Blacks and Jews Together: Building Ladders Instead of Walls

Recent current events reminded me of a beautiful story I heard years ago. A boy was shorter than his younger brother, and it bothered him greatly. One day, he shoved his brother into a shallow ditch, and then stood beside him and gloated that he was now taller. His father, Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, approached with a stool. He helped his younger son out of the ditch, and then instructed the older boy to stand on the stool. Who is taller now, the father asked, to which his older son responded that he is taller once again. When you want to be bigger, Rabbi Shmuel told him, it is best to elevate yourself rather than pushing another down.

I thought of this story in light of the multiple incidents of anti-semitism that have recently come from high-profile members of the black community. In all of these cases, the offending individuals have voiced support for Louis Farrakhan and have repeated some of his hateful and divisive rhetoric. It occurred to me that unlike Rabbi Shmuel, Minister Farrakhan has for decades instructed his followers that in order to elevate themselves, they must do their best to tear down those around them.

I understand the appeal that Farrakhan has for members of the black community who are sickened by the history of racism in America and are unwilling to further tolerate the discrimination that persists to this day. Farrakhan is an unapologetic zealot for the cause of black betterment, and for that he cannot be blamed. He has evidently helped tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of black former offenders to rehabilitate themselves and to lead upright, productive lives. For this he should be praised. But this cannot excuse his virulent anti-semitism and his lifelong attempts to create divisions rather than mend them.

I am not a black man, and I do not know first hand the violence and indignities that blacks continue to face in America. But I am a Jewish man, and I do know first hand the violence and indignities that Jews continue to face in America and around the world. We have known too many leaders like Farrakhan throughout the millennia — men who believe that they can only rise up if they identify someone else to push down. It is no coincidence that Farrakhan has praised Hitler, calling him “a very great man.” Hitler understood that he could unify his people by scapegoating another people. It has happened to us Jews time and again. Farrakhan is not unique in this tactic, and history will eventually view him in the same regard as his predecessors.

True leaders build bridges and in-roads. There is nothing wrong with strongly advocating a position and focusing on the needs of one’s particular people and community, but true leaders know that the advancement of some is best achieved by the advancement of all. They understand that human progress is not a zero sum game where one must fall for the other to gain. True progress is, rather, like a flame, that can light countless others and never be diminished.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was such a true leader. He said “hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” and he also said “love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” MLK was no apologist. He was a revolutionary, devoted with all of his life to the cause of black advancement. But he was a true leader, one who did more for black people in America than anyone before him or after. His legacy elevates not only blacks, but all of us who are more tolerant and less segregated than we were prior to his leadership.

To black Americans, I, along with nearly every Jew I know, say the following: we want to work with you to address the real issues and injustices that have plagued you in this country for centuries. We are not perfect, and there are racist Jews just as there are racist whites and racist blacks. But Jews have been at the forefront of the civil rights movement since its inception. We know slavery and oppression and bigotry as well as anyone — we’ve been on the receiving end of it for thousands of years. That is why Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm in arm with MLK at Selma, and that is why Jews overwhelmingly support social justice movements and racial equity.

Blacks in America have had enough of racism and Jews get it. We’re on your side. Farrakhan creates lies about us and about “the true semitic people” in order to demonize us and control you with your rage and indignation. Exploiting people’s fear and anger has always been the strategy of tyrants and megalomaniacs — it is their key to power and relevance. What we all need now is leaders who will bring us together rather than stoking the flames that are keeping us apart.

If there were a Rabbi who was very good to the Jews but very hateful of other races or religions, I would speak against him no matter how much he worked to help my people. I would look for leaders who were equally passionate about my cause, but absent of the venom that would make me complicit in their hate and bigotry. You have those leaders. You can be those leaders.

You have been made to stand on lower ground for too long. Let us not push each other down or push each other around. Let us instead work together to build the stool and then the ladder that will enable us all to climb higher.

Marc Erlbaum is a filmmaker and social activist.

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