Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson
Radio Show Transcript - June 27, 1999
Mike Feder: Hello again, this is Mike Feder
and welcome to another edition of Toward a Meaningful Life
with Simon Jacobson. Iím here in the studio with Simon
Jacobson and this eveningís topic is "Racism."
Not that we need to be reminded that racism exists,
but I just wanted to mention quickly a couple of things that
are in the newsÖ something is always in the news about this
Locally in New York City we had this atrocious
case involving a man named Abner Louima, a black man, violently
assaulted by white police, probably a case that reached the
national news, and as far as I know, international. And thereís
this one little clipping that I found in the Times the other
day, itís called "Offensive E-mail at Stanford (Unversity)."
"A two-paragraph message filled with racial slurs aimed
at black and Hispanic students turned up in 25,000 Stanford
University e-mail accounts over the Memorial Day weekend.
"The note, sent to students, professors,
and others, prompted an outcry on campus including an open
letter from the universityís president, President Gerhard
Caspar, who denounced the appalling epithets. It was the latest
in a string of such incidents on American campuses. Marjorie
Hodges Shore, co-director of the Cornell University Computer
Policy & Law Program estimates that offensive e-mail is
distributed sometimes widely once or twice a semester."
Just to bring it to a point and up-to-date, the
question is, what is the origin of racism? What could possibly
cause human beings to discriminate, oppress, enslave, even
kill people just because they have a different appearance
Simon Jacobson: Well, if I was able to
capture it in two words, I would say, the lack of self-respect
and respect of others, and in context of the two words that
I want to use it would be that "You matter."
As you were speaking, I was thinking about something
weíve talked about on many of these shows. We did a show last
week on Sexuality, and thereís a certain recurrent thread
and theme that keeps coming up in my mind, particularly after
we talked about the Littleton tragedy. You mention the white
cops and the black man; you think those white cops wouldnít
be able to do it to a white man?
Feder: Iím sure they do all the time.
Jacobson: You know, the thing is this.
When itís a black person, itís an excuse, so to speak. "Youíre
different than I am," which weíll discuss.
But if youíre able to draw a common
denominator of these insensitivities that lead to atrocious
crimes it comes down to, do you really think you matter? How
valuable do you think you are?
Feder: This is the person
Jacobson: Iím talking about
the person committing it right now. Thereís a certain erosion
of value of life, our own lives, our actions, and therefore,
immediately of the lives of others. Thereís no absolute value
to the things in our lives and, I donít want to simplify it,
but I would say that thatís what it comes down to. Because anyone
who has the respect that "you are G-dís child," about
yourself, if you really believe that, then you would believe
that as well, because G-d has many children. Therefore the other
person is G-dís child also, and youíre constantly aware of that.
I donít think a person knowing
that, and who is cognizant of it in a real wayóI donít mean
lip serviceówould be able to raise their hand to another human
being. Weíre not trying to create a community of saints, but
essentially, youíre asking a question like, when itís atrocious
and barbaric, where does that come from? And when itís not atrocious
and not barbaric, when it takes on the shape of not killing
someone or torturing them, but back-stabbing them behind their
Feder: Or just subtle insensitivity.
Jacobson: Right. So I donít
want to put it all in one bag, because obviously, crimes have
to be measured by results. If you actually hurt someone in a
physical way, or murder someone, even though at the root of
it may be from a certain insensitivity, the fact is that youíre
also expected to control yourself. If you have a bad thought
about someone, itís a far cry from actually acting on it.
So donít get me wrong, Iím not
trying to equate it, but if you go to the root of it, I think
thereís an ongoing erosion of the value of life. And life doesnít
just mean life and death. Life means even while we live it.
How important is it after all? Itís easy to trivialize acts
and get away with it.
Feder: Let me just seize
for a moment on this word "ongoing" you just used.
If you look at the history of the human race, in every place
and in every time in recorded history, itís almost as if racism,
or a kind of racism, has been the rule rather than the exception.
And it looks as if, from what youíre saying, that most people
on earth throughout history have not recognized that theyíre
G-dís children. I mean, Iím making an observationÖ
Jacobson: Itís a very good
observation and I think itís a result of a universe that functions
in a very agnostic way.
Letís talk about it in a more personal
fashion. A healthy parent will not torture or hurt his or her
own child, we can assume that (I emphasize "healthy"
parent). I donít mean an unhealthy parent, or a deranged one,
or in some other way unbalanced through alcohol or substance
abuse. A healthy parent will not hurt their own child.
Essentially the reason for it is
that itís your own child, an extension of yourself. You love
the child that much. Youíve given birth to that child. A healthy
parent will give their life for a child.
What about someone elseís child?
We donít feel the same way. Why? Because itís just not instinctive.
We have boundaries in this world that we live in, we have walls.
Walls. My home is my home. I protect those in my home and the
next home has someone else protecting the people in it. I donít
feel for them as much as I feel for my own children.
Is this logical? In many ways,
itís not, but it definitely is part of a healthy subjectivity.
Thatís why we protect our own young and will go to war to protect
our rights, but where do these boundaries come from altogether?
Why is it that a human being doesnít just have sensitivity to
all children? To all lives?
And the answer lies in the theme
that weíve discussed many times, that in essenceóand again,
I speak from a Torah perspectiveówe all come from one larger
flame, one larger reality, weíll call it G-d, and that flame
has broken into many sparks, to many components. Each of our
lives is one of those components.
When we are in our own life, in
our own world, we only see with tunnel vision. We donít feel
that we are spokes that are connected by one hub. We donít feel
that weíre complementary musical notes in a larger cosmic composition.
We have our lives.
So the boundaries of life, essentially,
are driven by a certain obfuscation, or darkness, in which we
donít really see that weíre all part of one larger natural balance.
Nature, on the other hand, does
see that. With animals, plants, even minerals, we see the mysteries
of the unbelievable complementary way they function, we see
how that sensitivity exists. I hear this from someone who has
a ranch in Montana, in what I think is the last wildernesses
in this country, and theyíre right at the end of this wilderness.
There is the spawning season for
the salmon there, which is an fascinating phenomenon and just
one example of many amazing natural phenomena. During the spawning
of the salmon, thousands of eagles are perched in these little
alcoves in the mountains, and as the salmon spawn (swim upstream)
and lay their eggósalmon, of course, are food for eaglesóthe
eagles swoop down and eat them. Interestingly, they will not
swoop down before the salmon lay their eggs and will not swoop
down after the salmon die. So they have approximately a minute
or two for this. But itís amazing: suddenly thousands and thousands
of eagles, timed perfectly (a phenomenon that has happened since
the beginning of time) will do this. For whatever reason this
occurs just like this, we see how it preserves the salmon as
a species yet serves the interests of the eagles.
This is just one of a million examples
of how nature has a built-in clock, a built-in immune system,
a built-in balanceóuntil, of course, humans come and mess it
up. But weíre talking about nature on its own.
Human beings, on the other hand,
do not feel that same sense of synchronicity. You do see it
with young children often, but children can also be cruel to
each other, particularly once they learn how to be selfish and
"Iím me and youíre you." But thereís a point where
a child still feels itís an extension of its mother.
Now, Iím not suggesting that as
adults we have to feel that way, weíve cut the umbilical cord,
but there is an inner synchronicity to human beings. Thereís
something that we gravitate to when we love another person.
I know weíre talking about racism,
which is in its most blatant way completely antithetical to
this discussion, but I think itís important to define what light
looks like, and then we can know what darkness looks like, and
understand the contrast.
Light looks like when two people
really love each other and theyíre strangers (Iím not talking
about the natural biological love of a parent to a child). Whatís
happening? Whatís happening is that despite their physical differences
and despite the boundaries between personalities, and despite
often adversarial or diverse elements of their personalities,
thereís some type of inner synchronicity. They transcend those
differences and thereís something that they recognize in each
other that they really love.
Thatís what love is about. So love
does not mean that equals love each other, or that clones love
each other. Thatís not love, thatís just a part and extension
of you. Or when a parent loves a child, thatís natural. Love
is, that even though weíre strangers, and even though one is
more emotional and one is more intellectual, whatever weaknesses
and strengths people have, thereís a deeper force or a deeper
clock thatís at work that synchronizes the two.
Thatís what true love is. In other
words, itís the dominance of spirit over matter.
Racism, on the other hand, is the
antithesis of that. The dominance of matter over spirit; that
our differences are more powerful than our similarities. That
our color, our race, our background, education (racism can be
whites to whites as well; some people feel that if theyíre educated,
theyíre elitist and they look at other whites as trashÖ)
Feder: So you want to redefine
this word, then. Most of us think of this word in terms of color,
or I donít know whatÖother characteristics that are purely physical.
But youíre talking about something even larger, right?
Jacobson: Well, when you
get to the root of it, itís larger, yes. Would you trust someone
who is a racist toward blacks, with your children?
Feder: Of course not.
Jacobson: Because you know
that if they can discriminate against one person, they can find
reasons to discriminate against another. So itís true, racism
really reflects a global discrimination. However, I wouldnít
redefine racism and overglobalize it either, for an obvious
reason, because there are people who have been subject and victimized
in a serious way and I donít want to minimize their pain and
say, hey, itís not you blacks, weíre all victims. Or itís not
you Jews, others have also been murdered and killed. Or itís
not some other group.
I donít want to be insensitive,
I think those groups who have been victimized and enslaved,
discriminated against, that must be seen and recognized and
seen as very unique. But if you ask me to analyze it on a more
philosophical level, I would say to you those who are the abusers
and the oppressors found "black" as an excuse, but
essentially, itís an insensitivity to human beings.
But they wonít say that. Theyíll
say, no, itís only blacks. The Germans would say itís the Jews.
The Nazis would say, itís only the Jews, gypsies, the mentally
retarded and the blacks.
But give me a break. If someone
really has respect for another human beingÖ
Now, thereís nothing wrong to have
pride in your own nationality and heritage: Englishman, Germans,
the French, the Jews, the blacks. Every one of them has a heritage.
And thereís a certain virtue to being subjective about your
own heritage. Iím proud of my ancestry; itís not your ancestry.
The problem is, of course, when
it spills over and it gets to a point of excess where it no
longer is being proud of your ancestry, but turns into a lack
of respect for others.
I should add one more thing. Any
racist is insecure. I invite any listener to challenge that
but I submit thatÖ
Feder: I donít think anyone
would argue with that too muchÖ
Jacobson: No, some may say
that it comes out of a sense of superiority. Do you know why
itís insecurity? Because when youíre strong and confident with
who you are, you have no reason to knock another person. I say
that, in most cases, diminishing another makes you bigger, or
makes you perceive yourself as greater.
Feder: Like bullies, right?
Theyíre small on the inside so they have to be big on the outside,
Feder: Let me pick up on
something you said before. I donít mean this to be just merely
intellectual or philosophical as an argument, but if you had
pride in your heritage, isnít that part and parcel of the same
type of separation that could lead to exactly the very thing
that you donít want? Do you see what Iím driving at?
Feder: Arenít they the same
thing in a way? How about being proud to be a human, and leave
it at that?
Jacobson: Well, if we werenít
created as diverse creatures, youíd be right. If our differences
would be superficial and our sameness would be the only force
in our lives, then eliminate the superficiality. But our diversity
also happens to be healthy.
Allow me to give you an example.
The human body. The human anatomy is a perfect example; the
Bible says, "From my flesh I behold G-d," so letís
use our own flesh as an example.
Letís say thereís an organ (human
organ) convention. All the organs get together and they say,
"To truly experience bonding and experience each other,
let us all become the heart for one week. Next week weíll all
become the mind. The next week weíll all become the arms, the
next week the legs, the next week the liver, the next week the
glands, the lungs, and on and on.
What will happen? Not only wonít
you have unity, but youíll have destruction. Because the beauty
of a healthy human body is, and this is the key, unity is not
sameness. Unity is harmony within diversity. Thatís the power
of your body: harmony within diversity, where you have diverse
elements, forces, billions of different cells. If you dissected
a human body, G-d forbid, you would see different systems that
are so contrary to each other - the circulatory system, the
nervous system, the pulmonary system - where each works with
different rules and different functions and yet they come together
in one beautiful harmonious whole in a healthy body, and they
complement each other.
Diversity in itself is not what
causes conflict, itís when thereís no coordinating voice saying,
"You all work together."
Take a project, for example. Any
successful project requires diverse forces. Take a film: you
need a producer, a director, actors, choreographers, screenwriters,
music, art designers. Do you know when most projects fall apart?
When jealousy takes over. When one person doesnít know his or
her role, and they begin to intrude on someone elseís boundaries
and it becomes a mess.
When people are very secure and
very confident in their particular position, and they donít
do what another person does, that, paradoxically, adds to the
unity and you have one large project.
Feder: Now, I suspect that
I know the answer to this question already, but Iíll ask it
anyhow. And so the director of the human race in this movie
that weíre making is who or what? I mean, whoís going to keep
us from squabbling like this?
Jacobson: Okay, you thought
I was going to answer G-d, right?
Jacobson: Well, I was not
going to answer G-d. Because G-d doesnít intervene, you see?
G-d can suggest a game plan and a blueprint and give us life,
but He doesnít intervene like a director can, and He doesnít
fire someone. He hires us all, but doesnít fire us. We have
I think thereís a voice inside
of you and me thatís a director. I would say itís the essence
of our souls. We essentially have diversityóyou, Mike, have
particular talents, you have particular strengths and particular
weaknesses. I have mine, every human being on this planet has
their musical note that theyíre destined to play out. But we
choose to either play that music or not to play it, and also
choose whether we will see others as complementing us in this
We can choose to be completely
selfish, narcissisticó"Itís my life, I donít really care
about anyone else. I only care about others as far as how much
I can use them for my own needs"óor we can see life with
a director inside of our souls so that when I bond with you
as a friend, Mike, and I say "Okay, letís collaborate,"
or you say, "Letís collaborate and do a radio show,"
you bring your energy and I bring my energy here.
Sometimes it conflicts and you
have your agenda and I have mine. Sometimes it synchronizes
with each other beautifully, but the key is that our intentions
and our objectives are coming from a director. Whoís the director?
I think itís a voice inside of you and a voice inside of me
that both say, "This show is important, itís good."
And it doesnít mean that itís always going to be the way you
envision it, sometimes I have no idea where itís going to head.
I had no idea we would be talking about ourselves!
And then it comes together into
something beautiful that people can benefit from, as we see
in the mail and correspondence we receive: someoneís been touched.
Some dynamic, some electricity is happening, some chemistry.
On a deeper level, itís someone
that you may love, or I may love, and you love them to the point
where diversity is not only significant, indeed, the complementary
part of it fuels the relationship; because each one bring something
to the relationship. And you know that the commitment and the
connection is deeper than our differences.
So you say, you know, this person
is good in that area; I defer there. And youíre happy to defer.
Sometimes youíre not happy. But it works out.
Feder: The basic document
that this entire country is founded on, has one of the most
important lines, and itís an international recognized line,
"All men (and Iím going to add women here) are created
Jacobson: Okay. What they
mean by "men" is all people.
Feder: All people are created
equal. This is true, right? Or not? Does this include diversity?
What do they mean by that?
Jacobson: Iím glad you brought
this up, because I was always intrigued by it.
Feder: The people who wrote
this, by the way, owned slavesÖbut thatís another story.
Jacobson: I know, thatís
the strange paradox. But Iíll say something that I want to quote
from my Rebbe, my teacher, who said something very interesting.
This statement, and I believe that when peopleís intentions
are pure and they are driven by higher goals than their own
self interest, G-d works through them.
You asked me earlier about the
director. I think the director is G-d in a way. But itís not
a G-d who intervenes. Itís a director who says "You access
me, and I will then direct."
Itís different from someone imposing.
"You access Me through your soul, through your commitments,
through your love, and then invite Me as a director and I will
I think the founding fathers, with
all their flaws with the slaves, were divinely inspired, and
Iíve heard this from my own teachers. You see it in the deep
wisdom in the constitution that is really profound, and more
importantly, they were men of weaknesses. They werenít G-dly.
They werenít even religious necessarily in a sense. Yet they
were able to produce such a powerful document. All men are created
You know what it was? I think they
understood, first of all, that the early Americans (Iím not
getting into the atrocities with the Indians) but the early
Americans came to this country for reasons of religious freedom.
They didnít come here because they were looking for gold. Most,
at least. They were searching for a place that was not suffering
the same persecution happening in Europe. And that, in a way,
affected strongly the writers of the constitution in the sense
that they understood that freedom must be guaranteed.
I mean, something needs to be said
that weíre in a country that, a few hundreds years later, has
withstood civil war, diversity, challenges, and remains the
world superpower. Donít get me wrong, there are plenty of problems
in America, but one thing is for sure: you can do what you wish
with your religious beliefs in this country. And that was not
true 500 years ago. And it wasnít true 100 years ago in most
countries. And thatís a big, big tribute to a country. At least
that it has created the environment where you can teach your
children what you want to teach themÖ There are plenty of other
challenges. But in a sense, legally, no one can arrest you for
what you believe, no one can persecute you for your religious
beliefs, and all men are created equal is a very biblical statement,
in a way. "Created." Very key word. They didnít say,
"All men are equal." Why created? They could
have said, all men are equal. It would have been more agnostic
But I believe they did it because
they wanted to explain: how do you know all men (and women)
are equal? Maybe all men and women are not equal? Maybe some
are not equal.
Feder: But theyíre created.
Jacobson: Since theyíre
created not by us but by G-d, thatís what makes them equal.
No man can determine that, because people are not man's creation.
Had it said "all men are equal," a scholar would say,
"maybe theyíre not." Maybe just like when you watch
nature shows, you see deer escaping from a lion. The weakest
deer or the one thatís ill is going to get killed. So they werenít
so equal in a way. So perhaps human beings are also that way:
survival of the fittest.
Not everyoneís fit. Thereís one
more powerful, wealthier, luckier, whatever.
But when you say "created"
you are saying "No, my friend, it has nothing to do with
human consensus and groups and votes. The higher force, G-d,
determined that weíre equal by the mere statement, the mere
fact, that we were created, born, exist. Two people walk on
this earth; both are equal because G-d put them here.
It doesnít matter if one is taller,
wealthier, more handsome, more endowed, it doesnít really matter.
Existence is a statement that you matter, as I began, and I
think thatís what the founding fathers intended. How they justified
slavery with that completely eludes me, I have no ideaÖ
Feder: Itís that same kind
of crazy compartmentalizationÖ
Jacobson: Yes, but they
wrote "all men are created equal", so they must have thought
(distortedly) that the blacks at the time were not men. They
must have thought of them as animals. That must be the way they
justified it. Iím not justifying them, donít get me wrong, Iím
not justifying slavery, but thatís perhaps why they said they
were like property. Once they freed them they measured them
as a half of a vote, a quarter of a vote, they measured them
But thatís not a justification.
It can be based on the whiteís ignorance. They thought that
anyone thatís not their color must be of a different species.
Feder: Not even human.
Jacobson: Yes. And I must
tell you a story that I have in my book, Toward a Meaningful
Feder: Can I take a break
Jacobson: Itís not sacrilegious
to take a break!
Feder: Good. Because one
of the things I was created for was to do this right at this
moment. Youíre listening to Toward a Meaningful Life with
Simon Jacobson, and Iím Mike Feder. This is WEVD 1050 AM
in New York. We are here every week from 6-7pm on Sunday evening.
Rabbi Jacobson is the director
of the Meaningful Life Center in NY out of which a lot of things
flow, and one of the main things that we talk about, thatís
a blueprint for the program is the Rabbiís book, Toward a
Meaningful Life, published by William Morrow. Virtually
every subject that we cover on this show, no matter how specific,
general, or newsworthy, is covered in this book.
Let me give you some of the ways
in which you can contact us or send us questions on the various
topics you are listening to, anything that you have to direct
towards us. The most important thing is the telephone number:
1-800-3MEANING or 1-800-363-2646. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can always write to us at: The Meaningful Life Center, 788
Eastern Parkway, Suite 303, Brooklyn, NY 11213.
Iíd like to also tell you that we
have a new website (still under construction) where you can
download transcripts of this program, and previous and future
programs. Itís www.meaningfullife.com.
You were going to tell a story,
if I havenít jogged you too far off the pathÖ
Jacobson: No, not at all.
The story is in the book Toward a Meaningful Life, when
Mayor Dinkins came to Crown Heights around the time of the racial
riots in the summer of 1991óa result of a tragic car accident
followed by a stabbing of a yeshiva student, Yankel Rosenbaumóand
Mayor Dinkins, a black mayor, came to the Lubavitcher Rebbe,
Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, in Crown Heights for a blessing.
One of the things he said to him was, he asked for a blessing
for unity among the different races or peoples: the blacks,
the Jews, the whites. And the Rebbe interestingly said, "Not
different peoples, one people under one administration, under
one G-d." Thatís what he said.
And this struck me, and I told
this story in the chapter on "love." Because what
struck me was, obviously this is coming from a religious man,
a bible expert of course, is that the Rebbe was referring to
the fact that G-d created all human beings in the divine image.
That makes them all one people. Not one person, mind you, not
all similar, weíre not clonesóthere are different races and
different colors and different backgrounds, different traditions
and different religionsóbut he wanted to emphasize not two
peoples. In a succinct way, as he often did to relay a profound
philosophy that weíre touching upon here, "Who are we?"
Racism is a direct result of a
misunderstanding of who we are, or letís put it this way: a
distorted understanding of who we are as people. Who are we
on this earth?
If we see ourselves as one large
family and in a large family, one may be an engineer, one is
a doctor, one is eccentric, and one is more intellectually oriented,
a mother or father loves all their children equally.
There may be unhealthy situations
where favoritisms exist, but in a healthy situation, I donít
think a mother with 20 childrenÖlove canít be chopped up. Itís
not like, you have only a 20th of my love and Iím
only going to give it to one child. It doesnít work that way.
You love each one in his or her
own way. If we saw the entire human race as one large family
under G-d, all men and women are created equal, that is essentially
the root of unity. Disunity, or racism, is a result of externals,
superficials. Youíre not like me. Or ultimately what went on
in WWII in the Holocaust and now in other ways with the ethnic
cleansing in Kosova. -- The term always struck me as strange,
"ethnic cleansing," it almost sounds like laundry
Feder: Itís definitely a
Jacobson: But itís essentially
genocide, to be specific, which is the most grotesque outgrowth
of the lack of understanding of a larger family that is diverse
yet unified like one large organism.
Now, this sounds somewhat utopian.
Can we really expect the human race to live up to that type
of attitude? Diversity does lead to conflict. Because whoís
going to run the show at the end of the day? Will it be the
Americans, or the original Native Americans who lived here?
Will it be the Palestinians or the Israelis? You have diverse
views that are conflicting.
So itís not easy to implement,
but I still stand by the philosophy. The question is, how do
you take a philosophy like that, where diversity is as valuable
and as sacred as unity, and how do you bring it into actualization
and governance. Governing a people where thereís a minority,
or where there are many minorities. What do you do?
How do you maintain democracy where
the majority rules? The majority can write a rule that discriminates
against a minority. So itís a very important question and I
donít think has a simple answer. But since this show is about
racism, I think what lies at the heart of racism is a flagrant
distortion of one's entire view of mankind, or as you quoted,
"All men and women are created equal," which very
much complements what it says on our currency: "In G-d
In a country, where the separation
of church and state is so sacred, I find it both amazing that
the basis of all human rights in this country are based on the
words "created equal," and "In G-d we trust,"
and "E pluribus unum."
What does it say on the back of
some of our currency?
Feder: My Latin is poor,
can you translate?
Jacobson: Well, e pluribus
unum is "the many are one." Essentially, again,
the appreciation that diversity leads to a higher unity.
Feder: So this is obviously
the ideal of America, it certainly isnít, unfortunately,
the practice throughout our history.
Jacobson: But, Iíll tell
you something. Better to have an ideal thatís pure and grow
toward it, orÖ
Feder: Or to have no ideal
Jacobson: Or a bad ideal.
Because then at least, so to speak, their sights are set. Thatís
where I want to reach. Many may not reach there, but you know
that thatís the objective. We aspire that goal.
Feder: Let me ask you this
and itís a question you brought up yourself before; itís a question
I had written down when I was thinking about the program earlier
today. You mentioned the riots, the tremendous conflict that
went on in Crown Heights between blacks and Jews out in Brooklyn.
In New York City itís a tremendous subject thatís been going
on for the last 20 or 30 years that thereís trouble between
blacks and Jews in New York City. It is even, sometimes, seen
as a national problem.
Youíve got a guy like Louis Farrakhan,
who has what he calls the Nation of Islam, whatever, Iím not
sure what that means, but he calls it the Nation of Islam, and
he and his minions are preaching hatred of the Jews. Itís not
something new, but itís fascinating to me that when you look
at one group thatís been oppressed for most of its history,
and another group thatís been oppressed for most of its history,
tearing at each otherís throats. Itís astounding. And I have
to admit, Iíve heard plenty of Jews in my time be utter racists
toward black people. So itís coming from both sides. Itís astounding.
Youíd think, of all people, that these people would get together.
I donít know if thereís a question
in there, but itís something thatís of serious concern to blacks
Jacobson: Well I remember
when my book came out, and I was on Pittsburgh radio, an all-black
station that was interested in interviewing me, and they had
call-ins. It was a very fascinating show, I liked it a lot.
And one of the call-ins said, "Okay. We hear about your
rabbis and teachers and great men, but why donít you respect,
equally, our great rabbi, brother Farrakhan?"
So I said, calmly, "Well,
what are you referring to?"
He said, "You hear all kinds
of bad statements about him from the press, from the Jews."
So I said, "Well, itís hard
to ignore a statement that Jews have been sucking the blood
of blacks for so long."
And he responded, "But what
happens if itís true?"
So I said, "Let me tell you
this. If my rabbi and my great leader made a statement that
all blacks suck the blood of the Jews, or all blacks are murderers
because one black murdered someone, I would call him on it.
Thereís no rabbi, no authority, thatís beyond accountability."
So then again he said, "But
what happens if itís true?"
So I said, "Okay, letís dissect
that statement. You know, on radio, youíre able to do this.
And the host of the show, to her credit, a black woman but she
allowed me to speak, and I said, "All Jews have sucked
the blood of the blacks for so longÖ What do you mean by all
Jews? Exactly which Jews? Like the few million Jews in the Soviet
Union that have just been released and for 60 years were unable
to travel outside of their country? Do you mean the Jews in
Israel? Do you mean the Jews in Morocco? In France? What exactly
do you mean by all Jews? Do you mean the Jews in New York? Detroit?
"So any statement Ďall Jewsí
is immediately very dubious," I said.
Feder: Just like "all"
Jacobson: Right. So I said,
"Bring me a statistic of a Jew that sucked the blood of
a black man and we can discuss it case by case. Donít give me
these blanket statements. And I would not want anyone to give
you those blanket statements. Then I added something, because
the gentleman on the radio kept saying, "Not blacks. African-Americans."
So I said, "I must tell you
that I live on a block where people are resentful when you call
them African-Americans because theyíre from the Caribbean Islands.
They want to be called blacks. Because they donít come from
Africa, not even their ancestry.
Feder: Well, I think originally
Jacobson: Okay but there
are people that donít want to be called African-Americans. Their
ancestry is from the islands in the Caribbean.
Feder: So thatís how they
prefer to identify themselves.
Jacobson: Yes. Right. You
know, where they originally came from, I donít know, exactly.
They all came from Africa?
Feder: Most of the slaves,
yes I think so.
Jacobson: Even the people
living on the islands south of the United States?
Feder: Yeah. I think so.
From my reading of history, but Iím no expert.
Jacobson: Because I have
some neighbors who said "I donít want to be called that."
And the point is that everyone has the right to be called what
they want to be called and what struck me on that show were
these blatant irrational statements that people just buy into,
because there are a few factors.
Money is a factor; people want
to make a buck and get publicity. Sometimes by inciting a group
who have been oppressed and say, "Hey, letís go get the
other group." So the intentions are very impure. Such leaders
are essentially corrupt. Theyíre exploiting situations, theyíre
exploiting anger, theyíre exploiting poverty by saying "Letís
rise up to the occasion," whatever it is.
All racism is that way. And the
same would be if a Jew would be racist toward a black, or for
that matter, to anyone elseÖ Anyone who studies Torah knows,
that although there are laws that govern and discuss many issues,
including Jews and non-Jews, and so on, the number one principle
is, that everyone was created in the divine image, G-d created
every human being on this earth, and therefore, their value
Now, Iíll just use an example of
one of the Rebbes who, when he was a little child, was walking
with his father in the garden. And he tore a leaf off a tree
and began rubbing it. His father rebuked him and said, "What
right do you have to tear a leaf off the tree? G-d put it there.
Youíre destroying life for no purpose."
Now, if thatís the attitude even
for a leaf on a tree, you can imagine the attitude of Judaism
and Torah toward a human being. No matter what race, what color,
what age, what mental status. Including someone that is in a
completely handicapped state.
There is no such thing as inferiority
and superiority in the eyes of G-d. This statement that "all
men are created equal" is completely biblical from my point
of view, completely Torah-oriented.
When anyone makes a discriminatory
statement, itís coming out of ignorance or out of just racial
slurs that a person picks up at school or at home.
Feder: So weíre talking
about an ideal that we want to aspire to, like in the Declaration
of Independence, or in the Torah. I mean, after all, there really
is no group on the earth, even to this very day, who is immune
from racism, correct? It happens everywhere, among every group,
every people, every religion all the time.
Jacobson: I want to cite
one of the ways that we identify the Messianic Age, an age of
unity. This is a verse in Isaiahís prophecy, and this is a key
Feder: Messianic, as in,
a Messiah is coming.
Jacobson: Yes. Messianic
means an age where the world will come to a greater unity, where,
as Maimonides puts it, instead of famine, discord, anger, war,
there will be unity, peace, appreciation of one another among
our diversity. Isaiah says in his prophecy: "There will
be no more destruction and evil on my holy mountain. Why? Because
the world will be filled with divine knowledge as the waters
cover the sea."
The question is asked, what does
one thing have to do with the other? There are many people who
are knowledgeable and who are destructive and warlike and angry
and jealous and so on. The key operative word here is knowledge.
Knowledge brings one to tolerance, it brings to co-existence.
Ignorance is the opposite, the antithesis. It brings one to
discord, distrust, jealousies.
Because knowledge is not just information
and facts. Knowledge is a deep understanding of life, of why
we are here, of an inner confidence that "I matter,"
that I am important, I have something to contribute to this
world, and that always brings one to a maturity that allows
one to tolerate an opposing opinion.
Youíll always see the sign of a
wise person, someone who is truly wise, a sage, because they
have the ability to remain silent in the face of an adversary,
of someone disagreeing. They may argue or not argue, depending
on the situation. Thereís a certain peace of mind, a certain
tranquility that comes with knowledge. And in the age that we
live in, itís very easy when your primary time and energy is
focused on survivalógetting my bills paidóto find scapegoats,
or get incited when things donít go right, economically or personally,
and focus of that inner knowledge is not such a primary force.
This is what directly leads to a racist attitude.
I was once delayed in an airport
flying down south somewhere, and I was sitting near a fellow,
and there were thunderstorms going on outside and so our flights
were delayed. So we just sat there. He was going to North Carolina
and I was going elsewhere and he had to make a phone call. So
he asked me if Iíd watch his suitcase while he is gone. I said
of course. And of course what I did next was I ripped him offóno,
Iím just kiddingóso he went to make his phone call but I could
see that he was very wary and he came back and he said to me,
"You know, I donít really trust you, but instinctively
thereís something that I do trust about you."
Feder: Thatís an odd statement.
I donít trust you but I do trust you.
Jacobson: Yes. Listen to
this. We began this fascinating conversation that lasted two-three
hours, waiting. It was too late to do anything but stay there.
We were going, or not goingÖ
So weíre sitting in this airport,
and airports, when youíre waiting, tend to lend themselves to
interesting conversations, because suddenly you make new friends
while youíre waiting, on the plane. Thereís a certain superficial
intimacy thatís created in such environments.
Feder: Well, youíre headed
off in another direction soon, soÖ
Jacobson: Meanwhile, youíre
both victims, youíre both stuck there. So he says to me, "You
know, I am an anti-Semite."
Feder: Just like that?!
Jacobson: Yeah. And he says,
"From birth. Education. I just dislike Jews. And itís irrational,
but thatís how it is, and youíre included." And he was
like cold-blooded about it, no passion, and he said, "Itís
just inherent. Youíre a nice guy. I can talk to you. But thereís
something that I will always hate."
We had a very interesting conversation.
I said, "But you did trust me with the suitcases,"
and he said, "Yes" Because his intellect overrode
his emotions. But he was almost like a professional anti-Semite,
like someone hired, and he described his childhood and so on.
And I said to him, "You know, I have nothing in me that
dislikes you even after you tell me youíre an anti-Semite. I
just have empathy for you. I think you are locked and I think
it spills over into areas that are far beyond me and far beyond
Jews. Iím sure that you can irrationally just dislike anybody.
Because if something so illogical can control you, then how
can you be trusted with anybody or anything? You may just suddenly
and irrationally turn against women, with some excuse: youíve
been spurned, or whatever it is."
An interesting conversation, indeed.
It was quite a few years ago.
Feder: Do you think he learned
something from this or changed at all?
Jacobson: My naïve
side likes to believe so, but my other side thinks not. You
know the story they say about the philosopher, they say it about
Maimonides, there was an argument between two philosophers whether
or not you can train an animal to act like a human. And they
trained this cat to be a waiter in a restaurant.
So here's this cat dressed in a
tuxedo with a tie carrying a tray with champagne, hors díoeuvres.
One philosopher says to the next, or to Maimonides: "See,
animals can be trained to be humans. So humans arenít that special
after all." At that point Maimonides went out to a pet
shop, bought back two mice and put them in a bag, and returned
to the restaurant.
As theyíre sitting there and this
guy is waxing eloquent about the virtues of animals and humans
being alike, the other philosopher opens the bag and the mice
start scurrying about.
The cat in his tuxedo drops the
tray, gets down on all fours, and goes chasing the mice. In
other words, given the natural inclination of a cat to eat a
mouse, all the training which was superimposed became secondary.
Feder: And the moral isÖ
Jacobson: The moral is that
there is certain ingrained racism that Iíd like to believe can
be eliminatedóyou asked me if I had an effect on himóbut sometimes
I feel that itís so deeply engrained that just throw two more
mice down and heíll go after them.
I truly believe that every person
can become educated to become less racist, but itís an effort
for some people because it requires going against the grain
of some very primitive feelings.
Feder: And this brings me
to my next question before we take a break and head into the
end of the program. When I was growing up, I was brought up
by some pretty decent people. There were a lot of people in
my family. Some of the people I didnít respect, some of them
I really like, my grandmother especially I respected, but they
referred eternally to the goyim. I mean, every Jew in
my neighborhood where I grew up, and I want to be honest about
this, because this is an experience that a lot of people out
there may have had, which is a derogatory term for anybody who
is not a Jew, but perhaps especially a Christian: the goyim.
And this was said with utter contempt by almost every Jew
of my grandmotherís age, and she was a pretty educated decent
women. And theyíre nice to everyone else, right?
And the other question I ask is,
and this goes along with too, is, we had in my family, like
a lot of people do, there was a woman who cleaned our house
when I was growing up in the fifties, who was black, and I was
once eating off a plate my mother (who is otherwise very fair-minded)
walks in the house and said, "I hope you cleaned that plate
This is how I was brought up in
my neighborhood. This is not an uncommon thing. So this leads
me to my next question and then Iíll leave it to you, and then
weíll take a break in a little while, is it possible, and I
want you to be completely honest about this, to have grown up
in the United States of America and not really be a racist?
Jacobson: Well, I donít
see a direct link to that and the experiences youíve had.
Feder: Iím saying that almost
everybody that Iíve ever met, if they were really honest, said,
"Yes. Itís in there somewhere." So how do you deal
with it. How do you root out that thing which is in your bones
in America. Hard question, you know?
Jacobson: I donít know if
Americaówhy would you pick out America more than other countries?
Feder: Just because weíre
living here, because thatís where our experiences are.
Jacobson: If anything, America
is more tolerant. America has given rights, legally, which we
voted (what people do individually is one thing) that legally
in this country, we have more tolerance for minorities than
any country that ever existed.
So I wouldnít single out America
here. I would talk about individuals. Iím just making that as
a statement. I donít say it as a patriot, I say it also as a
tribute. You have to recognize the fact that this country, with
all the flaws and all the racism that exists, even in high levels
of government, still, legally has continued to build an approach
of equalityótrying at leastósome are sincere, some are just
pandering for votes, but it doesnít matter. Legal laws definitely
state the equality of all people. Iím very impressed when I
see those legal statements at the bottom that say "Equal
Lending Act" or such things.
Feder: Equal Opportunity.
Jacobson: Clearly it's not
always lived up to, and there is corruption and shams. But there
is a legal element, and it has to ultimately have an impact,
because itís legal. And you could take it to court, and slowly
it has changed things. Newsweek just had an article about the
state of blacks in this country, a very positive article, how
things have gotten better. Iím sure many blacks will disagree.
But Newsweek published it, they
interviewed enough scholarsóIím not saying theyíre the last
wordóbut the fact that they have the chutzpah to publish
it says something.
Feder: So the laws and the
structure are here to do the right thing.
Jacobson: Right. I think
that needs to be recognized, because it creates that type of
environment. Remember there were times when such laws did not
exist. There was a time that anybody could be plucked out of
their home and be arrested and harassed. So, in a relative sense,
thereís been some progress.
Now, I want to address specifically
what you spoke about. As a Jew I want to address it.
Feder: I heard that all
Jacobson: Well, first of
all, the word goyim, in Hebrew, means nations, just for
your information. That doesnít mean that the way itís used by
many people is to just say "nations," as you said,
it was dripping with cynicism or it was derogatory. But I want
to address that. I really feel I must address that.
The word goyim itself does
mean nations, nations of the world.
Feder: Itís not the way
the people I heard said it.
Jacobson: I understand.
Iím not talking about the spirit, I just wanted to define the
word for a moment, for the record. Thatís one thing.
One of the biggest issues in my
mind is the issue of distinguishing between people and the system.
If G-d gave us a system to live by, itís critical that we do
not allow people to define that system or else it ceases to
be G-dlike, it becomes human.
And human means subject to corruption,
to all the weaknesses that people have. It also means subjective.
Iím not going to criticize your grandmother, or my grandmother,
or anyone else. Iíll just say this. All my knowledge of Judaism:
the spirit of Judaism, the law of Judaism, the letter of the
law and beyond the letter of the law, between the lines -- all
of this is about the respect for all creatures, and for all
human beings, regardless of if they are Jewish or non-Jewish.
The mere fact that G-d created every individual gives him or
her Divine affirmation, Divine value.
Itís not because you like them,
you see, thatís the key. Itís not because you like someone that
makes them good, or the fact that you dislike them that makes
them bad. Itís because G-d created them that makes them good.
Because G-d created them, they therefore have a divine purpose
for their existence.
That doesnít mean a person canít
become a criminal. I person can take that purpose and submerge
it, and behave atrociously and hurt others, and then they should
be punished and locked up, or whatever it is.
But the person themselves, the
fact that they exist, the creature, is G-dly. Thatís fundamental
in Jewish thought. So the fact that many Jews can make racist
statements like the way you describe is their thing. And I agree,
it could be a large group as well. Statistics donít change the
Feder: Oh, I think it can
change over generations.
Jacobson: I think the fact
is we live in a world where human beings are stereotyped. I
always say this. I think stereotypes are the single most invisible
enemy in human relations. Do you know why? Because stereotypes
are invisible. If you told me, Mike, like this guy told me,
"Iím an anti-Semite, I dislike you." For me, thatís
easier to deal with than a stereotype, do you know why? Because
a stereotype is invisible. You donít even know you have it.
You think that youíre right. You think that youíre objective.
Itís like this invisible wall,
and I continuously experience it, I dress a certain way, people
see me, and they immediately draw conclusions.
Feder: You have your beard,
you have your yarmulkeÖ
Jacobson: So I will often
address that very directly by saying, "You donít want to
be stereotyped, I donít want to be stereotyped." You know
why we stereotype, I think? And which is directly connected
to racism. Because itís easy to do so. We like to file things
away. "You see a person like that? Oh, he must belong on
Itís easy and itís convenient, and it also gives us a false
sense of control, because by steretyping you feel like you know
where people belong. But nobody likes to be stereotyped. Stereotyping
is very much a result of ignorance, and I would say that all
of our communities, including Jews as individuals, can be affected
and contaminated by the stereotyping of others.
Feder: Okay. Weíre going
to have to take a break here as weíre approaching the end of
the story. We want to say that weíre deeply grateful to Greta
Sarfaty-Marchant for underwriting and helping to bring this
program to you today.
We have just maybe two minutes
left. Weíve been talking about racism. In two minutes, is there
any kind of final comment youíd like to leave with people? I
think we talked before about how to deal with this, but what
can we say about such a massive illness that weíre all surrounded
Jacobson: This goes back
to a theme thatís been recurrent on our show, and thatís respecting
ourselves, respecting others. Itís important to know that you
matter, that everything you do matters, that your life is not
just some circumstantial blip or circumstantial accident, it
is driven by a higher purpose. Racism, all forms of it, especially
when it takes on discriminatory nature, is a crime against G-d
and a crime against YOURSELF. Itís a crime against your own
soul. Because in a way, if weíre all brothers and sisters, and
weíre all part of a larger family, if you write off your brother,
do you think youíre not affected by that?
Feder: So we are our brotherís
Jacobson: And they are ours.
Our brothers are our keepers. But keeper meaning, in a sense,
in the certain responsibility and sensitivity to each other,
and this requires a constant awareness and consciousness that
comes down to simply being a kinder, gentler person, more generous,
and paying attention to things that we take for granted. Stereotypes
and racism often is just a habit, it becomes a vicious cycle
by habit. So itís important to stop ourselves and just say,
"Hey, where am I going with my life? Isnít there something
greater, something more beautiful, more sensitive to this world
than just my own foolish stereotypes?"
Feder: Thank you.