Opinion | Opinion

Op-Ed: On Martin Luther King Day, Jews must acknowledge their privilege

Demonstrators in Miami, fla., protesting the failure of grand juries to indict the police officers responsible for the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Demonstrators in Miami, Fla., protesting the failure of grand juries to indict the police officers responsible for the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

NEW YORK (JTA) — The events of the last few weeks have shaken me to the core. Beyond the devastation I felt over the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, I was heartbroken to learn that the police officers involved would not stand trial. “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” and “I can’t breathe” have become harrowing reverberations of a broken justice system.
In the past, my privilege has shielded me. I have not (and likely will never) personally experience this level of violence and injustice. But as these events have played out on the national stage, I have been truly rattled by the brokenness of the society I once trusted. And my shock is a result of my privilege; too many of these outrageous injustices were painfully normal. I feel a mixture of horror, sadness and betrayal that I am struggling to reconcile.

The new year marks a transition, a moment to start fresh. Like many of us, I’m sure, I would like 2015 to wipe the slate clean. But it will take much more than a new year to bring about progress.

During the Jewish New Year, we are taught that before praying for a new beginning, we must request forgiveness from those whom we have hurt. Our sins cannot be absolved, and we cannot begin anew, until we make amends.

So as 2015 begins and I confront my role within an institutionally racist society, the call of the Jewish New Year echoes. Have I acknowledged my own privilege? Am I complicit in a system of inequality? Have I been ignorant or held unfair biases? From whom can I request forgiveness?

I shop at a grocery store near my house that carries an abundance of fresh produce. My children live in a predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood and will receive an education that will prepare them for college and lifelong success. I have never been stopped by police nor suspected of a crime based on the color of my skin. The name on my resume has not disqualified me from a job.

Have I sinned knowing that I have not helped extend these privileges to others the means that I have?

It’s uncomfortable, but I must own my privilege like I must own my transgressions. And yet there isn’t one particular person to whom I can apologize for my sins of complicity in racial oppression. Instead, my words, my thoughts and in particular my actions will offer a form of repentance. Perhaps I can earn my forgiveness by helping to bring about change.

If this year is going to be different, it will require collective reflection and action. Our world is broken and we cannot stand idly by and wait for things to fix themselves. Solutions require people, and the Jewish people need to be part of the solution.

Jews historically have been strong advocates for social action, as we ourselves have been persecuted throughout history. We now need to draw on that tradition of helping repair the world. We have to be deeply aware of racial inequality and of the daily privileges we enjoy that others cannot. We need to stop blaming the victims of racial injustice and start thinking of constructive ways to deal with institutionalized racism. We need to join the national dialogue about race and inspire others to do so as well.

Ultimately, we must act, and this coming Shabbat of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend offers the ideal moment to do so. As we honor King’s legacy, Shabbat dinner — that time of traditional communal and family discussion — provides an ideal setting to open a real dialogue about race.

On Jan. 16, our organization, Repair the World, is launching a nationwide campaign called Turn the Tables that encourages people of all religions and races to host a Shabbat dinner and begin a dialogue about racial injustice. We are providing materials on our website to facilitate the discussions and help inspire potential solutions. Through Turn the Tables, we are also urging thousands to volunteer as part of an MLK Day of Service, to act on the dialogue we begin this coming weekend.

Let us make amends for past injustices by leading the Jewish community in the ongoing search for true racial justice in America.

(Maital Friedman is the director of program evaluation at Repair the World.)