Letters to the Editor: November 6, 2019

Despite progress, systemic racism persists

We are writing in response to Marty Rochester Oct. 30 commentary, “Are We Exaggerating Racism?” Rochester is not suggesting anything new or innovative by way of stating that we live in a post-racial society. Indeed, his arguments are at best tired and more realistically, dangerous. To accept that we live in a society that continues to grapple with the challenges of systemic racism does not simultaneously discount, as Rochester says, “the enormous racial progress we have made over the past several decades.” However, progress does not mean perfect, nor does it mean that we don’t still live in a country that continues to privilege white people, in particular white men, at the expense of pretty much everyone else. 

Equating systemic racism with far-left radicalism has long been a tool of the right to distract from the real problems our country faces. It’s easy to be white and point to good, old-fashioned self-determinism as the means by which anyone gets ahead in our world. But you can’t “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” if you don’t have any bootstraps to begin with. While we’ve seen progress with respect to racism in the United States, one cannot argue that white Americans are born with far more access to bootstraps than non-white Americans. Sure, plenty of white people in this country have far less privilege than, say, Mr. Rochester, but they’ve never had to overcome obstacles in spite of their race. White privilege doesn’t deny that things are tough for many people of all races, it simply notes that non-white Americans have one more, extra-large hurdle to jump through. 

We do not know where Rochester went to school, but we do have data to back our argument that American school children are not adequately taught the cause of the Civil War. A 2011 Pew study found that nearly half of Americans still believe that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights. For Rochester to chastise us by saying that “it did not take more than a small child’s mind to understand fully how terrible the experience must have been” only serves to diminish the experience of enslaved people. Unfortunately, the next generation of students continue to be taught only half-truths — incomplete information about historical atrocities (including the Holocaust). 

Finally, Rochester’s criticism of The New York Times’ masterful 1619 Project illustrates many Americans’ tendency to bifurcate our world into distinct parts. Rochester whines that the 1619 Project discounts the centrality of the American Revolution, overshadows the importance of an American-led free market, and discounts the virulent racism experienced by Native Americans or immigrants. We can, nay, should, recognize that Americans can both acknowledge the centrality of African enslavement to our nation’s narrative and perpetuate the “glory story” of the American revolution. We suggest that in addition to reading Gordon S. Wood, Rochester also pick up a copy of Harvard professor Jill Lepore’s latest narrative on American history, “These Truths” (2018). 

We will ignore Rochester’s obtuse language (ie: President Barack Obama was not “a black”), but think more about the sentiment of his commentary. His language reeks of fear, fear of loss of power, fear of someone telling him that he didn’t work hard to achieve what he has, and fear that today’s United States looks and feels different from that of his own formative years. We’ll suggest that in order to “advance the cause of racial understanding,” as Rochester implores, white Americans and Jewish Americans must remember what our Passover Seder teaches us every year. When we take 10 drops out of our own wine glasses, we demonstrate that our modern world is one of “both/and”; we can appreciate the good things that hard work has afforded us while also mourn for suffering around us. Embracing these two things is not particularly radical, but it is particularly Jewish. 

We are shocked that the Light would give such a large platform to this type of rhetoric. Rochester’s sentiment and accusations serve only to pull one group of Americans away from another. As Jews we are taught to repair our world. As Americans we are taught to perfect our nation. Rochester’s words do neither; they split and distort our history and our reality.

Jessica Farber Igielnik 

Rebecca Rubin-Schlansky


American aid critical for Israel’s security

Until now, J Street’s activities have consisted primarily of publicly criticizing Israel and demanding that Israel make more concessions to  Palestinians. Now J Street has broken new ground, with its announcement, at its national conference this week, that it will work to reduce U.S. aid to Israel unless the Israelis agree to the Palestinian Authority’s demands.

Traditionally, the question of American aid to Israel has been the dividing line between pro-Israel and anti-Israel organizations. Note that U.S. assistance to Israel consists entirely of military supplies, so J Street will be seeking to deprive the Jewish State of the weapons that it needs to defend itself against invading armies and deadly terrorists. And, as we know all too well, Israel resides in a neighborhood filled with aggressive dictators and brutal terrorists.

Jewish community relations councils, other umbrella organizations, and Hillels will now need to think twice about whether to cooperate, on any level, with the national organization, J Street U or local J Street chapters. “Big tent” diversity is an important principle in Jewish communal life; but aren’t the lives of Israeli women and children even more important? 

Moshe Phillips, National Director, Herut North America (U.S. Division) - The Jabotinsky Movement