by Paul Witten
Participant, Mitzvah Corps New Orleans 2013
Over the past few days we traveled outside New Orleans to visit Alabama and explore different historic moments from the civil rights movement. The sites we went to include 16th Street Baptist Church, where MLK Jr. was the pastor during
the civil rights movement; the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which was the location of Bloody Sunday; and a multitude of museums that illustrated the civil rights movement from an angle that was up close and personal. The gravity of being in the actual locations of such significant events in our history, as well as hearing real life accounts of peoples’ experiences in the movement, gave me a significantly different view on the American fight for civil rights, and a new mindset to apply to our world today.
Learning about Jewish involvement in this part of United States history, and the significant role that we played, was also intriguing to learn about; as European Jews who experienced similar and worse discrimination (depending on if they lived in a Nazi controlled region) fled to the U.S., only to witness similar atrocities occurring in African-American and other minority communities. As a result, Jewish people throughout the country joined the cause to bring about change. After tragedies, tears, and years of fighting for what was right, equality in the eyes of the law was achieved, and change in the eyes of the people was clearly occurring in a big way.
Fast forward to today and look around. It is clear that, in the last 50 years, African-Americans have secured the rights they were fighting for. However, it would be a false statement to say that our country, and even our community, is without racism. Let’s not overstate this; to find a person who truly and overtly believes his or her race to be superior to others is, thankfully, a hard thing to find. But little subtleties, like racist jokes, even the occasional slur, do make it through the cracks in our communities. I’ve heard it. Sometimes I hear it multiple times in one day. I don’t support it, but I don’t openly oppose it either. Most of the time I just hear it, let it play out, and move on. My understanding until now had been that these comments or jokes were harmless and meant to be funny, not offensive, despite the fact that in many cases it is the opposite.
After traveling through these historical sites and talking with people who heard these slurs used with force and hate, and who hear these jokes as being hurtful, my understanding of what these jokes represent has changed entirely. They are no longer the stupid harmless jokes that they were before, they represent something completely different. They are the manifestation of hundreds of years of hate and intolerance that continues to seep into the 21st century. Whether said
with actual malice or not, these jokes, slurs, and epithets are callbacks to an era in which there wasn’t equality or justice at all. While we must not forget the struggle that engaged our entire country and the change that came, to move forward together more successfully and harmoniously, the negative and hateful language must be left behind.
Elie Wiesel said on his experiences in Nazi occupied Europe and the concentration camps that, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” This is especially important as it relates to the jokes and slurs and other situations where I would “hear it, let it play out, and move on.” I now recognize my responsibility not just as a Jew to love my neighbor as myself, but also as an “innocent” and “neutral” bystander to put an end to this racism in any form. I have made a commitment to myself, and to my community, to apply this to my life on a near daily basis, and continue to support the same fight for equality that my ancestors did so many years ago.