Well, it is safe to say that Donald Sterling (born Donald Tokowitz) is not going to win the hearts of Los Angeles. In all honesty, I did not even know who the man was, but his name was blaringly Jewish. This reason alone made me investigate who he was and why he might even matter. Now, it did not take more than two seconds to figure out he is the owner of the Clippers, born in Illinois in the early 1930s, far away enough that his Eastern European family did not experience the wrath of the Nazi party. It might also be safe to say that of all the people in our community that we might be embarrassed of, or should be embarrassed by, Sterling is a new prime candidate. (Let me interject with the following: Christians have Mel Gibson; we have Donald Sterling. Both have made comments about other communities that were fueled by hate and bigotry.) Ironically, Sterling’s bigotry got massive media coverage around Holocaust Memorial day, a time when we reflect on how far we have come and what we as a society need to work on with our neighbors.
It is times like this when I ask myself, How can we learn from this? What has the Jewish community done and where can a Jewish community go? In the case of Sterling’s rhetoric, it is clear we can only go up! But, this cry from the media also made me reflect on the good things that the Jewish community has done in conjunction with the African American community.
Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) made a documentary called “From Swastika to Jim Crow,” discussing the connection of Jews and blacks in the early 1900s to the Civil Rights Movement. The documentary explains how Jews and blacks worked together because of commonalities. The two subcultures empathized with one another’s desire for equality, forming a cohesive working relationship to better the American public. Social amnesia has allowed both communities to forget simple history. Both Jews and blacks marched together, rode on the Freedom Ride together and helped form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Where are these unions for a better America now?
I realize synagogues and churches create events structured around blending communities, but how often? What long-term interaction takes place? The events have the best intentions, but the depth of the event is shallow. On college campuses, the African American community seemingly affiliates more with Muslim Student Associations and Muslim Student Unions more so than Jewish organizations. Clearly there are more Muslims in the African American community so the link is easy to create, but the Jewish community can align themselves with these students as well. Our bond and history is relevant to one another’s.
Recalling these things does not excuse Sterling’s commentary, but it does remind me we need to improve our community’s relations with other subcultures in America. The discussion of race is difficult; it does not come from a simple place. The conversation is uncomfortable, pointing out a difference in order to find the similarity. But, being complacent is not acceptable and ignoring what once existed does not do anyone an ounce of service. It is imperative that we remember that Jews once stood hand-in-hand with African Americans to fight for civil rights, civil liberties, women’s rights and freedom of religious equality.
Major figures in the community do not speak on behalf of the Jewish population, but their words are heard by outside communities because their voices carry through media and in public forums. Finding ways to connect to other subcultures has the potential to rekindle positive relationships, in hopes that hate speech will be muffled by the sounds of a unified group working for a more peaceful tomorrow.
Rachel Schiff is an English teacher who graduated from Cal State Fullerton. She was president of Hillel, a representative of the World Union of Jewish Students and a YLD intern. Currently, she is a Master’s degree student in American Studies with emphasis on Jews in America.