Jews and Blacks Need to Talk About ‘Race’ … Together

James Elam

By James Elam, IV and Shoshana Schiller

At a time in human history when people can share their thoughts to a billion people around the world in a matter of seconds, the very simple and important art of listening seems to be in jeopardy more than ever.

Our nation was founded on the bedrock principle of free speech enshrined in the Constitution, and while it does not mean we are entitled to speech without consequences, a misunderstanding should be approached as an opening for discussion.

Recently, ABC suspended Whoopi Goldberg from “The View” for expressing her concept of “race” in the context of a discussion about the Holocaust. For many Americans, particularly Black Americans, the definition of race is informed by the history of the United States, from 1619 to the Thirteenth Amendment to the Civil Rights Act. It is an understanding based on skin color inseparable from the legal and moral history of our country, and from the current lived experiences of Black Americans.

The term “race” has a broader definition as well, one that underpins centuries of antisemitism in Europe and across the globe, that was the basis of the Holocaust, and that remains a foundation of modern-day antisemitism. Jews can look no further than the immigration records and the citizenship applications of their grandparents and earlier generations in which their race is identified, uniquely, as Hebrew. In addition, it was the racist Nuremberg Laws that enabled the Nazis to carry out the “Final Solution” and the murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust.

Shoshanna Schiller

To disregard this definition is hurtful to many Jews. But American Jews also acknowledge and celebrate that there are Jews of all ethnicities, races and backgrounds, such that modern Judaism is, at the same, at odds with the idea of race.

This is the subtlety of race as a word, as a concept, as a flashpoint of hate but also of pride. To get to this place of nuanced understanding, however, we need to listen to each other. We need not assume that others come from the same place of understanding, and we need not assume that our own experiences are either universal or widely known or taught.

As co-chairs of the Black-Jewish Alliance of the Anti-Defamation League Philadelphia, we have worked hard to forge stronger ties between the Black and Jewish communities by acknowledging our commonalities as opposed to focusing on our differences.

We created a safe space to learn and be heard, allowing ourselves to be open to making mistakes and to having misunderstandings. We are learning to listen to each other, to dash assumptions and preconceived notions, and to understand each other more deeply.
We stand united today and in the future as allies against the twin sins of antisemitism and racism. But standing together also means doing so when things are comfortable and when they are uncomfortable.

This approach stands in stark contrast to the current climate in America, where people seem to be retreating more and more into their own echo chambers or corners of social media where their own biased views are affirmed and there’s no willingness to experience discomfort. There’s a very real danger here that we will stop listening to each other altogether.

While there are instances where a person’s words or conduct might be beyond the scope allowable in a civilized society, we should not rush to cancel people for expressing themselves honestly without malice.

When a more complete understanding would serve the greater good, rushing to judgment can, in fact, be harmful to the greater good, stifling conversation, dialogue and ideas. Here are some of the things we’ve learned from our conversations together, that can easily apply more broadly to the world we live in:

• People need to listen actively in order to understand. You are hearing another person’s words, trying to comprehend the intent and meaning behind them, and, if you don’t understand, ask a clarifying question.

• We all must communicate to be understood. If we are as honest and open as possible, we are genuinely speaking from our own point of view.

• We all need to commit to better understand the other person’s perspective.

• Anticipate that emotions may run high. Discussion on topics like racism, antisemitism, privilege and discrimination can be painful and challenging. Try to understand the source of the emotion that the person is feeling.

• Consider the relationship. As you engage in conversations with people with whom you disagree, it’s a good idea to remember that they come to those positions with their own unique history, background, perspective and experiences.

It is only by truly listening and learning together that we will ever find a path forward. The art of listening can go a long way to improving our outlook as a decent and civil society. JE

James Elam, IV and Shoshana Schiller are co-chairs of the Black-Jewish Alliance of the ADL. Elam is the managing partner of Elamental, a multidisciplinary agency focusing on technology, media, sports and social action. Schiller is an environmental attorney in the Philadelphia area. For more information on the Black-Jewish Alliance visit:


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