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Friday, May 24, 2013,
15 Sivan 5773.
|John Terry - Alleged Racisim - Real Racisim|
JOHN TERRY – ALLEGED RACISM, REAL RACISM
- A JEWISH RESPONSE
RABBI STEVEN KATZ
Arguably, outside Chelsea, footballer John Terry would not have won many awards for charismatic appeal even before being confronted with allegations of racist abuse against a fellow footballer. Consequently most soccer fans were quick to find Terry guilty as charged.
I must confess that I was surprised at the allegations, because I have always clung, perhaps naively, to the belief that if one works and socialises on a regular basis with members of a minority ethnic group all artificial barriers – race, religion, nationality, sexuality – collapse in a heap. According to this theory regular personal contact should remove some of the malevolent myths and false perceptions initiated by perverted racists, accumulated through time and sustained through ignorance. Shakespeare’s words from The Merchant of Venice resonate – “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimension, senses, affections, passions?” For Jew, interchange black, Asian, gay, gypsy. After allegations of racism against footballers John Terry and Louiz Suarez my fear is, that only infrequently will familiarity of contact reduce racism so ancient, so deep, so prevalent is the curse that it will tragically continue at best to blight, at worst to take the lives of millions around the world.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the allegations made against the footballer, lies in the way they have been reported and analysed. The impression created is that racism, in Britain, is confined to the football pitch and to those who have not enjoyed a full and complete education. The shameful reality is that racism in this country knows no boundaries, it thrives in the school playground and on the university campus; it is alive on the shop floor and the factory floor; it lurks insidiously in the company boardroom and the institutions that constitute the very infrastructure of United Kingdom plc. I would suggest that there is more racism among football club directors than footballer players. How else can one explain that of the Football League’s 92 clubs only two have a black manager?
I never feel comfortable using the pulpit as a vehicle for criticism or censure of individuals, organisations or governments who are not present or represented in shul. I feel that the primary role of the rabbi is to work with and for his or her congregation and in helping both, rabbi and congregant, to become better Jews. So my primary task in this address is to root out any vestiges of latent racist thought or sentiment that may lurk within us.
One of the most ancient and enduring, one of the most consistent and resonant of all Jewish teachings is the belief in one God and one humanity; it is a teaching contained in, and conveyed through, Torah and Talmud, Jewish law and Jewish literature, throughout Jewish prayer and Jewish philosophy. Not only do we all have equal dignity in the sight of God, according to Jewish teaching, all have equal rights in law. “You shall have one law for the native and the refugee” (EX 12:49). “You shall not wrong or oppress the refugee” (EX 22:20). In the Alenu prayer with which we conclude our Services we pray “Then all who inhabit this world shall meet in understanding.”
Two of the greatest rabbis of the first century, Akiva and Ben Azzai debated with each other as to which is the most important verse in the Torah. For Akiva it is “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19:18). Neighbour was understood by the sages to be our fellow human being. For Ben Azzai the most important verse is “This is the book of the generations of man” (Gen 5:1).
Most of us would affirm Akiva’s choice of verse but Ben Azzai gives us the religious reason, the intellectual rationale under-pinning “love your neighbour as yourself”. We are all of us – Jewish and non Jewish, black and white, not just neighbours but family, one family, the family of humanity. As the Mishna tells us “Only one human being was initially created in order to create harmony among humans so that one cannot say to another ‘My ancestor is greater than your ancestor’ ” (Sanhedrin 4:5). All of us, black and white, Jewish and non-Jewish are descendants of the same common ancestor and are therefore equal.
There is nothing in Jewish law or literature to suggest that we Jews are better than others simply by dint of being Jewish. Most peoples, writing of their national history, is an opportunity to indulge in unabashed self congratulation. But Jewish history in Jewish hands is written with a strong streak of self effacement, indeed often self criticism. Even the greatest figure in Jewish history, Moses, is reprimanded and punished for flashes of frustration, anger and arrogance. Prophet after prophet in the Bible castigates his fellow Jews for persistently elevating the importance of ritual law over ethical practice. Even collective national tragedies such as the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70CE are explained as deserved punishment for “sinat chinam” – causeless hatred. At the Seder table the Haggada reminds us that “In the beginning our ancestors were idol worshippers.” What about the concept of the “Chosen People,” I hear you cry – surely that is the definitive expression of self congratulation? It should be stressed that in generation after generation our sages explained “chosen people” not as a compliment or praise but as an individual and collective goal and aspiration that embraces responsibility not reward – the responsibility to aspire to be a “Goy Kadosh” a holy nation.
Has this strong streak of self criticism complemented by centuries of Jewish teaching created a Jewish people free from thought and acts of racism? For American Jews there is the pride in knowing that many Jewish leaders supported the Black American struggle for civil rights marching side by side with Martin Luther King in the 1960s. In 1994 black leader Hugh Price proclaimed that “many whites of good will have accompanied us on our long journey for racial, social and economic justice. None has matched the Jewish community as long distance runners in the civil rights movement.” So does our American experience prove that we Jews are free of racism? Hardly, if the modern State of Israel is a microcosm of the Jewish world then look how in the early years of the State the Ashkenazi establishment treated the newly arrived Sephardi aliya with transparent disdain. And in more recent years note with shame how similar disdain has been shown by many Israelis to the 60,000 black Jews rescued by the State from the poverty and persecution of Ethiopia.
Of all the prejudices in the world racism directed against Jews, Anti-Semitism, and Black are the most cruel and dangerous. Anti-Semitism, because it is the most persistent and pernicious prejudice, incorporating blood libels and inquisition, expulsion and extermination and still it mutates vigorously, often viciously, in so many parts of the globe. Prejudice inflicted on the black community through employment discrimination and social opprobrium raises the ugly spectre of centuries of degrading, dehumanising slavery. Insult a Jewish or black man or woman as fat, ugly, stupid, mean, and it hurts but hurl the word “Jew” or “black” or their many pejorative substitutes say it with venom and it hurts to the core evoking images respectively of the Shoah, Holocaust, and slavery.
But both we Jews and Blacks must learn positive lessons from our persecution. If we do not, then we run the considerable risk of viewing respectively every non-Jew or every white as an actual or potential racist. As Jews we must teach that our recent history should not focus exclusively on Hitler and Himmler but also Swedish Raoul Wallenberg, Japanese Sempo Sugiharu and English Frank Foley and the nearly 23,000 other righteous gentiles identified and recognised by Yad Vashem and the tens and tens of thousands of anonymous gentiles who risked and sometimes sacrificed, their lives in offering secret sanctuary and so life to their hunted Jewish neighbours. The Black community should never forget that in the American Civil War 360,000 died on the Union side to free four million slaves. The war was justified, the war was necessary, the cost was immense.
And secondly, the Jewish and black communities who have suffered longer and deeper hurt than any community in history should consequently be utterly free of prejudice against each other and any other people. Take some inspiration from Eli Pfefferkorn. Pfefferkorn is a Shoah survivor whose memoir “The Muselmann at the Watercooler” was published just some months ago. Its content is moving, penetrating and beautifully written as one should expect from someone who went on after the war to become Professor of English at Haifa and Tel Aviv Universities and Brown University USA. He relates this personal anecdote which took place days after his liberation near Theresienstadt. “As we walked I saw out of the corner of my eye two German soldiers bent over digging in a field. ‘Let us see what the two are doing’ I said to my buddy. There was a sergeant squatting next to a Wehrmacht officer. When he noticed us he stopped digging. Both looked at us. One impulse I took a loaf of bread, broke it into two halves, tossed one half to each of them. I made sure to observe the protocol of rank, honouring the officer first. The astounded expressions on their faces are etched in my memory.” I would suggest that if the human heart can feel compassion for one’s enemy, surely it can also embrace empathy, understanding, respect, responsibility for one’s neighbour.
As a well known Jewish sage, Rav Kook, Chief Rabbi of the pre-State of Palestine counselled “the causeless hatred of history needs to be replaced by causeless love” “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
If not love, then surely understanding, respect, sensibility. Why? Because, as Ben Azzai reminds us, black and white, Jewish and non-Jewish, we are one, one family, the family of humanity. This is a lesson for life not only for John Terry, Luis Suarez but for each one of us.
Sermon given Shabbat Vayiggesh 31 December 2011
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