Vaera and Oppression
It is fitting that the season when we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King generally coincides with the opening chapters of Exodus. The initial Torah portions in the Book of Exodus (Shmot in Hebrew) describe Israelite oppression and slavery in Egypt. Pharaoh and his henchmen persecute b’nai yisrael; simply because they represent an alien tribe. In imposing hard labor on his new slaves; Pharaoh cares little about their character or their contributions to Egyptian society. Their souls and spirits matter little to him; as long as they can produce effective labor. In this week’s portion of Vaera, the plagues begin but the oppression endures.
Throughout the centuries, the Jewish people have suffered more than our fair share of slavery, oppression and persecution. Because of our history, we identify strongly with oppression everywhere. Many Jews, though not ‘religious’ in the strictest sense, have demonstrated a passionate identification with Judaism; through our active defense of human rights. Consequently, our support for all minorities in the United States has always been an extension of what we represent as Jews.
I grew up in a family committed to honoring the dignity of all people; regardless of skin color, religion or gender. As an illustration, I share the following personal reflection; a statement which will be read at the Dr. King observance this Sunday afternoon (see below):
As a boy, I grew up in a family which originally lived and worked in Newark, NJ. My mother taught in the Newark School System for nearly fifty years. Over that time her students were primarily children of various minorities; generally of African American background. Consequently, I was raised with a great appreciation for the values of equality, dignity and human rights. I can best convey those values through a private experience I have never shared:
Over the years, despite my interest in politics, I do not remember any acceptance or concession speeches given on election night.
With one exception.
I remember a specific concession speech from the night that Kenneth Gibson became the first African American Mayor of Newark.
One of Newark’s leading politicians was a man notorious for his racism and narrow mindedness. After it became clear that Mr. Gibson won the election, this racist politician spoke to a group of his loyal followers; comments aired on the TV stations. He was angry that evening and so were they; most of that anger due to a ‘black’ man denying them more years of racist decision making.
As his followers shouted words and phrases which conveyed their disbelief and their horror, he tried to mollify them. I do not recall his exact words; but they were to the effect of:
Stop your rumblings; our reaction is just what they want to hear…
He was not concerned about the best interests of Newark; only about his-mainly racist- followers not giving the victors greater reason to gloat. I watched his so-called concession speech with a sense of glee and satisfaction; knowing that finally this racist official would be silenced. Here I was; a white teenager overjoyed that an African American had become Newark’s Mayor, and that the racist politician would finally receive his comeuppance. Many decades later; that experience is still vivid in my memory.
My reaction was second nature. I did not require any intense schooling about the horrors of racism to open my eyes. Eventually, the values I learned were passed on to my children; as they were raised to respect and honor the quality of all people regardless of their color or gender.
I- as a teenager growing up in the mid to late sixties- was raised with such values. There were no valid excuses for racism then; and there are certainly no valid reasons for racism today. I was raised by parents who taught that what matters is character and not skin color.
I urge every parent in America today to follow suit.
Celebrating Dr. King’s life and work will only matter if we put an end to racism.
Racism will only end when we stop falsely accusing people of crimes due to their skin color, complexion or ‘suspicions’ about their family name.
Racism will only end when the next generation of parents raise their children as my parents raised me.
May 2018 be the year when we truly honor the legacy of Dr. King and create the world he so envisioned.