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 The resolution was laced with vicious, anti-Zionist rhetoric, referring to Israel as “occupied Palestine” (it was rescinded 16 years later).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.

Frogs Here, Frogs There, Frogs Are Jumping Everywhere

We’ve recently concluded our celebration of Passover, as the last paragraph in the Haggadah says, “along with all its rituals and customs.”  Among young children and their teachers and parents, those rituals include the singing of “Frogs Are Jumping Everywhere,” a happy sounding tune based on the story in the Torah about the invasion of frogs from the Nile River, the second of the Ten Plagues.  Behind this children’s song lies an important and serious message that has become deeply relevant in recent days.

This week we learned that Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers professional basketball team, made outrageously offensive racial comments in a conversation with his girlfriend (in days to come, the back story of why the girlfriend secretly recorded their conversation will surely come out).  Born in Chicago as Donald Tokowitz and raised in Los Angeles, Sterling is the son of Jewish immigrants.  He is a self-made billionaire who purchased the Clippers franchise for $12 million in 1981 and has seen the value of his investment rise to $750 million.  Upon confirming that the comments heard on the tape were made by Sterling, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, Alan Silver, banned him from professional basketball for life, levied a fine of $2.5 million, and promised to press the 29 other owners to vote to force him to sell the team and make his eviction from the NBA complete.

Sterling may think of himself as a generous and tolerant person (his foundation distributes money to several charitable organizations, including some that support minority causes), but there is no doubt that he is a rabid racist.  His removal from the NBA was absolutely the right move for the commissioner to make.  Now that must be followed by being ostracized from other communal organizations and social groups, for there is no place in our society for someone who holds racist views.  Not only must a message be sent to Mr. Sterling that his racism rightly excludes him from mainstream society, but a similarly strong message must be sent to all other racists, those in the open and those in hiding, that their racism is an unacceptable violation of everything that decent and honorable people stand for.

The only way to defeat the scourge of racism is for good people to unify and rise up against it. We can’t allow bigoted people to spew their hatred and go unchallenged.  That’s the message behind the children’s Passover song about frogs.  Interestingly, the Torah passage in the Book of Exodus that describes the invasion of the frogs starts out by saying that “the frog” came up from the Nile onto the land—not many frogs, only one frog.  The Midrashic text seizes on this quirk of language to make the point that at first one frog came up and when he encountered no resistance he signaled to his friends to join him.  Thereafter, ironically, the Torah text indeed says that “the frogs” invaded the land.  The take away from the Midrash is clear—a plague will advance on its way to infecting society if it faces no resistance.

Frogs here, frogs there, frogs are jumping everywhere.  Passover may be behind us, but the ills of society are, sadly, not.  Donald Sterling, like all racists, is a plague on all of us.  The way to stop him and prevent the spread of his narrow minded, bigoted view of people and our world is to stand up and prevent him from coming up from the depths of the river onto the land.