I am Jewish, of European ancestry; my wife is black, with Chinese and Native American ancestry included. What shall we tell our son this Passover, when we retell the tale of how his Jewish ancestors were freed from slavery in Africa?
Shall we trade accusations against each other? The statement reputed to have been made at a fraternity event, that some Jews in the entertainment industry exploited and profited from black performers, is probably true. It is also true that Jewish union leaders, lawyers and agents in the entertainment industry have fought for better wages and working conditions for blacks and others in the industry. Many Jews played crucial roles in the struggle for civil rights, and undoubtedly there were some on the other side as well. We can go back farther to trade accusations. Were there Jews who owned slaves and were involved in the slave trade? Probably so; and yet there were also Jews fighting for abolition. Does it matter whether those on one side outnumbered those on the other?
To be honest, I must tell my son that his African ancestors were on both sides as well. How else did Africans become African Americans? Did a few Europeans (perhaps including some Jews) march into Africa and march out with tens of millions of slaves? Actually, it was their African "brothers" who sent them into slavery. Whether it was for small reasons like personal squabbles, or large reasons like tribal warfare, it was primarily Africans who sent other Africans into slavery, just as Joseph was sold into slavery in Africa by his own brothers.
So is the point of the Passover story that the Hebrews were the "good guys" being held in slavery by "evil" Africans? Emphatically not. And neither should the point of the current discussion be to lay blame on anyone.
What I will tell my son is how his ancestors woke up to their oppression in Africa, and joined together to claim their freedom. I will also have him dip 10 times from his cup to diminish his joy of celebration by the Ten Plagues suffered by the Africans to allow us to be free. I will tell him of his African ancestors dragged in chains to this country; how a violent war was fought to end the slavery, and a nonviolent struggle fought to gain some of the civil rights he now enjoys. And again, I will have him dip from his cup to diminish his joy by the suffering that was the cost of those advances.
Why was I commanded to tell the story of Passover to my children? I do not believe it is to exchange blame, as I see being done today. No. I believe it is to remember that his ancestors, on both sides, suffered from oppression, and must oppose oppression whenever they see it again. It is my duty, which I must pass on to him, to stand up against such oppression today, whether against my own people or others.
I will tell my son of one of my own heroes. Not Moses or Jesus or the Rev.Martin Luther King Jr., but someone very few people ever heard of: Sigismund Danielewicz.
Danielewicz was a Jewish barber from Poland who became one of the most prominent leaders and organizers of California Labor in the 1880s. His downfall came at the convention called in 1885, which was the forerunner to the current California Federation of Labor. The main issue on the table was a resolution to drive the Chinese from the state within 60 days, by force if necessary. Danielewicz alone spoke out against the resolution. He pointed out that he was a member of a race still persecuted, and challenged each group there to say whether the persecution of the Chinese was more justifiable than the persecution they had suffered themselves. His call for unity among labor was jeered, and he was declared out of order. The resolution passed, and was the justification for a virtual pogrom of deadly violence against the Chinese in the months that followed.
Danielewicz sank into obscurity. He was last seen homeless and on foot toward the East Coast in 1910. Why then do I idolize a man who was driven from the podium and doomed to obscurity? Because he had the chutzpah to stand up against oppression, no matter what the cost, simply because it was the right thing to do.
This is what I will tell my son on Passover: It does not matter what color your skin is, nor even what faith you profess to hold. What matters is what you do; which side you choose to be on. The question we must face is not who is to blame for injustice and oppression of the past, but what can we do to fight injustice and oppression now. We should not exercise moderation in this regard, as some have suggested. We must be forceful and as persistent as our ancestors who fought oppression were. We cannot change the past, but we must remember it. We must look up from our own oppression to the light of freedom. We must not look away from the oppression of others, but confront it directly. We must be brave enough to stand up against the tide as Danielewicz did and cry out against oppression, no matter what others say about us.
Even if we do not see the Promised Land ourselves, as with Moses, and even if our words seem to fall on deaf ears, as with Danielewicz, our words and deeds are not lost. The words of my real Jewish barber hero were heard again in Charlie Chaplin's fictional Jewish barber, with which I conclude my Passover story:
"Let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. The soul of man has been given wings and at last he is beginning to fly."
An L.A. native, J. David Sackman tries to reconcile the two Jewish traditions in his family (Orthodox and Anarchist) through his job as an attorney for workers, unions and union trust funds, enforcing the commandment of Deuteronomy 24:14-15. He belongs to Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica, with his wife and youngest son (to whom this piece is addressed).
This essay originally appeared as a reader comment on The God Blog by Brad A. Greenberg.
Rob Eshman's column will return next week