Parasha Re-eh

Justice and Trayvon MartinThis summer I had the opportunity   to do some readings that I had put off for too long. One of these readings was a book entitled The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. Wilkerson,  a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, writes about one of the great untold stories of the twentieth century – the massive migration of African Americans from the South to the North, to the  Midwest and to the West.  From 1917 through 1970, some six million – that’s right – six million African Americans left the south and migrated to other parts of the country. The author structures the book by following three families who left the South during this period – Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper’s wife who left Mississippi for Chicago in the 1930s; George Swanson Starling, an agricultural worker who left Florida in the 1940’s for New York City; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a physician who left Louisiana in the early 1950’s for Los Angeles. Why did they leave the South? The author Richard Wright put’s it poetically – and I quote I was leaving the South/ To fling myself into the unknown…. I was taking a part of the South/ To transplant in alien soil/ To see if it could grow differently,                                                                                                 If it could drink of new and cool rains,/Bend in strange winds/Respond to the warmth of other suns/and perhaps to bloom. We tend to forget the lessons from our High School history class. Or, more likely, we were never taught what life was like for African Americans in the South under the Jim Crow laws.  One very painful and very hard to hear illustration of this reality involves James K. Vardaman. He was a candidate for governor of Mississippi in 1903  when he declared that “If it is necessary, every Negro in the state will be lynched,” and “The only effect of Negro education is to spoil a good field hand and make an insolent cook.” Almost as difficult to hear is that the people of Mississippi elected him the governor that year. Later, the voters of Mississippi sent him to the United States Senate! Of course there was the  shame and humiliation of segregation – in schools, on buses, in movie theaters, on elevators (blacks used the freight elevator) , in amusement parks, swimming pools ,ambulances, hearses, train platforms, waiting rooms, restrooms, cocktail lounges, post offices, telephone booths, license plate registration windows, bank tellers, taxicabs – any public space where blacks and whites might meet.  There was nothing “separate but equal” about it. Whites always had the privilege, and blacks always got what was second class, dirty, or unfit.  When two motorists were at an intersection, the law said that the black motorist had to yield to the white motorist.  A black motorist could not pass a white motorist no matter how slow he or she was going.  A black person dare not offer to shake a white person’s hand. Then there was the violence against blacks.  Wilkerson tells us that violence had become such an accepted way of life that a 1950 report by a Florida governor’s special investigator observed that there had been so many mob executions in one county that “it never had a negro live long enough to go to trial.” Reading this reminded me of another mass migration – the migration of 2 million Jews from Eastern Europe from 1880 through 1920. All of my grandparents, as no doubt many of yours as well, were participants in that migration. They set off for the warmth of other suns for much the same reasons that African Americans did.  They lived in the Western part of the Russian Empire, known as the Pale of Settlement.  This is a huge area, as large as the Mississippi Valley in the United States. The Jews of this area made up 12% of the overall population.  They could not live or move where they pleased. They did not have the right to own agricultural land. They could not choose an occupation freely. Higher education opportunities were closed to them.  They could not practice their religion freely, nor did they have the right to speak Yiddish publically and officially. State sanctioned violence against Jews was persistent and deadly. Partial data, available for 530 communities indicate that between 1917 and 1921 there were 887 major pogroms in which 60,000 Jews were killed and many more wounded. We will never know the true extent of the violence directed against our people during this period. That is why our ancestors made the difficult trip across an ocean to this new land. It was to escape the discrimination, the segregation, the lack of opportunity, the inhumane treatment, the insecurity, the hopelessness and the state sanctioned violence that confronted them every day. This is why our people felt compelled to travel to Palestine to seek out freedom and a future in our ancient homeland. Thus Jewish and African American histories have much more in common than each people’s experience of slavery. This knowledge of the painful and horrific history of our fellow Afro Americans citizens helped me   understand the African American outrage at the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case this summer.  To people with a historical as well as personal memories of utter and persistent discrimination, the Trayvon Martin verdict was a miscarriage of justice.  As we know, many people from all races share the outrage of the Afro American community. Here, after all, was a situation that pulled a scab off of a deep wound that has not yet healed, that will never heal.  Here was an example of another black man—this time an adolescent — killed by a white person in the South – and the white man does not answer for having taken a life. Given the history, it feels like an old story. It feels like nothing has changed in the South. That is why, whether we agree or disagree with the verdict in this particular case, we must react to the disappointment and anger about that verdict with understanding and empathy. Perhaps drawing on our own people’s history will help us to understand these feelings.  Just think of the pain we experience when harsh criticism is leveled against Israel by those with no knowledge let alone understanding of Jewish history and Jewish suffering.  How do we feel when people deny history and claim that Jews in Israel are European colonialists? We need to be sensitive to the historical experience of African Americans in order to understand the pain they experienced with this verdict, just as we expect others to be sensitive to our history when they disagree with us over Israeli policies. As the trial was going on, the words of Deuteronomy came to mind. “Justice, Justice you shall pursue.” I feel that justice was eventually pursued in this case – whether it was achieved is a matter of opinion. Like so much in this world, ultimate justice is in G-d’s hands. Hertz writes about the difference between the idea of Justice in Ancient Greece and in the Bible. To the Ancient Greeks justice implies the harmonious arrangement of relationships in society, where everybody knows their place and those who are subservient know how to treat those who are superior.  It stresses the inequalities in human society. The Biblical understanding of justice is connected to the understanding that all human beings are created in the image of G-d, and that within each human being there is a divine spark. It stresses the essential equality of all human beings.  Therefore, a person should not be treated as a thing, or as a member of a racial group or religion or social class or nationality, but rather as an individual, as a unique person.  Justice, Hertz writes, “is the awe inspired respect for the personality of others, and their inalienable rights.” Injustice, then, is the lack of respect for the individuality of the other. One thing the Trayvon Martin case can teach us is the tragic consequences of not seeing the other for who he or she is – in this case, a 17 year old high school kid out to buy candy and a soda —  but for what we fear  or assume or imagine him or her to be.  That is an injustice for which there is no remedy in law. This is also one of the strengths of the Wilkerson book, The Warmth of Other Suns.  By focusing on the lives of three individuals she helps us to understand them as distinct personalities and not as part of a threatening horde of African Americans ascending from the South.  As one of our congregants said to me upon finishing the book, “I’ll never look at African Americans the same way.” In this respect, it is the responsibility of each and every one of us to pursue justice in our own lives and in our own relationships, to treat each individual as a person with inalienable rights and with infinite respect and worth.  Justice means not making assumptions about a person based on the color of their skin, their religion, their gender, their sexual orientation.  Remember that God’s spark is in him and her.  That indeed is a life-long goal worth pursuing by young and by old alike. Shabbat Shalom