Thought for the Week by Rabbi Richard Jacobi- 5/6/20
Rabbi Herschl Gluck, a mensch whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several times, recently pointed out the link between Covid-19 and the thankfully filmed actions of Derek Chauvin and his erstwhile colleagues. Both deprive their victims of the capacity to breathe and cause death.
Air, breath – in Hebrew, the word ruach can describe spirit, as in life force, breath, and wind. The movement of air as we breathe is the essence of life. Covid-19 has taken so many lives by disabling the lungs and squeezing the life-force from too many people in this country and around the world. Stifling breath by placing a knee against the windpipe; keeping it there and murdering a person – George Floyd – is an act that should shock us and fill us with outrage. Sadly, had it not be captured on film, I think the story of his death would have barely made the news in Minnesota, let alone troubled our news media here.
The phrase Black Lives Matter emerges from the fact that for far too many centuries, Black Indigenous People of Colour (BIPOC) have lost their lives as rich, predominantly white people have made their fortunes. My British history schooling embedded the name of William Wilberforce in my head, but did little or nothing to explain the major role that Britain played in the Atlantic slave trade, let alone the impact this country had on other parts of its Empire.
Reading a well-researched book entitled and about New York by Edward Rutherfurd (I recommend it!) informed me of the many periods when black lives did not matter in New York City. This began before the British took it over from the Dutch, through to when the American colonists overthrew the British, on through over two centuries since then. The USA and the UK both fail to acknowledge their history of profiting from the ill treatment of others, and because of this failure to face the truth, there has never been a proper reconciliation. Without that, there cannot come a better future.
We know our own, Jewish, history of victimhood and that story has many other days when we rightly focus on it. We also have our heroes and our successes and we can spend other times celebrating them.
This time, these days and weeks, are when we must acknowledge the long-standing mistreatment of a different group of humanity. We must accept that we have been bystanders while they have been deprived of air, and some Jews have been active in taking away the life-force of this discriminated-against grouping.
Our Judaism demands of us that we don’t stand idly by while our neighbour’s blood is shed (Leviticus 19:16). Time and again, we pray for peace for all, because we know that we cannot have peace on our own, when others are still downtrodden. Two verses on, we are commanded to “Love your neighbour as yourself.” (19:18).
A by-product of Covid-19 for those not affected by the virus is that the air is fresher and cleaner. That does not justify the deaths and ongoing illness suffered. A product of the discrimination against Black Lives has been wealth and privilege for their abusers. This does not justify continuing racism that takes the breath away from people just because of their skin colour. We must look to ourselves, educate ourselves, understand their experience better and be their allies until they no longer need our help. If we don’t do this NOW, we have no right to expect better from anyone else the next time we need help.