Crisis and Hope
The eruption of pain, anger and frustration pouring out across our country in the days and now weeks after the brutal murder of George Floyd made me see that I clearly have a lot to learn and understand about race in America.
I write this as someone whose main area of research is the early modern Atlantic world. This is the time and place that gave birth to the Atlantic slave trade, the harrowing matrix of terror, dislocation and forced labor that began in the 1500’s as European traders began buying African slaves in exchange for European goods and shipping their human cargo to their new found American colonies to serve as the crushing engine of the agricultural economy of the New World. The brutal reality of the slave trade is woven into the fabric of my teaching in courses such as the Sephardic Atlantic, New World Encounters, and the Jewish Presence in Latin America.
And yet the visceral power and fury of the protest unfolding on America’s streets showed me that there was much more for me to understand -- beyond books and art and testimony. I realize again that this is about the lived experience of being an African American in our country and that it is time I listen more intently.
Last Friday in Teaneck, NJ the town that I call home for almost 15 years, there was a Black Lives Matter protest. I was happy that my shul was on the protest route. We decided, like many other businesses and institutions on the route, to offer water and snacks to the marchers. I went to join and I was deeply moved by two elements in particular. First of all, this was an all-Teaneck event: all races, persuasions, ages and creeds. Secondly I was struck by the force of the messaging on the posters carried by the marchers:
Why are we still protesting?
Will I be next?
These are existential questions for many of our fellow Americans; and I need to witness that question, I need to absorb it and be present to it.
Last week a group of my colleagues and I wanted to express our empathy, our pain and concern. We believed that being historians of the Jewish experience could prepare us for fighting this fight. We understand the vicissitudes of persecution and marginalization. We understand how violence and terror can rain down on a marginalized group and also how those persecuted peoples can tap the fountains of courage and creativity and forge a new path for themselves.
We believe that in learning about Jewish suffering we can be prepared to fight against the persecution of others. We wanted to express our outrage and solidarity and we wanted to say it in words. And we realized that it would ultimately be a static message that would do little to deepen our community’s understanding of the issues at hand, and do less to empower us -as individuals and a community- to engage with these existential questions and forge a path towards positive change. Instead we decided to do what we do best- teach, dialogue, process and engage. We dreamed up an evolving series of “teach-ins” where we would consider how the past can help illuminate and energize our present moment.
Beginning this week and stretching into the Fall we will host a series of talks with YU faculty and prominent guests to explore moments of crisis, civil unrest, persecution and violence towards the marginalized and bursts of creativity, resistance and seismic social and political change. In dialogue with students and the wider YU community we hope that this exploration of the past will empower us to engage the challenges we face today.
I encourage you all to come out for our first event this week with Rabbi Saul Berman reflecting on the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and what it can teach us today. This series is sponsored by the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program in International Affairs, the YU Center for Israel Studies, under the university-wide umbrella of Judaic Studies@YU. We look forward to a full line of insightful explorations of the past with an eye towards the present.
This Thursday at 1pm EST:
Here is the updated zoom yu.edu/YUvoices