Reflections from the Last Century on Racism and Jewish Responsibility

As the lawless killing of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer has seized America’s attention, it is worth turning to a sermon given in 1966 by Rabbi Norman Lamm, who died on May 31 and was one of the outstanding American Orthodox thinkers of our time. When Lamm delivered this homily, barely over a year has elapsed since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and less than two years would go by before Martin Luther King’s assassination. He began by contrasting Abraham’s famous reply to God’s call—“Here I am!”—with Adam’s attempt to hide himself from God in the Garden of Eden, before moving on to questions of conscience and responsibility, and then to topical issues:

We Jews, as Jews, are not responsible for the conditions of Negroes in the United States. Our grandfathers were not slaveholders who devised this cruel and inhuman system. When the Negroes were being emancipated in the 1860s, we too were being emancipated in the ghettos of Europe. . . . Nevertheless, we have participated in a growing economy which has to a large extent thrived on the exploitation of minorities, and we have shared deeply held prejudices about them. . . . The question is, what shall we do about it?

Not to feel any guilt, any troubling of the conscience, is a sign of our own moral failure. . . . Yet, to go overboard and to dedicate our whole life to civil rights, to make of it an ersatz religion to replace Judaism, to concentrate only on the rights of others while ignoring the preservation of our own community here and overseas—is to lose perspective and to reveal an inner moral weakness while we try to strengthen ourselves morally in some other direction. But in between these two extremes there are two ways, one which is right and one which is wrong.

The pattern of Adam is to hide and to shift the blame—to Black Power bigots, to the hoodlums who riot in Watts, to Negro anti-Semitism. We conveniently ignore the fact that in whole sections of our country there are whites who hold power and yet we have tolerated it; that hoodlums come in all colors; and that while Negro anti-Semitism is terribly troubling, we have had some degree of experience with white anti-Semitism—six million killed in our own times alone. And thus, like Adam, we suppress our bad conscience and we become part of that insidious “backlash” movement.

But the pattern of Abraham is not that at all. The people of Israel do not participate in backlash or frontlash or sidelash. The descendants of Abraham do not lash at all! Rather, they attempt to respond constructively and creatively and sympathetically. Within this framework of putting the bad conscience to good use there may be several techniques about which well-intentioned people may disagree. But they will not allow side issues to becloud their main goal of finding a clear and moral way out of our country’s painful racial dilemma. Whether in our response to Torah, to ts’dakah [acts of charity], or to great national issues like civil rights and peace, we must learn to make constructive use of a troubled conscience.

The complete typescript of the sermon can be found at the link below; another, related sermon by Rabbi Lamm can be found here; and an overarching analysis of Lamm’s attitudes toward racism here.

Read more at Yeshiva University Archives

More about: Abraham, Adam and Eve, Civil rights movement, Judaism, Racism, U.S. Politics


When It Comes to Peace with Israel, Many Saudis Have Religious Concerns

Sept. 22 2023

While roughly a third of Saudis are willing to cooperate with the Jewish state in matters of technology and commerce, far fewer are willing to allow Israeli teams to compete within the kingdom—let alone support diplomatic normalization. These are just a few results of a recent, detailed, and professional opinion survey—a rarity in Saudi Arabia—that has much bearing on current negotiations involving Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh. David Pollock notes some others:

When asked about possible factors “in considering whether or not Saudi Arabia should establish official relations with Israel,” the Saudi public opts first for an Islamic—rather than a specifically Saudi—agenda: almost half (46 percent) say it would be “important” to obtain “new Israeli guarantees of Muslim rights at al-Aqsa Mosque and al-Haram al-Sharif [i.e., the Temple Mount] in Jerusalem.” Prioritizing this issue is significantly more popular than any other option offered. . . .

This popular focus on religion is in line with responses to other controversial questions in the survey. Exactly the same percentage, for example, feel “strongly” that “our country should cut off all relations with any other country where anybody hurts the Quran.”

By comparison, Palestinian aspirations come in second place in Saudi popular perceptions of a deal with Israel. Thirty-six percent of the Saudi public say it would be “important” to obtain “new steps toward political rights and better economic opportunities for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” Far behind these drivers in popular attitudes, surprisingly, are hypothetical American contributions to a Saudi-Israel deal—even though these have reportedly been under heavy discussion at the official level in recent months.

Therefore, based on this analysis of these new survey findings, all three governments involved in a possible trilateral U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal would be well advised to pay at least as much attention to its religious dimension as to its political, security, and economic ones.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Islam, Israel-Arab relations, Saudi Arabia, Temple Mount