You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

Anti-Semitism and “The New Jim Crow”

January 15, 2013
By Rabbi Jonathan Kligler Woodstock Jewish Congregation I want to describe two reasons why the New Jim Crow, the system of mass incarceration, is a Jewish issue, and why I wanted our synagogue to host this gathering. The first reason should be self-evident: the central Jewish narrative is our story of how we originated as a people: we were slaves to a tyrant, the Pharaoh of Egypt, and were mightily oppressed. Upon receiving our freedom, we enshrined a principle at the center of our collective consciousness: “Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” Therefore, being a committed Jew means being aware of others who might be suffering under oppressive societies, and standing opposed to that oppression. It’s pretty straightforward, and it is one of the main reasons why I am proud to learn and to transmit the teachings of Judaism. The second reason why the revelations of the Michelle Alexander’s book are important to Jews is much less obvious, but equally important to me. Alexander brilliantly analyzes the way racism went “underground” when societal norms changed through the work of the Civil Rights Movement. Once public expressions of racism and racist rationales were no longer an acceptable form of public discourse in our country, racist impulses had to find an indirect means to continue to maintain African Americans in the primary position of an underclass. Now folks could simply say they were trying to keep “bad elements” off the street, and protest that, of course, they were not motivated by racism. Michelle Alexander exposes this insidious phenomenon with breathtaking clarity. The very same analysis can and should be applied to anti-Semitism. Since the scope of the Holocaust became widely known, it has become unacceptable in mainstream society to hate, attack, scapegoat or demean Jews just because they are Jews. The horror of the Holocaust was so morally repugnant that it sent anti-Semitism underground. But the forces of anti-Semitism did not go away, any more than the forces of racism. Now, racism and anti-Semitism have somewhat different dynamics; the main purpose of anti-Semitism is to have a group, the Jews, who can function as a scapegoat for whatever ails you. The State of Israel has now taken up that position of scapegoat in much global discourse. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Israel is some model nation-state. I can easily enumerate its many flaws. But one statistic might suffice to show how Israel has become the scapegoat and the distraction from much larger global inequities: of over 700 General Assembly resolutions passed since the United Nations’ establishment in 1945, nearly 450 address and often condemn Israel. Please reflect on that staggering statistic for a moment, and then you may begin to understand why so many Jews you know feel defensive and unsure about their safety in the world. My hope is, therefore, that we Jews might respond to the alarm of The New Jim Crow in two ways. First, of course, by actively participating in the work needed to reform our nation’s legal and prison system so that it can no longer serve as a cover for racism. Our African-American brothers and sisters deserve nothing less. Second, by applying Michelle Alexander’s insights to our own situation as Jews, so that we can counter anti-Semitism when we see it. Rabbi Jonathan Kligler leads the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, where a recent forum on raising Jewish consciousness about the New Jim Crow was held.