About a hundred years ago today, on September 30th, 1919, a large group of black sharecroppers had gathered in a church in Hoop Spur, three miles north of Elaine, Arkansas, for a union meeting–strategizing to receive better payment for their cotton crop from white landowners–when violence broke out. Accounts vary as to who shot first, whether it was the armed guards the members had posted at the door to defend them from ‘anti-Bolshevik’ agitation and anyone seeking to reinforce the code of Jim Crow against the ‘threat’ of a mass meeting of black people, or the three white men sitting in a parked car across the street. But at the end of the altercation, one of the white men was dead and another wounded. The next day, the sheriff of Phillips County sent a posse to arrest the shooters, and at the same time a mob of anywhere from 500 to 1000 armed white men, most of them from the surrounding counties, marched to Elaine to put down what they characterized as a black insurrection. They were joined, the following day, by US soldiers, called in at the request of the governor of Arkansas. Because the historical record is still a matter of bitter contention, I’m going to quote directly from the article on the Elaine Massacre in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, which is an official project of the Central Arkansas Library System in Little Rock: Evidence shows that the mobs of whites slaughtered African Americans in and around Elaine. For example, H. F. Smiddy, one of the white witnesses to the massacre, swore in an eyewitness account in 1921 that “several hundred of them… began to hunt negroes and shotting [sic] them as they came to them.” Anecdotal evidence also suggests that the troops from Camp Pike engaged in indiscriminate killing of African Americans…In 1925, Sharpe Dunaway, an employee of the Arkansas Gazette, alleged that soldiers in Elaine had “committed one murder after another with all the calm deliberation in the world, either too heartless to realize the enormity of their crimes, or too drunk on moonshine to give a continental darn.” Conservative estimates of black casualties ranged up to around 230, with six whites also killed. I want to note that this took place about 15 years after the Kishinev Pogroms in Czarist Russia, in which 50 Jews were killed, many more injured, and hundreds of homes and businesses destroyed in what amounted to a state-sponsored riot on the defamatory pretext of a blood libel. It was this event that finally launched my great-grandparents to America.
Earlier this year, following the acquittal of the Minnesota police officer who shot Philandro Castille to death as he was reaching for his wallet during a routine traffic stop, a consortium of antiracism activists decided to organize a major manifestation, to be called “The March for Racial Justice”. Their manifesto began: “Our mission is to harness the national unrest and dissatisfaction with racial injustice into a national mobilization that strengthens local and nationwide efforts for racial equity and justice…Our vision is simple: to create a just and equitable future for communities of color, so that we may all thrive together.” They wanted to hold the march on September 9th, the anniversary of the Stono Rebellion of 1739, the largest uprising of enslaved Africans to take place in the British mainland colonies, but were informed by the National Park Service that the Mall in DC was not available then, so they opted instead for today, the 30th, the 98th anniversary of the Elaine Massacre, only seeming to grasp this was Yom Kippur when it was brought to their attention by a lot of upset Jews. It is the nature of this upset, and what I see as its implications, that I want to discuss this morning, understanding that all I can do is open up a conversation that I hope we will continue at a later date.
I watched the kerfuffle, at least the Jewish side, play out across my social media platform and email inbox for at least a week in August. It consumed the attention of my fellow travelers in the dual spheres of progressive activism and Jewish communal participation. I noted at least three distinct types of response. The first I would call altruistic self-effacement, characterized by the exuberant exclamation of one friend, who gushed, “I can’t think of a better way to spend Yom Kippur!” References to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s famous dictum of “praying with your feet” abounded. I distinguished from this a more aggressive breed of activist, who questioned the very legitimacy of Jewish dissatisfaction. “Aren’t we being a little self-involved?” they would ask. “It’s not all about us.” Finally, there was the mainstream response, a sentiment of exclusion, anger and hurt feelings, and the sense that this was perhaps a teachable moment. Rabbi Jill Jacobs, of the organization Truah, took the lead in articulating this position to the march organizers, who went on to issue a statement that read, in part: “Choosing this date, we now know, was a grave and hurtful oversight…It was unintentional and we are sorry for this pain as well as for the time it has taken for us to respond. Our mistake highlights the need for our communities to form stronger relationships.” They also announced the coordination of sister marches, which will take place tomorrow, including one in Holyoke. It was a textbook case of good tshuvah, delivered up just in time for Yom Kippur.
And yet, I was left with the lingering impression that there was more to this upswelling of Jewish feeling than the circumstances of one particular incident–that it was, instead, symptomatic of a complicated relationship between progressive Jews and the broader left, particularly with regard to antiracism work; that it bespoke certain brewing tensions arising out of the intersection between Jewish identity and the contemporary discourse of social justice, which I have perceived in myself, and heard in the sometimes tearful words of committed Jewish activists who have shared their pain with me. It has a lot to do, of course, at least on the surface, with the State of Israel, and the way that Palestinian solidarity, which I am by no means suggesting is meritless, has become emblematic of progressive activism, with the concomitant interpretation of Israel as nothing more than a manifestation of Western Colonialism, or, to cite a colorful phrase, the lapdog of American imperialism. Owing to the popularization of a version of the theory of “intersectionality” as a leftist rallying cry, it is possible, at any time, for any progressive action to turn into an anti-Israel protest, and it is permissible to subject to intimidation and hostility Jews who refuse to declare the Jewish state anathema. This is complicated by the fact that many progressive Jews harbor deep reservations about the direction the State has taken, with regard to the plight of the Palestinians, yes, and also with regard to its own internal commitment to the values of social justice. But it is a bridge too far to declare what amounts to one more tarnished state in a lamentably corrupt world to be uniquely illegitimate. Further, and closer to the heart of the matter, it is a form of prejudice to act as if Jewish self-understanding of our own tradition and historical experience, in all of its contortion and nuance, is irrelevant. This is, in fact, a sin of omission, which I think accounts for much of the pain that was felt over the march incident, a pain I would describe as: the sting of Jewish erasure.
Remember, too, that the Jewish backlash to the march’s timing took place in the wake of this summer’s Charlottesville incident, which brought out a new trenchancy to the dynamics I have been describing. If a reminder is needed, this was the extreme right-wing rally, centered around the slated removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a Virginia public park, and devolving into the violent confrontation that claimed the life of a young counter-protestor named Heather Heyer, of blessed memory. The entire specter was deeply unsettling for Jews who were paying attention. It was possibly the most brazen public manifestation of such hateful ideologies in recent memory, with armed neo-Nazis marching in the street in full regalia, chanting antisemitic slogans. This was exacerbated by the tepid response from the White House, which amounted to a tacit endorsement, or, at the very least, a shocking normalization of vulgar creeds we had assumed were relegated to the fringes of American public life; and, in fact, it’s hard to imagine such an audacious demonstration taking place absent the context provided by the vulgar rhetoric and tactics of the Trump movement. Yael Reisman, a New York-based Jewish professional, typified the Jewish reaction in her opinion-piece in the Forward: “As the granddaughter of four Holocaust survivors, this weekend’s news was particularly triggering and validated the worst things I was indoctrinated with as a child, like the need to remain vigilant, even in the heart of Brooklyn, or the constant awareness of being the world’s perpetual scapegoat.” By “this weekend’s news”, though, she was apparently not referring to Charlottesville, but the announcement of the timing of the March for Racial Justice, which, following on the heels of Charlottesville, seemed another prime example of left-wing Jewish erasure. She was not alone in feeling this. A young activist on their way to Boston to stand up to a similar alt-right rally the weekend after Charlottesville expressed puzzlement to me that none of the organizers of the counter-protest made reference to Jewish concerns. I, myself, noticed that in the activist alerts I received after Charlottesville, there was reference to “showing up” to support a variety of peoples, but if and when Jews were mentioned it was generally way down on the list, several slots below Palestinians, and almost as an afterthought, as if arising out of a blindness to the profound antisemitism ever beating in the dark heart of white supremacy.
But here’s where I need to start turning the point. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past year it’s that “white supremacy” means different things to different people, and that this difference is significant. For Jews, at least American Jews with so-called white skin, which I acknowledge is not the totality but certainly the majority of us, white supremacy is the legacy of modern racial antisemitism, with Nazism being its most virulent form–an ideology that demonizes us, seeks to marginalize and destroy us, but which, here and now, is largely an anxiety of historical memory, rather than a looming mortal threat. While I consider the phrase “Jewish paranoia” to be a bigoted slur, I nonetheless believe it is important for us to discern the difference between being triggered and being threatened. While this past year has been deeply unsettling, while we must always remain vigilant, and while we must be careful to differentiate our American experience from that of our sisters and brothers in Europe and elsewhere, we must be careful not to allow our historical fear to swell to a proportion that obfuscates the other white supremacy, the one that is really at the core of the present day struggle. This is the white supremacy spoken of by people of color, the systemic racism still unexorcised from the American experience, and now resurgent in the form of a racialized conservatism. And the difficult truth many of us are trying to get our minds around, as Jews, is that we are not its victims but its perpetrators.
As Jews, we carry with us the memory of other killing fields. I am a great-grandson of Kishinev, who has stood at Auschwitz and Birkenau, Terezin, Kovno, and Ponar. But my great-grandparents left the old world behind to come, and eventually to thrive, in a golden land soaked with the blood of Africans, at the Stono river and Elaine, and places to numerous to name, and they bequeathed to me, in the fourth generation, participation in a selective privilege that has persisted even after the demise of slavery, Jim Crow, and formal American apartheid. I am upset when anyone ignores my history, whether a left-wing firebrand or a well-intentioned anti-racist Anglo-Saxon who includes me in his confessional “we white people”, as if our backgrounds were identical. I believe that as Jews in the face of a Christian majority we regularly experience a thousand little slights, and contort ourselves under the burden of an internalized oppression we barely even know how to name. But there is a danger in allowing all of this to manifest as a petulance used to deflect criticism of our participation in “white privilege”, or to put ourselves at the center of a story that is not about us, but rather about mass incarceration, the frayed relationship between law enforcement and communities of color, the legacy of an economic system that is exclusive by design, the heartlessness of immigration policy, and the deterioration of civil rights. The times demand that we be seen by those who would ignore the fullness of our identity and the subtlety of our experience, but also that we come to see ourselves in perspective, because the failure of either objective will prevent us from taking our rightful place in the work that must be done.
At the center of today’s Torah portion, which describes the first time Jews gathered to celebrate Yom Kippur, we find the description of a strange ritual involving two identical goats, one burned on the altar and the other let go, to wander in the wilderness–each in their own way serving as expiation for the sins of the House of Israel. But in contemplating all of the matters that I’ve discussed today, these two goats have come to play a new role in my imagination, as remarkably potent symbols encapsulating the dilemma of our status in these times. We are the wandering goat, carrying the memory of a burning in our fevered dreams, but knowing, too, that we have been granted the privilege of release–given the opportunity to live against the backdrop of a wilderness that is both rich and haunted. But if we chance to look back over our shoulders we will see that another goat is burning, and while today it is right to be here with our people, to atone and to know ourselves, tomorrow it will be time to march.