Editor’s note: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s new TV series on TLC, “Shalom in the Home,” will air Mondays at 10 p.m., beginning on April 10. On the same day, HarperCollins will publish his newest book, “Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Your Children.”
Who has suffered more, blacks or Jews?
What may sound like a ridiculous question is at the center of the decades-long sense of alienation between these two communities. Each seems intent on being the world’s biggest victim, and since two kings cannot share a single crown, they have been at loggerheads as to who has had the stuffing kicked out of them most.
You would be justified in asking why either group, blacks or Jews, would wish to claim the prize of being the world’s biggest victim. But the question of who has suffered more is not as superficial as one might otherwise believe. People perceive a nobility in suffering, such that the more one suffers, the greater one is. For Christians, it is the very fact of Jesus’ suffering – his sacrificial death at the hands of his evil tormentors – which is itself redemptive, and Christian audiences around the world were spellbound at Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” precisely because it depicted, in the most graphic detail, the full extent of Jesus’ torment.
As a rabbi with a long and close association with the black community, I have discovered that the central element in the distance between our two communities is how each seems to discount the suffering of the other. The Jewish community experienced the greatest tragedy in the history of the world, the Holocaust. The black community was inflicted with the greatest evil in the history of the United States, slavery. And yet, rather than making each side more sympathetic to the pain of the other, a strange game of suffering one-upmanship ensues.
Jews are outraged that, of all people, black leaders – like Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton – can make insensitive and sometimes downright anti-Semitic comments. “Don’t they realize,” the thinking goes, “that we Jews have faced nonstop annihilation. So how can a group who have been so hated as well, albeit far less than we Jews, dare attack us. They especially should understand.”
To which the black community responds, “Puuleeease! Don’t give us lectures on suffering. We wrote the book. And you Jews are stealing all the world’s sympathy when it’s we blacks that have been enslaved, murdered and slaughtered wherever we’ve been. And we still suffer the effects of racism today, even as you Jews have become, well, white – living in your pristine, middle-class suburbs while ongoing prejudice has confined us to the slums.”
When I was the first white morning host on WWRL, America’s oldest black radio station, arguments about who suffered more materialized between callers all the time. Listeners would say that the Holocaust was indeed terrible, but it lasted a few years while slavery went on for centuries, or that Israel faces problems but Africa’s threats are more severe.
What we must all remember is that any attempt to promote one’s own suffering and disqualify that of another is as pointless as it is immoral. For starters, how does one quantify suffering? And are we not automatically dismissive of another’s suffering the moment we say that it doesn’t much matter compared to an even greater tragedy?
Does neither community have anything glorious to offer its youth, save the notion that being part of either community labels one with the mark of Cain?
Perhaps this is why both the black and Jewish communities suffer the same malady of abandonment by the youth. The black community has today replaced great men like Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. Dubois and Martin Luther King with too many sleazy hip-hop artists, just as the Jewish youth of today seem far more keen on buying shares in Google and attending Harvard Business School than reading the Bible and attending synagogue.
Creating greater closeness between these two communities, with so much history in common, must involve acknowledging – rather than dismissing – each other’s long history of suffering, and then going beyond suffering and creating a mutual community of promise and blessing.
One great and highly influential black woman deserves credit for heroically reaching outside her own community’s interests and highlighting the suffering of another.
When Oprah Winfrey chose Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, “Night,” as the most recent selection for her book club, catapulting the haunting and mesmerizing book to the top of the best-seller lists, she did so at the risk of accusations of neglecting her own heritage. Surely, many in the black community could argue that Oprah should be accenting the long history of African-American agony rather than the annihilation of the Jews.
Which is why this grand gesture that has done so much to bring the knowledge of the Holocaust to so many millions should be roundly applauded by the Jewish community. When Steven Spielberg made “Schindler’s List,” he became a hero to Jews the world over for bringing the knowledge of the Holocaust to world consciousness. Oprah deserves the same thanks.
Jewish reciprocity is in order. I believe Jewish day schools should band together and have a great slavery memoir – and perhaps none better than the autobiography of Frederick Douglas – be made mandatory reading so that Jewish children understand just how much suffering and indignity the African-American community endured.
Not so that each community finally acknowledges the suffering of the other, but so that they substantiate the humanity of the other. Because when you begin to feel someone else’s pain, you are no longer trapped in a prison of your own victimhood.