The following is a guest post by Jon Sussman, a researcher for UNITE HERE, the hospitality workers' union.
Sussman moved to Baltimore in 2014. He graduated with a B.A. in English and the History of Ideas from Brandeis University in 2011. Sussman volunteers with Jews United for Justice and Jewish Voice for Peace.
As an American Jew, I have had to struggle with how my community ritually commits to justice as a principle but fails to act on it. My personal experiences point to a source for this problem: a preference for peace before justice and the invocation of ‘dialogue’ as a fig leaf for actual engagement.
Growing up on Long Island, my Jewish education was an endless lecture, a gentle explanation of holidays and bible stories, a reedy reeling off of commandments, a solemn invocation of the Shoah.
If justice was talked about at all, it was either as an abstract principle or as a token element of Judaism, a way to congratulate ourselves on the Jews who marched with Dr. King. It certainly paled as a value compared to keeping ‘the tradition’ alive, which meant marrying other Jews. It was very easy to disengage from this tradition, to be among them but not of them.
In college, at secular but still deeply Jewish Brandeis University, I could finally engage with a Jewish community that deeply engaged with its principles and acted on them. One incident, however, made it very clear how limited the space for opposing views was.
The horror of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s assault on Gaza in the winter of 2008-09, shocked me and my peers. The death and injury of thousands of Palestinians, even when perpetrated by ‘our’ people, was far too raw.
Equally unreal was the mainstream Jewish community’s endless apologetics for this spectacle of violence. When the university invited a former ambassador of the Israeli government to rebut the UN’s inquiry into the war, the reduction of this reality to an academic debate felt like a perpetuation of the war.
A group of friends and I pulled off a simple (but not simplistic) plan: during his speech we would stand in silent protest, with quotes from the UN report. We were booed and shouted at, returning to our seats after a minute. We chose to sit and peacefully observe the rest of the event, subject only to the hostile stares of other attendees.
However, my friend Amanda was not so lucky. An older man sitting behind her spent the rest of the event pushing her chair, kicking her legs, and shoving her in the back. Amanda repeatedly asked security to intervene, to no avail. It only stopped when the event ended and the man left the venue. She followed him, loudly asking him why he felt the need to assault a woman much younger and smaller than him. He did not turn around except to mutter expletives in her direction.
I trailed behind Amanda, hoping to help her confront this man. I was instead treated to a peculiar sight: Shula Reinharz, professor of Jewish studies and wife of the university president, strode smiling between the combatants.
With a flourish, she admonished, “We should take this opportunity to talk to each other!” But having made her announcement, Professor Reinharz glided back into the auditorium without another word.
Amanda’s attacker took the opportunity to flee. I spent the next few hours trying to talk her through what had happened.
This episode struck me as meaningful and all too emblematic of how the Jewish community I grew up in handled legitimate disagreement: gesturing at dialogue, unwilling to put in the work necessary to see it happen, and simply blind to violence from one of our own.
These feelings were stirred up again by Marc Gopin’s lecture in Baltimore. As a Jewish participant in international peacebuilding efforts, including in Israel-Palestine, Gopin seemed to bring a helpful perspective to issues that troubled me.
But I was sorely disappointed. Over and over again, the peacemaker could only offer homilies on the personal qualities of the peacemaker as evenhanded arbiter. Gopin was emphatic that peace had to come before justice, that outward hostilities are the impediment to lasting solutions. Repeatedly questioned about how situations of manifest inequality can be resolved without confrontation, he stuck to the claim that peace was prerequisite to resolving the problems that led to tension and dissension.
I found his answers less than satisfying and all too fitting with the larger patterns I had seen in the wider Jewish community. Whether in Boston working on issues related to Israel-Palestine or campaigning in Baltimore on police accountability, I found the Jewish communities I encountered all too similar, complacent and unwilling to act on principles of justice, favoring instead inaction and lip service.
I honestly despair of finding renewal for my community solely from within. For all of the Jewish community’s relishing of its one-time underdog status, the institutions that structure it are composed of political and economic elites not merely unrepresentative of most Jews but insistent on a monochromatic and inactive vision of Jewish life.
Jewish groups that are active in the various fights for social transformation that are more emblematic of Jewish tradition, such as Jews United for Justice, Jewish Voice for Peace, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, are marginalized, slandered, and kept from the beating heart of community life.
I think this points to a critical place for interreligious dialogue for the American Jewish community, precisely as an opportunity to challenge our complacency. If the flimsily maintained veneer of peace within my community can be troubled, there is an opening for a rebirth of justice as a guiding principle.
The city of Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race and community. At this pivotal moment in our city’s history, indeed our nation’s history, the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies highlights the continued importance of bringing diverse religious perspectives to address civic and social challenges. In the initiative Imagining Justice in Baltimore the ICJS will contribute the perspectives of local Jews, Christians and Muslims to the public conversation about justice, and injustice, in Baltimore. Each contributor represents her or his own opinion. We welcome this diversity of perspective and are not seeking a single definition of justice between traditions, nor denying the multivocal nature of justice within traditions. The long-term goal of the Imagining Justice in Baltimore initiative is to create a model of interreligious learning and dialogue around differences that demonstrates how a robust commitment to religious pluralism can shape public life.