Among Jewish conservatives, rage and violence triggered by the murder of George Floyd has been met with negative comparisons between the edifying post-Holocaust resilience of Jews and the violent reaction of American blacks to smaller contemporary abuses. This comparison is instructive since it sheds light on how ignorant many people are regarding both the black American experience and the Jewish experience.
It is true that the persecutions and genocidal murder Diaspora Jews experienced were cumulatively and even individually much more painful than the historical harm inflicted on black Americans. Nevertheless, Jewish history compared with Black history proves that psychological pain can be ultimately more destructive than physical pain.
Religious Ashkenazi Jews in shtetls as well as Sephardi "dhimmi" Jews in Muslim lands who were repeatedly harassed and beaten rarely internalized the degradation these humiliations were meant to inflict. This was possible because Jewish scriptures reassured them that as religious Jews they were closer to the King of Kings than any aristocrat lording over them. Utmost faith in Jewish election gave meaning to trials and tribulations that would have wrecked the spirit of any other nation.
This self-defense mechanism became apparent to me thanks to an exchange I recently had with an upper-caste Indian student in Poland. Given his dark skin, this student is routinely exposed to Polish xenophobia. Upon asking this student whether in such situations his aristocratic Hindu status gives him strength, he described how when one night a drunkard verbally abused him on a bus, and a Polish woman rushed to apologize to him, he told her “I'm a Brahmin, these beef eaters are untouchable for me, he can't discriminate against me.”
Aren’t these words very similar in spirit to those a religious Jew might - and many did - utter under analogous circumstances?
It is important to notice how fragile this Jewish self-worth is in the absence of faith in Jewish chosenness. The assimilated European Jews who abandoned religious observance rapidly internalized the prejudices of their Gentile neighbors. This partly explains why throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Western European Jews were notorious for looking down on their Eastern European brethren. The reason the secularized Jews were not crushed by the Gentile antisemitism they had internalized was the fact that under many circumstances they could dress, speak and live like their Christian neighbors and pass as non-Jews.
If these secular Jews had been degraded to the extent of their religious coreligionists in Eastern Europe, they probably would have eventually cracked. Completely secular Jews subject to the discrimination and abuse to which black Americans have been subject for centuries would in all probability succumbed to self-destructive behavior similar to that of the black community today. This hypothesis is corroborated by memoirs of Holocaust survivors reporting how assimilated Jews were, they wrote, more likely to yield to
The deep reason Jewish self-worth was not broken by two millennia of exile was not just Torah study, Talmudic ethics, Jewish family life and community bonds, crucial though they were,but the psychological meaning and value the Jewish religion provided to the Jewish condition. Without faith in their unique mission, Jews would have given up. The millions of Jews who opted for assimilation once they lost faith in the mission of their people show that Jewish survival hinges on this faith.
Black Americans are the descendants of people who during centuries were enslaved, segregated and discriminated against and to top it all lacked an ethos, like the Torah, that ennobled them and made them able to overcome their degraded condition. Under these circumstances, the fact black America internalized a low self-worth resulting in sustained socioeconomic underperformance for many is to a great extent understandable.
Conservatives who posit that this underperformance mirrors black failures ignore the fact that culture is not just an expression of individual willpower. Culture is shaped by the lives and experiences of past generations. (An exception to this is the black family, which was strong until several decades ago and whose disintegration, possibly reversible, is mirrored by the rise in black crime.) Under America’s historical circumstances, to blame African-Americans for lacking Jewish resilience is akin to blaming European Jews of having gone like sheep to the slaughterhouse during the Holocaust.
Understanding this reality is crucial not only for Jewish conservatives to show empathy for the situation of black America, but also for Diaspora Jews to appreciate Jewish religious beliefs. Without faith in Jewish chosenness, Diaspora Jewry would have succumbed long ago to the low self-esteem and self-degradation scarring American inner-cities. The black American experience therefore reminds Jews that self-worth must never depend on the opinion of outsiders, but rather on one’s intimacy with God.
Rafael Castro is a Noahide, and a Yale and Hebrew University educated business and political analyst based in Europe. Rafael specializes in proofreading, editing and ghostwriting quality texts for entrepreneurs and politicians. Rafael can be reached at email@example.com