Stamp out racism

Jews should not use a pejorative Yiddish label for blacks.

martin luther king, jr. (photo credit: )
martin luther king, jr.
(photo credit: )
Last week I delivered a sermon which compared Moses, the great Jewish redeemer, to Abraham Lincoln, the martyred American emancipator. To me, this comparison is a straightforward one given that the foundation of Judaism is God's moral law. The cornerstone of the Bible is that every human being is created in God's image. One cannot call oneself a religious Jew and harbor even the smallest hint of racism. This is why it is time for all Jews to forever retire the odious term "shvartze." From the time I was a boy I heard the word, used by many Jews to describe blacks. These were decent people with no intention of causing offense. To them, the term connoted nothing more than the Yiddish word for black. But, truth be told, the term has become one of condescension; a pejorative, a term that incorporates within it a hint of derision. My children were raised around many black men and women who are close family friends. From Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, who is like a brother to me, to Peter Noel, my esteemed colleague and former co-host on America's oldest black radio station, to countless others, our Shabbat table has always been filled with African-Americans whom we have treated as family. So when my children went to a hasidic sleepaway camp one summer and heard "shvartze‚" thrown about so loosely, they returned upset and disillusioned. When they asked me why so many religious Jews used the term, I had no real explanation. THE OVERWHELMING majority of religious Jews are committed to the highest humanitarian and ethical standards. Racism, to them, would be utterly unconscionable. So why use the term? There is no excuse. It must be permanently retired. I have wanted to write this column ever since my children expressed that righteous indignation, but refrained from doing so for fear it might be misunderstood as implying that there is racism among Orthodox Jews. To be sure, there is racism among all groups, just as there is, unfortunately, anti-Semitism among all groups. It seems that humanity is destined to forever harbor irrational hatred, even as we do our utmost to stamp it out. But of late, I have heard "shvartze‚" with such frequency that it can no longer be ignored. My children were absolutely right; we must all speak out. Yes, there may be racism among other groups. But among Jews it is especially reprehensible. Firstly, because we Jews know what it is like to be hated for our very being. Second, because Jews and blacks share a common spiritual history that includes slavery and emancipation, followed by discrimination and a shared yearning for entry into a promised land of acceptance and hope. We share also a mutual love for the redemptive utterances of the great Hebrew prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah and Micah, which formed the backbone of the most memorable speeches of Martin Luther, King, Jr. Third - and this applies to religious Jews even more than to non-observant ones - racism is reprehensible because we Jews have been entrusted by God with spreading the message that all humanity are God's children. The first great theological declaration of the Torah is that all people are created in the divine likeness. I don't think there is anything as off-putting in a religious person as even a hint of racism. When a businessman wearing a kippa uses the word "shvartze," he undermines the spiritual integrity that kippa stands for. I SPENT the past week reading a book on the Middle Ages. Peter Abelard, the great medieval Catholic thinker, was castrated for his illicit love of Heloise. But he was hated even more for writing, a millennia ago, that Jews were not responsible for the death of Christ and could not be persecuted for deicide. Christianity had to go through many centuries to finally purge Jew-hatred from its soul and has emerged today as a great and Godly faith as a result. Likewise, many of our Muslim brothers and sisters are today infected by an irrational hatred of the Jewish people that belies Islamic history and which cannot be accounted for merely by the territorial dispute between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Such racist views are a sin against Islam, which subscribes to the biblical belief of the divine character of all humanity. Religious Jews especially must never harbor even the slightest hint of bigotry or prejudice. Yet I have heard Jews use the Bible to claim the opposite: that blacks are cursed by God. Rabbis must be at the forefront of arguing the theological absurdity of such disgusting and ignorant ideas so that a generation of Jewish children grows up to love all humanity with the fervent intensity of the first Jew, Abraham, whose very name means "father of many nations." The writer hosts Shalom in the Home on The Learning Channel. The new season begins airing March 4.