A Jew at the NAACP: Minority Report Part 2

I have been working through a Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism for nearly six weeks now at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Most people in my internship program were placed with organizations like Interfaith Alliance, Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice or J. Street – organizations that appear more overtly Jewish in nature. I’ve learned, since I began work at the NAACP, that my placement here was in no way arbitrary or accidental. For as long as the NAACP has been in existence, Jews have been working in coalition with African-Americans.

There are a variety of reasons for this. This past Monday, the RAC Machon Kaplan interns heard from two speakers on opposite side of the advocacy spectrum back-to-back.

Michael Lieberman, representing the Washington Counsel of the Anti-Defamation League, spoke to us about the importance of creating legislation to protect against hate speech and the difficulty in passing the 1995 Matthew Shepard Act. The Anti-Defamation League is a rigorously Jewish, right-leaning advocacy group that works on monitoring Holocaust-deniers, anti-Semitism both domestically and abroad, religious freedom, and Israel-US relations. In other words, it functions under a broad-based protect-your-own ideology.

Directly following Lieberman, my boss, Hilary Shelton, the director of the Washington Bureau of the NAACP, walked into the conference room chuckling. It took him a couple minutes to settle the group down. (Lieberman had sort of riled us up…) When he finally did, Hilary talked about the history of the NAACP, a left-leaning African-American based advocacy group. He talked about High Stakes Testing in middle and high school, the privatization of the prison system, mandatory minimum sentences and Affirmative Action. Perhaps because he was facing a room of predominantly white Reform Jews, Hilary stressed the importance of ideological overlap, without demographic overlap. “You know, there aren’t a lot of black Jews in this country, but I’ll bet you and I, [director of the RAC] David Saperstein and us over at the NAACP Washington Bureau, agree on an awful lot.”

Of course, the omni-present yet silent, third presenter is always the RAC itself for us. We as RAC interns see everything through the lens of our affiliation with a liberal Jewish group. While Rabbi Saperstein only made a guest appearance on Monday, we know at least vaguely what his (and the RAC’s) positions are on most issues. They generally fall in line with my own. (Except maybe on gun rights, but the jury’s still out there.)

In fact, although the ADL is fairly conservative and both the NAACP and the RAC are progressive, the three organizations are often in coalition. Jews and blacks are both historically discriminated against minorities in this country.

Now, you are welcome to argue that one is more discriminated against than the other, it’s easier to be black, or be Jewish. We could talk about visibility and “passing” until we all turned blue in the face, but that’s not what this post is about. I don’t intend to remark on the differences between the two communities, in their advocacy or otherwise, those are easy to see.

What I’ve realized as the distinguishing factor between advocacy that I intellectually respect and organizations that I try to avoid is the use of self-victimizing rhetoric.

The definition, according to case law, of a discriminated against minority is:
1) a group with an immutable trait – or a trait that if changed would drastically alter the identity of individuals (see Perry v. Brown, overturning Prop 8 in California if you want more on that) 2) historically discriminated against 3) capable of contributing to society and 4) politically powerless – this basically means any group that feels like they need protection and doesn’t already have it

Lieberman opened with the charged phrase “We at the ADL stand where we sit. And we sit behind bullet proof glass.” Later he told us that out of all hate crimes based on religious discrimination, 70% were against Jews. I was skeptical. You would think, in this day and age, that the majority of hate crimes would be against transgender people of color or Muslims. (Which isn’t to say that there are no hate crimes against Jews, and that we don’t need police outside of most synagogues on High Holy Days etc, just that the position of the Jew in America is probably safer than the position of the Muslim.) But that’s neither here nor there. Regardless of the actual statistics, I am sure that Lieberman believes that there is a real and present threat to Jews in this country at all times.

He sees the Jews as a people who are a discriminated against minority: religion is considered an immutable trait; we have certainly been discriminated against, in the US and abroad; we are capable of contributing to society, and, it can be argued that we’re politically powerless. The last one, for any given group, is generally hardest to prove. The fact is that in many parts of the US, Jews do have political power. However, this is only very, very recently. There is still much to be done by way of legislation (prayer in schools, anyone?) before it can be said that Jews have full protection under law.

So I see where Lieberman’s coming from. “You sit where you stand.” You stand in a generation where your (my) grandparents lived through the Holocaust and have spent their lives subsequent to that trauma re-living. My grandmother was born in 1939, in Brooklyn, but she reads a book about the Holocaust every month. She has visited most Holocaust museums in the world. She grew up around Holocaust survivors and sees herself, albeit peripherally, as a survivor of genocide.

While I understand that mentality, I think it’s highly damaging for a people to view itself that way. Lieberman went on to show us why it was crucial that the FBI allot special resources to finding Middle Eastern and Pakistani illegal immigrants. Muslims are more likely to contribute to terrorist attacks. “19 out of the 19 terrorists who contributed to 9/11 were Muslim. What do you make of that?” Lieberman asked us. I see that line of reasoning as a problem.

Hilary Shelton managed to talk about the real problems facing the African-American community prospectively. He told us about the way High-Stakes testing hurt black men and contributed to the 50% high school graduation rate. Instead of separatism and systemic disenfranchisement he talked about building communities of different minorities. He never once mentioned Martin Luther King Jr., Obama, or slavery.

W.E.B. Dubois, writing 1903, criticizes African-Americans for emphasizing the helplessness of their situation in America. Victimizing rhetoric (“we are diseased and dying, cried the dark hosts; we cannot write, our vote is in vain…”) was not an effective way to make change. Dubois advocated for liberal arts education unification of African-Americans in response.

Work, culture, liberty – all these we need, not singly but together, not successively but together, each growing and aiding each, and all striving towards that vast ideal that swims before the Negro people, the ideal of brotherhood, gained through the unifying ideal of the Race; the ideal of fostering and developing the traits and talents of the Negro, not in opposition to or contempt for other races, but rather in large conformity to the greater ideals of the American Republic, in order that some day on American soil two world-races may give each to each those characteristics both lack so sadly.

This is the rhetoric of an empowered minority group. Yes, certainly discriminated against, especially when Dubois was writing, but ready for change and cooperation over retrospective rigidity and separatism. Although ADL is Jewish, and the NAACP is primarily African-American, the RAC seems to have much more in common with the latter than the former. NAACP and RAC share an inclusive, forward-thinking mode of action that the ADL lacks in many ways. The RAC mostly handles issues relating to LGBT equality, reproductive choice, and poverty – issues that do not necessarily directly affect the Jewish community, or Jews alone, but range the gamut of ensuring protections for minorities.

And hence, at the end of six weeks, I understand the purpose of my internship.

<3 ConstantLy Liya Rechtman

Picture from American Conference of Cantors, MLK and Rabbi Heschel march together with the Eisendrath Torah