Be honest: does their colour bother you?

September 4, 2008

All goyim are antisemitic." Which of us has not heard this sentiment voiced by a co-religionist; and even if we don't agree with its sweepingly unfair categorisation of most of humanity, find at least part of ourselves thinking that maybe it's true of quite a few? In recent months, a couple of incidents have made me wonder to what extent we are guilty of racism.

Although it is rare to hear Jews in the public eye make explicitly racist comments, coffee-table racism is more common in the privacy of the home. Recently, I was the guest of a family with several young children for a Shabbat meal. The conversation turned to Barack Obama's chances in the US elections.

The oldest boy, of about 14, blurted out: "I can see how they'd have a black man represent them in the Olympics, but as president - never." Neither of his parents responded; they let the comment go by.

A more shocking outburst occurred at another Friday-night dinner when an American Jew told me that he had come to the UK to avoid black crime. "The only way I could get out of my street safely was to run a few black guys over," he remarked. When I asked him what he meant, he said that he actually had run a black person over who had been in his way, and that he felt no remorse as "they had it coming to them".

Again, nearly as shocking as his comments was that the other guests, far from challenging him, nodded in agreement. Such an attitude was surely completely contrary to Jewish law, I pointed out.

I had felt sure that racism of this kind was anathema to the spirit and practice of Judaism - yet the obvious question is why so many Jews see no problem with such opinions. Is it connected to a view of Judaism that sees Jewish people as better than others? Judaism is in many ways a highly particularistic faith - the Torah says we are an am segulah, a people chosen by God to be a people apart, as well as an am kadosh, a holy nation.

Yet this chosen status has been interpreted in widely different ways. On the one hand is the universalist tradition, perhaps best exemplified by Rav Kook, the respected first Chief Rabbi of Israel, and religious Zionist leader. His philosophy was based on the idea that all human beings from Adam onwards were created b'tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. This reflects the Torah's description of man's creation whereby God brought Adam to life by fashioning him in His own image, animating him with a spark of Godliness that forms the soul of every person. Rav Kook's approach to the non-Jewish world was based on the understanding that all of humanity are sacred beings who share a common ancestry.

This idea is echoed in many well-known sayings of our sages, such as the - in their time - revolutionary statements that we should tend to the sick of the nations and assist non-Jewish mothers in childbirth to the same extent that we care for those in need within our own people. From a halachic viewpoint, we are expected to act towards our non-Jewish neighbours with the highest ethical and moral standards, to treat them like our brothers and sisters.

So why, then, is racism so prevalent among a significant minority (I hope only a minority) of religious Jews? It may be part of a tribal memory (perhaps reactivated by relentless modern day anti-Zionism) of times not so long ago when it was hardly surprising that non-Jewish oppression made us see the wider world through a mostly negative lens.

Yet I wonder about the influence of the more particularistic strands in Jewish thought on the relationship between Jews and non-Jews. A striking example is the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, who founded Chabad Chasidism, in his seminal kabbalistic work, the Tanya. The Rebbe's spiritual theology includes the idea that Jews have a soul qualitatively different from non-Jewish souls.

The Tanya is stark: "the souls of the nations of the world derive from the impure kelipot, which contain no good whatsoever". Kelipot, or husks, is a kabbalistic concept, meaning the negative aspects of creation. The significance of this phrase must, however, be considered in the context of the complex conceptual edifice about the nature of creation constructed by the Tanya's author, and it is not entirely clear what he takes its philosophical implications to be.

Some commentators, such as the late 20th-century modern Orthodox thinker Yeshayahu Leibowitz, have regarded the Tanya's privileging of "Jewish souls" as a form of idolatry. Yet the Tanya's consideration of Jews as a type apart is only one aspect of a particular worldview found in Jewish sources.

In Bereshit itself we find a classification of the sons of Noah. The descendants of Shem, among whom

Abraham is included, are endowed with spiritual potential. In contrast, Ham, the father of African peoples according to some traditions, is cursed. The rabbis have for over 2,000 years maintained that as we know longer know how to trace lines of descent back to the biblical period, such classifications can in no way be applied to the present day. However, the idea of classifying peoples has been used in the past to justify racism, although typically as part of a distorted Christian, rather than Jewish, narrative.

Yet I wonder whether this idea of different types of people has a potentially damaging effect on Jewish sensibilities as well. The halachah is clear that the kind of racism I witnessed is unacceptable. But we must accept that in any cultural grouping, particularly one like Judaism where the idea of ourselves as a people apart is an intrinsic part of our identity, it is necessary to guard against the danger that legitimate pride in our identity, values and special mission in life spills over into xenophobia. Perhaps we must be more ready to challenge racism within our community, even when veiled behind closed doors, and reaffirm what must surely be a fundamental part of our Jewish obligations: to act as a "light upon the nations" and work towards the common good of a humanity created in the image of God.

Joe Mintz lectures in education at South Bank University

Last updated: 3:33pm, September 9 2008