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After The Party, Racial Profiling

On Purim, it happened to me, writes the author. It happens to us.

Tue, 03/11/2014 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Jared Jackson
Jared Jackson

Editor's Note: We are reposting this column in response to renewed reader interest in it after the shooting by police of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, in Ferguson, MO.

Just like now, it was Purim. 2008. A young Jewish man was coming home from a Purim party in New Jersey. As designated driver, he hadn’t been drinking.

And then he was pulled over by a police officer and asked to take off his glasses and recite the alphabet from C to T. He was told to “walk the line;” was accused of conspiring to commit an act of terrorism and was surrounded by 10 uniformed officers with guns drawn. He was wearing a kippah. He felt so threatened by his situation, he started saying the She’ma under his breath.

I may be the first person to write about this particular incident. Actually, I know I am. Why? Because I am that man. And that incident wasn’t the first of its kind; they’ve been happening to me since I was 15.

Every week there is a moment, or more, when I become an object of suspicion by the police or “concerned” citizens. This is especially acute when I drive, shop or generally go outside with my wife, who “looks” somewhat Caucasian. So I always have a moment of cognitive dissonance when I read blogs and articles by my fellow Jews who make racism and anti-racism work seem like more of a mental exercise, which it is for them, than a reality, which it is for me.

Many Jews who identify as white have trouble believing me. They quickly assert that such occurrences are rare or even nonexistent, especially when I say that they happen in the Jewish community. Either I must be oversensitive, they imply, or these are anomalies that only I have experienced.

I was glad to read a recent, well-written blog post (Kol HaKavod, by the way!) from Jews For Racial and Economic Justice’s director that addressed incidents like these. Titled “When Jewish Silence Betrays Our Heritage,” the writer connected these abuses to Jewish history.

It was a call to action against Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which gives people the right to use deadly force to defend themselves if he or she “reasonably” thinks it’s necessary to prevent their own death or great bodily harm. The piece urges the reader to rise up against the injustices put upon others in the name of our Jewish identity. It’s a familiar theme in Jewish writing on social justice.

And it’s good as far as it goes. But that isn’t far enough. It isn’t deep enough. And it betrays a total ignorance of the racism that actually impacts actual Jews who have African American and/or Latino heritage.

Many good social justice commentaries like this one leave out the very real, personal and current connection that members of the Jewish community have with these issues. These things happen to us – not them. But the absence of this awareness feeds an “Us and Them” trope that many in the Jewish community unknowingly perpetuate. It creates a division between these people and the causes they champion. If you are looking to make a clear connection between those who are on the receiving end of racial injustice in America and the Jewish community’s experience, you don’t have to look that far in time or space.

I’m here to say that they are us! There are Jews in the United States who can’t walk down the street without being profiled as just another criminal who hasn’t been locked up. There are Jews out there who fear for their lives when confronted with what some accept as everyday situations. We are real people, and not just a heady notion for you to wrestle with. Yes, we must end Stand Your Ground. By doing so, you are not only advocating for other communities, you’re fighting for the lives of Am Yisrael, including my own.

It is time that we wake up to the fact that we are not removed from racism and murderous violence. It is time that we realize that the same bigotry and prejudice that we fight outside of our community, and that is such a big part of our history, still resides within it.

Even those who work towards the righteous goals of tzedakah (justice), emet (truth) and amiyoot (peoplehood) aren’t exempt from working on their own personal prejudices, because we all have the capacity to perpetuate the fear and ignorance we see in others. We must commit ourselves to the betterment of our own communities. And that means committing to a long-term process that digs deep and forges structural change.

Jared Jackson is the Founder and Executive Director of Jews in ALL Hues, a member of the ROI Community, and on the list of “Ten Jews [Who] Will Change The World” according to Ma’ariv News.


Jared Jackson, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Jews in All Hues, Purim, racial profiling

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Jared Jackson shows his ignorance of Purim by advocating for the removal of "Stand your Ground" laws. It was the "Stand your Ground" law that Esther got King Achashverosh to pass which allowed the Jews of Persia to defend themselves from Haman's genocidal edict.

I think that it is terrible when profiling--or any other manifestation of racism, sexism or any other kind of discrimination--occurs in ANY community but, as a Jew, it upsets me more when it occurs in ours. Some years ago I took a summer course in Yiddish and one of the students (not in my group--she was advanced, I was a beginner) was an African-American woman (not Jewish) who was studying Yiddish for her PhD work in Germanic languages. A number of other students commented (never to her, of course) that she (a black? A "goy"?) had no "right" to study "our" language. Whenever I heard these comments, I refuted them, but I'm sure that that didn't change anyone's mind about the issue...

(I suspect that Mr. Jackson is harrassed more for being black and/or having a wife who "looks somewhat Caucasian" than for being Jewish. Whoever bothers him may even think that he covers his head because he is a Muslim [which some people in the US equate with being a terrorist, as you know.])

Fabulous article, Jared! It is heart breaking that our country is still so racially hung up. I pray for progress. But we must act TOO. I hope everyone who reads this article shares it with their friends, colleagues, family and constituents. I will! All of us white Jews can embrace our responsibility to our fellow Jews, our responsibility to learn, act and advocate for the safety and acceptance of every Jew no matter their race.

You are doing hard and important work and I am honored to know you and be witness to your steadfast courage and determination.
Dawn Kepler (Building Jewish Bridges)

For better or for worse, the reason you don't see antisemitism is because you suffer too much from racism for the antisemitism to cause a blip. The reason your Jewish friends don't see antisemitism is because they identify as white rather than as Jews.

My wife, who is of mixed parentage, has found that when she is obviously Jewish - wearing a tichel, with our long-dressed daughter and long-payosed son in tow, she experiences antisemitism. When it's not so obvious, it's the racism that hits most clearly.

I have a suspicion that if you would go around all the time dressed in an obviously Jewish manner, you would start to notice the ever present antisemitism which, while more subtle, is by its subtlety all the more insidious.

Dear Jared:

I was very sorry to read about your horrible experiences.

You definitely are not alone, overreacting, responding to a relatively rare occurrence, or any of the excuses that you have heard from other Jews in the past.

The biracial adult children of intermarriage in the Half-Jewish Network report experiencing racial discrimination in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim contexts in the U.S., Israel and other countries.

The responses you report of white Jews denying or minimizing your experiences are similar to those they report.

Jared, God bless and keep you and your important work with Jews of All Hues.

Robin Margolis
Half-Jewish Network

Wonderfully written piece. Thank you for the enlightenment and education. I do always try to do the right thing vis-a-vis social injustice and being a fair witness, but now I'll do even better because I read your essay. Much obliged.