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I am writing in response to the editorial piece by Justin Danilewitz concerning Crown Heights and its implications for the future political alignment of Jews in America. Danilewitz begins his argument by recounting an incident--the murder of 47 Jews in Kishinev, Russia--which was part of a very real and very long history of anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe. In introducing the example of the Russian pogrom he attempts to link this reprehensible slaughter of Jews to the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. As a result of what he characterizes as black malice toward Jews, he calls on the American Jewish community to "reconsider its allegiance to groups and peoples [namely, blacks] who, in the most unabashed manner, do not seek to reciprocate the Jew's embrace."
This argument would be extremely compelling to me if I were an American Jew--especially given the centuries-old historical pattern of Jewish oppression. Indeed, this argument is intriguing to me as a young black man for many of the same reasons. However, what Danilewitz's argument fails to fully comprehend--and what many in America seem not to want to talk about--is the very real history that also shapes how blacks in America react to various issues and experiences (such the O.J. Simpson trials, the Million Man March, and the Crown Heights incident). Danilewitz's own example of Jews being killed in Russia in response to an allegation of murdering two Christian children, for example, strikes me as analogous to the lynching of blacks in the South as a result of far less serious allegations (such as merely looking at white females or operating a successful business). That is to say nothing (as most Americans would prefer) of 244 years of enslavement, a legalized system of apartheid, and the disease of systematically entrenched racism that thrives to this day.
It is in this context and with this set of psychological and experiential data that blacks evaluate their condition in America. In much the same way, the traumatic legacy of the Russian pogrom and the Nazi Holocaust shape the manner in which Jews view themselves in America and the rest of the world.
Therefore, the killing of a black child by a white driver was not an isolated incident in the lives of the black people in Brooklyn or anywhere else in America. Rather, it appeared to blacks as another example--based upon both history and direct experience--of the utter disdain and disrespect with which black lives are regarded in this country. Crown Heights did not happen over night. The black rage in response to the death of a child and the Jewish fear in response to the murder of a man were many years in the making. That fact does not in any way excuse the rioting, the brutal murder of Yankel Rosenbaum or the hateful anti-Semitism that prompted them. But it may help to explain these things. And a similar historical examination may raise the level of dialogue on these issues from narrow, fearful accusation to informed conversation.
While seeking such a dialogue is imperative, it will profit neither Jews nor blacks to engage in a confrontation over history summarized in brief by the statement, "We've suffered more than you have." Yet, both groups, which have been instrumental in leading the struggle for social justice, freedom and equality, would certainly benefit from intelligent and sustained communication about the issues that separate them as well as the common bonds that have contributed to their partnership in the past.
If America is to be a place where blacks and Jews can feel safe, valued and in control of their destinies, it will not happen because Jews withdraw their support of "traditionally liberal" causes. Indeed, such a withdrawal will likely lead to even greater alienation and animosity between these two vital American groups. More importantly, it will end a long alliance between blacks and Jews (such as that forged by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel and more recently by Michael Lerner and Cornel West), an alliance which has as its greatest strength a shared sense of struggle to affirm that which is most deeply human about us all. It would be a truly sad situation if, years from now, in the histories of American blacks and Jews, it was recorded that Gavin Cato, Yankel Rosenbaum and the unique coalition between blacks and Jews all died in the last decade of the 20th century. We must endeavor, even through hardship (a reality both our peoples have known), to ensure that such a history is never written. --Jason Purnell '99
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