When You See a Racist

The character of Joseph is an enigma. Because he is favored by his father and showered with gifts from him, he is abused by his brothers, who sell him into slavery in a foreign country. His master’s wife tries to seduce him and, when he refuses, he is falsely accused of rape and thrown into prison. In prison, he successfully interprets the dreams of two fellow inmates, one of whom is set free. In return he asks to be remembered to the Pharaoh so that he too can be freed from prison, but the man he helped forgets about him for over two years.

Given all that he has experienced, one might think that Joseph would be a bitter person, angry at people and mistrusting of others. But, instead, he is somehow able to retain his faith in God and in God’s plan for his people and for the world. He is seemingly a positive person, one who guides the Pharaoh in saving the people of Egypt, and the surrounding region, from a crippling famine. When given the chance, he will forgive his brothers for what they did to him, telling them that they need not worry that he will seek to hurt them, for, he says, all that has happened was meant to be.

The story of Joseph reminds us that we can react to the turbulence, chaos and pain of life in one of two ways. Either we can turn inward, become angry and bitter, immune and insensitive to the pain of others. Or we can react to having been hurt by becoming sensitive to others who suffer a similar fate. Throughout our history, the Jewish people have been oppressed and tormented, enslaved and victimized.   We could have reacted by becoming resentful and deaf to the cries of others who suffer. But we didn’t. We responded to being oppressed by trying to nurture an enlightened humanity and by trying to spare others the pain we have felt. This is the message of the Torah when it commands us to treat the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the destitute and the downtrodden with love and caring and respect, for, we are told, we know their pain all too well.

We know the sting of racism. Hitler’s racist policies led to the destruction of European Jewry. 40 years ago last month, the United Nations General Assembly voted to declare Zionism to be a form of racism. The resolution was laced with vicious, anti-Zionist rhetoric, referring to Israel as “occupied Palestine” (it was rescinded 16 years later). The Jewish response is not to become bitter and resentful, but to fight against racism wherever we find it. We know the pain of discrimination; thus, we are commanded to oppose discrimination with every fiber of our being.

I won’t use this blog to take political sides in the long race for the presidency, or to endorse one candidate over another. But Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric deserves to be condemned, and it’s appropriate for Jews to condemn it. His call to ban all Muslims from entering the United States is not only foolish and misguided (based on his logic, he should seek to deport Muslims living in the United States). His call to prevent Muslims from entering the United States is not only rhetoric designed to yield another bump in the polls at a time that people are anxious about gun violence. Mostly his call to prevent Muslims from entering the US is just plain racist. And when Jews see racism, we are commanded to condemn it, for we know well what it’s like to be the victim of racist hatred. We are commanded to translate the pain and discrimination we have experienced into love and tolerance, for it is love and tolerance that will heal the world.

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