors and religions, though obviously some get their own "special" terminology (e.g., "shvartza", a word that I loathe). I was not brought up with such a mindset because I'm from the back end of nowhere, and I had non-frum and non-Jewish neighbors and friends and interacted with the secular world as a matter of course. But I don't think that means that all of the racists in the frum community get a pass; I just think that we need to do more to correct such attitudes from a young age as much as possible.

  6. I really believe there is a west/east coast divide here. On the west coast where things are more spread out and the 'inner cities' are far from the frum areas there is less racisim you hardly hear the word svartzas compared to other cities (such as Baltimore) I suspect (strongly) that this has to do with the amount of crime and the perpetrators of it. As well as the attitude toward jews by other races which seems to be much more mild (again, in the location where jews live) on the west then on the east.

  7. "It's hard to gauge if those percentages are much larger than the world at large"

    It's not only hard, it's impossible, so don't go there. The problem can be attacked without guessing about percentages.

    Correction starts with a concerted effort by adult role models to control their language inside and outside the home and school. This is not political correctness, it's correctness itself. If they can't motivate themselves to clean up their act, they need a mighty "zetz" from their leaders.

    Some people are even so bold as to speak in racist terms in earshot of the people they deride. This goes beyond wrong to plain dumb.

  8. anon 10:14, you hit on it. It's totally politically incorrect to say it, but you are right. That said, we don't allow that kind of talk in our home. Did I grow up with it? Yeah. Did I grow up with negative hands-on experiences with black people? Yep. Does that justify blaming an entire race of people? No. But it helps make sense of the prevalence of this attitude in people who have grown up in certain inner city, high crime areas. Lots of people from comfortable suburban towns across the country don't get the racism at all because they don't understand the fear and negative life experience that it comes from. It's not all about insularity and condescension. Again, that does not justify it.

  9. Typical Jews today have not grown up in an urban ghetto and seldom even visit one, but this bad cultural habit persists in many quarters. Regardless of what started it, the time has come to finish it---unless we really want to invite ridicule and worse.

  10. Bob (anon 10:14 here) I disagree, here in baltimore people really do live in fear of other races- for good reason- I live outside the city limits and saw a child of another race get arrested for stealing a bike and the kid then literally tried to assult the police officer- the kid was no bigger then 13 years of age!! We would NEVER see that in L.A. EVER!! There just is no fear of crime! What you see here is unreal. I can understand why people use the language they do after coming here. When living in LA I couldnt imagine it. But now I understand. (Im not saying its right- just that it comes from somewhere and not just something that was passed down from parents)

  11. Our son-in-law recently volunteered to join a community patrol in Baltimore that alerts the police to suspicious situations and incidents in progress. This is the proper response; foolish name-calling is not.

  12. Very good comments; hopefully I'll have a chance to comment on my own later on today.