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The film that won Best Picture at the Oscars this year, 12 Years a Slave, is a moving picture about a free black man living in New York State in the 1840s, before the Civil War. It is based on a true account of how a free black citizen in New York State was tricked into visiting Washington, where he was drugged and sold into slavery in the south. After a horrific life, he was rescued through a chance encounter with what appears to be a religious craftsman from the North. There have, in my opinion, been better films about the horrors of black slavery in the USA. But it is always important to be reminded of the unspeakable cruelty we humans, of all persuasions and cultures, are capable of inflicting on our brothers and sisters.

It was probably political correctness that led to the gorgeous young Mexican-Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o getting the Oscar for best supporting actress. Beautiful as she was, and moving as her part was, I cannot believe that in any other film of any other subject she would have won the award. But I am glad of it nevertheless.

The Supreme Court of the United States is debating the issue of Affirmative Action again. I had a visceral reaction against such a policy, partly because we Jews did well despite not having such support. And because we have always believed in doing our best, regardless of the odds stacked against us, and using the challenge to excel. But I do think there is a special case to be made out because the disastrous state of much of black society in the USA. Most children grow up in single parent and multi-partner households, far too few black children graduate high school, there is a huge disparity between the chances of a black defendant being acquitted by a jury and a white one, blacks vastly outnumber whites in the jail population and in the numbers executed, and far too many blacks find full time employment. The resulting gang warfare, criminality, and violence that comes from feeling helpless and alienated are all reasons to do something about it. As with all human situations it is, in my view, almost impossible to isolate a single cause, be it internal or external. So locating blame is a futile exercise.

I also think that, ironically, doctrinaire white intellectuals, as typified by many in the teachers unions, do more to hold back black kids than the most prejudiced of racists, precisely because they refuse to let market forces in education, such as charter schools, improve their lot. They seem to care more about protecting jobs for teachers, even criminal ones, than success for pupils.

Many years ago I recall an argument I had with a bright young black woman in London who told me that she thought that slavery was every bit as significant a crime as the Holocaust. I argued that there was a difference. The evils of slavery were motivated by financial gain, blacks were treated as commodities, whereas the perpetrators of the Holocaust were not even interested in preserving Jews to put to work (though some were). The main motivation was the eradication of Jews as if they were vermin. There were no extermination camps or ovens for blacks. We parted company acrimoniously.

Over the years I have reconsidered my position. Not because I think the two are of identical nature, but because at root both are reflections of the absolute wickedness of too many people. Taking away a person’s freedom is nowadays, in theory, an offense against every attempt to define human rights, whether it is defined as Habeas Corpus or Liberty. To rape, mutilate, and flog human beings is the very height of inhumanity and sadism. To tear children away from their parents is a betrayal of the family as the core institution of human love and care. Slavery did all that to the extent that sometimes death was indeed preferable. In some ways you could even say that slavery was worse, because its crimes were carried out by many more people over a much more extended time frame. Kidnapping (for slavery or other reward) is equated in the Jewish legal tradition with murder.

You may argue that slavery under some conditions could also be supportive and caring, and in some cases it was. But the mere institution of ownership of other humans can put people at such an extreme disadvantage that they will often accept humiliation, sexual exploitation, and inferior conditions either because psychologically they have been conditioned to or out of a desperate desire to ameliorate their state.

The daily cruelty inflicted by an uncaring human on another is a scandal that continues. Large numbers of the poorest Asians and Africans work under inhuman conditions. They are often indentured literally as slaves or by circumstances. They live without hope of freedom or recourse. Often they are cut off from their children for years. Although in relatively civilized societies bosses, civilian and military, can also impose themselves on subservients, kidding themselves that there is no compulsion, at least one go to the courts with the possibility of escape.

None of this was possible for black slaves. The Civil War, which was ostensibly fought over slavery, did not ameliorate the suffering in the South. It took more than another hundred years. And prejudice remains against blacks at least as much as it does against Jews. Once it was religion to blame, but then Red idealists proved it’s a universal disease.

It is a pointless exercise to say “my pain is greater than yours” or “my suffering cannot be compared to any other.” All individual suffering is a crime against God and Man and must be prevented by law or negotiation. While the Torah allows taking a life in self-defense, it does not tolerate individuals inflicting pain gratuitously or for financial and personal gain on innocent human beings for any other reason. We need to be constantly reminded of this.

9 thoughts on “Racism

  1. As far as the holocaust goes, I would have also added that there was slave labor as well. Weren't a lot of the concentration camps used for labor, with the death tolls being a result of malnourishment, fatigue, beatings? From what I recall reading, the extermination camps weren't used until later in the war.

    Although relativism is an approach is not lacking in its flaws, it's difficult to call slavery the same kind of crime within the context of the 19th Century as genocide was in the 20th. I've no idea how she could try to pose such an argument without it being emotionally driven. Slavery is certainly nothing to look back on fondly, and while the idea of freedom/emancipation was a major aspect of the enlightenment, slavery still didn't have that same abhorrent stigma attached to it back then. The same cannot be said of genocide. Especially in the case of WWII where genocide was multicontinental and targeted minorities of ethnic and sexual groups, in addition to political opponents (such as Catholics who assisted Jews).

  2. Thank you for writing this post Rabbi Rosen…it is excellent. As a Black American (who happens to be Jewish as well), I've become keenly aware, especially as I've gotten older, of the psychological damage that slavery is STILL leaving on our people. We have horrible self esteem…because of the messages sent about our people in the media; as well as our own internal degradation. It is interesting that you bring up Lupita Nyong’o. I felt the same way after Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won their Oscars. The roles did not seem to be of any special caliber to deserve the award. It was like a consolation prize. And it reeks of fake patronage.

    Your post also brings up other thoughts. I have yet to really test this theory, but it seems that the British deal with racism differently than Americans. Yes, there are racist British people…I won't deny that for a moment. But British people also seem to have a certain amount of self-criticism where they are more apt to step back and face the evils of their past history more readily than Americans. Again, I don't have hard proof of this theory. However coming from a Jamaican family, I've seen many books, documentaries and films from Britain about Black or Jamaican culture….from even the 60s and 70s, that were clearly more frank and progressive than anything Americans would have created (think about it…."Roots" was so groundbreaking when it was aired in 1977).

  3. One difference between The Holocaust and US Slavery is that even as the Nazis were perpetrating genocide they were simultaneously attempting to hide the fact with secrecy, propaganda and euphemisms. They believed in what they were doing yet still had some instinctive understanding that they were going so far beyond normal human moral norms that they had to hide the reality from outsiders and from their own people.

    American slaveholders and their supporters tried to justify what they were doing, but they never tried to hide it or showed any obvious signs of shame.

    However I've no idea what this distinction signifies! Does it mean that the Nazis were _less_ morally degraded because they were still capable of feeling shame over their own actions? Or does it make them worse, because they knew instinctively that they were wrong but carried on anyway? Conversely, was the utter unrepentance of the American slaveowners a further sign of _their_ moral degeneracy?

    Ultimately the question is which is worse – to treat humans as things to be used for one's own ends, or to refuse to accept one's fellow human beings as human at all, but rather as vermin to be destroyed? Phrased that way, I think it's obvious that at heart the crimes of the slaveowners and the Nazis were _the same crime_. Once you stop treating people as people, it doesn't really matter whether you start treating them as machines, animals, or inanimate objects.

  4. The Levantine Maghrebi:

    I think the issue is that human cruelty, the inability to treat others as equals, as all children of one God, is the common denominator.

  5. Miss S:

    Thank you so much for your observations. Interesting your point about the British. In one way you are right. Wilberforce was British of course and there has always been a strong liberal strain. But Britain still has a very powerful Class system underlying societal attitudes and this actually overlays the racial bias too. So even if the color bias is slightly less overt it is in practice made worse by class bias too.
    Having said that when I told the black nurse who took my blood last week that I thought New York was less racist than London she,very nicely, told me I had no idea and I was wrong!!!!

    I felt so bad that I was living in a cocoon of privilege. It's not that I don't have black friends etc. Any suggestions?

  6. So how do you address the fact that the Torah allows for slavery, ad even racism within slavery. Jewish slaves are treated better than non-Jewish slaves?
    I know that the TOrah gave rights to slaves and when applied correctly a slave belonging to jew would be treated correctly. But if slavery was so fundamentally wrong then the Torah would have forbade it outright!

    1. The Torah was written three thousand years ago in a very different world. You could not expect it to leap too far beyond contemporary norms. It nevertheless deals with such issues exponentially more sympathetically and insisting on protections unheard of in other societies then let alone thousands of years later. By the time you get to Talmudic Judaism its altogether a different mind set. And modern thinking even more so.

  7. Very dangerous approach to state that the Torah has a periodic appeal. Rishonim have tackled with this issue regarding sacrifices, but I have not found similar texts on slavery, primarily because slavery only went out of moral fashion a few hundred years ago.
    The Torah must be as applicable today as it was 3,000 years ago for all 613 mitzvot even if they are unacceptable to the citizen of the 21st centre.
    Take the ethnic cleansing of the land of Israel upon entering or arranged marriages for girls under 12.

    1. It might be dangerous but if it was good enough for Rambam it is good enough for me.
      But how about the Mishna saying that the tribes the Torah commanded us to kill no longer can be identified?
      Or Rebbi Yochanan saying men may not make use of the Sotah Law because they are no longer pure enough?
      Or Hillels Prozbol?
      Etc Etc Etc there are plenty of laws in the Torah that have been been either modified or put into cold storage!

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