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. I’m here in the studio with Simon Jacobson and this evening’s 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 news… something is always in the news about this subject.
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 there’s this one little clipping that I found in the Times the other day, it’s 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 university’s 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 or color?
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 we’ve talked about on many of these shows. We did a show last week on Sexuality, and there’s 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 wouldn’t be able to do it to a white man?
Feder: I’m sure they do all the time.
Jacobson: You know, the thing is this. When it’s a black person, it’s an excuse, so to speak. “You’re different than I am,” which we’ll discuss.
But if you’re 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 committing it?
Jacobson: I’m talking about the person committing it right now. There’s a certain erosion of value of life, our own lives, our actions, and therefore, immediately of the lives of others. There’s no absolute value to the things in our lives and, I don’t want to simplify it, but I would say that that’s what it comes down to. Because anyone who has the respect that “you are G-d’s 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-d’s child also, and you’re constantly aware of that.
I don’t think a person knowing that, and who is cognizant of it in a real way—I don’t mean lip service—would be able to raise their hand to another human being. We’re not trying to create a community of saints, but essentially, you’re asking a question like, when it’s atrocious and barbaric, where does that come from? And when it’s not atrocious and not barbaric, when it takes on the shape of not killing someone or torturing them, but back-stabbing them behind their back?
Feder: Or just subtle insensitivity.
Jacobson: Right. So I don’t 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 you’re also expected to control yourself. If you have a bad thought about someone, it’s a far cry from actually acting on it.
So don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to equate it, but if you go to the root of it, I think there’s an ongoing erosion of the value of life. And life doesn’t just mean life and death. Life means even while we live it. How important is it after all? It’s 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, it’s almost as if racism, or a kind of racism, has been the rule rather than the exception. And it looks as if, from what you’re saying, that most people on earth throughout history have not recognized that they’re G-d’s children. I mean, I’m making an observation…
Jacobson: It’s a very good observation and I think it’s a result of a universe that functions in a very agnostic way.
Let’s 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 don’t 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 it’s your own child, an extension of yourself. You love the child that much. You’ve given birth to that child. A healthy parent will give their life for a child.
What about someone else’s child? We don’t feel the same way. Why? Because it’s 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 don’t feel for them as much as I feel for my own children.
Is this logical? In many ways, it’s not, but it definitely is part of a healthy subjectivity. That’s 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 doesn’t just have sensitivity to all children? To all lives?
And the answer lies in the theme that we’ve discussed many times, that in essence—and again, I speak from a Torah perspective—we all come from one larger flame, one larger reality, we’ll 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 don’t feel that we are spokes that are connected by one hub. We don’t feel that we’re 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 don’t really see that we’re 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 they’re 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 egg—salmon, of course, are food for eagles—the 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 it’s 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 balance—until, of course, humans come and mess it up. But we’re 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 “I’m me and you’re you.” But there’s a point where a child still feels it’s an extension of its mother.
Now, I’m not suggesting that as adults we have to feel that way, we’ve cut the umbilical cord, but there is an inner synchronicity to human beings. There’s something that we gravitate to when we love another person.
I know we’re talking about racism, which is in its most blatant way completely antithetical to this discussion, but I think it’s 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 they’re strangers (I’m not talking about the natural biological love of a parent to a child). What’s happening? What’s happening is that despite their physical differences and despite the boundaries between personalities, and despite often adversarial or diverse elements of their personalities, there’s some type of inner synchronicity. They transcend those differences and there’s something that they recognize in each other that they really love.
That’s what love is about. So love does not mean that equals love each other, or that clones love each other. That’s not love, that’s just a part and extension of you. Or when a parent loves a child, that’s natural. Love is, that even though we’re strangers, and even though one is more emotional and one is more intellectual, whatever weaknesses and strengths people have, there’s a deeper force or a deeper clock that’s at work that synchronizes the two.
That’s what true love is. In other words, it’s 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 they’re educated, they’re elitist and they look at other whites as trash…)
Feder: So you want to redefine this word, then. Most of us think of this word in terms of color, or I don’t know what…other characteristics that are purely physical. But you’re talking about something even larger, right?
Jacobson: Well, when you get to the root of it, it’s 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 it’s true, racism really reflects a global discrimination. However, I wouldn’t 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 don’t want to minimize their pain and say, hey, it’s not you blacks, we’re all victims. Or it’s not you Jews, others have also been murdered and killed. Or it’s not some other group.
I don’t 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, it’s an insensitivity to human beings.
But they won’t say that. They’ll say, no, it’s only blacks. The Germans would say it’s the Jews. The Nazis would say, it’s only the Jews, gypsies, the mentally retarded and the blacks.
But give me a break. If someone really has respect for another human being…
Now, there’s 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 there’s a certain virtue to being subjective about your own heritage. I’m proud of my ancestry; it’s 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 that…
Feder: I don’t think anyone would argue with that too much…
Jacobson: No, some may say that it comes out of a sense of superiority. Do you know why it’s insecurity? Because when you’re 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? They’re small on the inside so they have to be big on the outside, right?
Feder: Let me pick up on something you said before. I don’t mean this to be just merely intellectual or philosophical as an argument, but if you had pride in your heritage, isn’t that part and parcel of the same type of separation that could lead to exactly the very thing that you don’t want? Do you see what I’m driving at?
Feder: Aren’t they the same thing in a way? How about being proud to be a human, and leave it at that?
Jacobson: Well, if we weren’t created as diverse creatures, you’d 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 let’s use our own flesh as an example.
Let’s say there’s 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 we’ll all become the mind. The next week we’ll 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 won’t you have unity, but you’ll 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. That’s 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, it’s when there’s 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 doesn’t know his or her role, and they begin to intrude on someone else’s boundaries and it becomes a mess.
When people are very secure and very confident in their particular position, and they don’t 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 I’ll ask it anyhow. And so the director of the human race in this movie that we’re making is who or what? I mean, who’s 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 doesn’t intervene, you see? G-d can suggest a game plan and a blueprint and give us life, but He doesn’t intervene like a director can, and He doesn’t fire someone. He hires us all, but doesn’t fire us. We have that choice.
I think there’s a voice inside of you and me that’s a director. I would say it’s the essence of our souls. We essentially have diversity—you, 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 they’re 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 beautiful music.
We can choose to be completely selfish, narcissistic—”It’s my life, I don’t really care about anyone else. I only care about others as far as how much I can use them for my own needs”—or 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, let’s collaborate,” or you say, “Let’s 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. Who’s the director? I think it’s a voice inside of you and a voice inside of me that both say, “This show is important, it’s good.” And it doesn’t mean that it’s always going to be the way you envision it, sometimes I have no idea where it’s 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: someone’s been touched. Some dynamic, some electricity is happening, some chemistry.
On a deeper level, it’s 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 you’re happy to defer. Sometimes you’re 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 it’s an international recognized line, “All men (and I’m going to add women here) are created equal.”
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: I’m glad you brought this up, because I was always intrigued by it.
Feder: The people who wrote this, by the way, owned slaves…but that’s another story.
Jacobson: I know, that’s the strange paradox. But I’ll say something that I want to quote from my Rebbe, my teacher, who said something very interesting. This statement, and I believe that when people’s 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 it’s not a G-d who intervenes. It’s a director who says “You access me, and I will then direct.”
It’s 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 direct.”
I think the founding fathers, with all their flaws with the slaves, were divinely inspired, and I’ve 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 weren’t G-dly. They weren’t even religious necessarily in a sense. Yet they were able to produce such a powerful document. All men are created equal.
You know what it was? I think they understood, first of all, that the early Americans (I’m not getting into the atrocities with the Indians) but the early Americans came to this country for reasons of religious freedom. They didn’t 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 we’re in a country that, a few hundreds years later, has withstood civil war, diversity, challenges, and remains the world superpower. Don’t 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 wasn’t true 100 years ago in most countries. And that’s 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 them… 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 didn’t say, “All men are equal.” Why created? They could have said, all men are equal. It would have been more agnostic sounding.
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 they’re created.
Jacobson: Since they’re created not by us but by G-d, that’s 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 they’re not.” Maybe just like when you watch nature shows, you see deer escaping from a lion. The weakest deer or the one that’s ill is going to get killed. So they weren’t so equal in a way. So perhaps human beings are also that way: survival of the fittest.
Not everyone’s fit. There’s 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 we’re 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 doesn’t matter if one is taller, wealthier, more handsome, more endowed, it doesn’t really matter. Existence is a statement that you matter, as I began, and I think that’s what the founding fathers intended. How they justified slavery with that completely eludes me, I have no idea…
Feder: It’s that same kind of crazy compartmentalization…
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. I’m not justifying them, don’t get me wrong, I’m not justifying slavery, but that’s 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 differently.
But that’s not a justification. It can be based on the white’s ignorance. They thought that anyone that’s 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 Life…
Feder: Can I take a break first?
Jacobson: It’s 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. You’re listening to Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson, and I’m 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, that’s a blueprint for the program is the Rabbi’s 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 email@example.com. You can always write to us at: The Meaningful Life Center, 788 Eastern Parkway, Suite 303, Brooklyn, NY 11213.
I’d 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. It’s www.meaningfullife.com.
You were going to tell a story, if I haven’t jogged you too far off the path…
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 1991—a result of a tragic car accident followed by a stabbing of a yeshiva student, Yankel Rosenbaum—and 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.” That’s 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, we’re not clones—there are different races and different colors and different backgrounds, different traditions and different religions—but he wanted to emphasize not two peoples. In a succinct way, as he often did to relay a profound philosophy that we’re touching upon here, “Who are we?”
Racism is a direct result of a misunderstanding of who we are, or let’s 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 don’t think a mother with 20 children…love can’t be chopped up. It’s not like, you have only a 20th of my love and I’m only going to give it to one child. It doesn’t 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. You’re 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 detergent…
Feder: It’s definitely a weird term…
Jacobson: But it’s 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 who’s 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 it’s 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 there’s 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 it’s a very important question and I don’t 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 we trust.”
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 isn’t, unfortunately, the practice throughout our history.
Jacobson: But, I’ll tell you something. Better to have an ideal that’s pure and grow toward it, or…
Feder: Or to have no ideal at all.
Jacobson: Or a bad ideal. Because then at least, so to speak, their sights are set. That’s where I want to reach. Many may not reach there, but you know that that’s the objective. We aspire that goal.
Feder: Let me ask you this and it’s a question you brought up yourself before; it’s 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 it’s a tremendous subject that’s been going on for the last 20 or 30 years that there’s trouble between blacks and Jews in New York City. It is even, sometimes, seen as a national problem.
You’ve got a guy like Louis Farrakhan, who has what he calls the Nation of Islam, whatever, I’m not sure what that means, but he calls it the Nation of Islam, and he and his minions are preaching hatred of the Jews. It’s not something new, but it’s fascinating to me that when you look at one group that’s been oppressed for most of its history, and another group that’s been oppressed for most of its history, tearing at each other’s throats. It’s astounding. And I have to admit, I’ve heard plenty of Jews in my time be utter racists toward black people. So it’s coming from both sides. It’s astounding. You’d think, of all people, that these people would get together.
I don’t know if there’s a question in there, but it’s something that’s of serious concern to blacks and Jews.
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 don’t 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, it’s hard to ignore a statement that Jews have been sucking the blood of blacks for so long.”
And he responded, “But what happens if it’s 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. There’s no rabbi, no authority, that’s beyond accountability.”
So then again he said, “But what happens if it’s true?”
So I said, “Okay, let’s dissect that statement. You know, on radio, you’re 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 long… 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 ‘all Jews’ is immediately very dubious,” I said.
Feder: Just like “all” anybody.
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. Don’t 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 they’re from the Caribbean Islands. They want to be called blacks. Because they don’t come from Africa, not even their ancestry.
Feder: Well, I think originally perhaps.
Jacobson: Okay but there are people that don’t want to be called African-Americans. Their ancestry is from the islands in the Caribbean.
Feder: So that’s how they prefer to identify themselves.
Jacobson: Yes. Right. You know, where they originally came from, I don’t 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 I’m no expert.
Jacobson: Because I have some neighbors who said “I don’t 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, let’s go get the other group.” So the intentions are very impure. Such leaders are essentially corrupt. They’re exploiting situations, they’re exploiting anger, they’re exploiting poverty by saying “Let’s 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 else… 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 is Divine.
Now, I’ll 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. You’re destroying life for no purpose.”
Now, if that’s 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, it’s coming out of ignorance or out of just racial slurs that a person picks up at school or at home.
Feder: So we’re 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 Isaiah’s prophecy, and this is a key point.
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.
You’ll 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. There’s a certain peace of mind, a certain tranquility that comes with knowledge. And in the age that we live in, it’s very easy when your primary time and energy is focused on survival—getting my bills paid—to find scapegoats, or get incited when things don’t 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 I’d watch his suitcase while he is gone. I said of course. And of course what I did next was I ripped him off—no, I’m just kidding—so 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 don’t really trust you, but instinctively there’s something that I do trust about you.”
Feder: That’s an odd statement. I don’t 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 going…
So we’re sitting in this airport, and airports, when you’re waiting, tend to lend themselves to interesting conversations, because suddenly you make new friends while you’re waiting, on the plane. There’s a certain superficial intimacy that’s created in such environments.
Feder: Well, you’re headed off in another direction soon, so…
Jacobson: Meanwhile, you’re both victims, you’re 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 it’s irrational, but that’s how it is, and you’re included.” And he was like cold-blooded about it, no passion, and he said, “It’s just inherent. You’re a nice guy. I can talk to you. But there’s 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 you’re 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. I’m 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: you’ve 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 d’oeuvres. One philosopher says to the next, or to Maimonides: “See, animals can be trained to be humans. So humans aren’t 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 they’re 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 is…
Jacobson: The moral is that there is certain ingrained racism that I’d like to believe can be eliminated—you asked me if I had an effect on him—but sometimes I feel that it’s so deeply engrained that just throw two more mice down and he’ll go after them.
I truly believe that every person can become educated to become less racist, but it’s 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 didn’t 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 grandmother’s age, and she was a pretty educated decent women. And they’re 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 first.”
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 I’ll leave it to you, and then we’ll 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 don’t see a direct link to that and the experiences you’ve had.
Feder: I’m saying that almost everybody that I’ve ever met, if they were really honest, said, “Yes. It’s 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 don’t know if America—why would you pick out America more than other countries?
Feder: Just because we’re living here, because that’s 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 wouldn’t single out America here. I would talk about individuals. I’m just making that as a statement. I don’t 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 equality—trying at least—some are sincere, some are just pandering for votes, but it doesn’t matter. Legal laws definitely state the equality of all people. I’m 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 it’s 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. I’m sure many blacks will disagree.
But Newsweek published it, they interviewed enough scholars—I’m not saying they’re the last word—but 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, there’s 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 my life.
Jacobson: Well, first of all, the word goyim, in Hebrew, means nations, just for your information. That doesn’t mean that the way it’s 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: It’s not the way the people I heard said it.
Jacobson: I understand. I’m not talking about the spirit, I just wanted to define the word for a moment, for the record. That’s 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, it’s 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. I’m not going to criticize your grandmother, or my grandmother, or anyone else. I’ll 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.
It’s not because you like them, you see, that’s the key. It’s not because you like someone that makes them good, or the fact that you dislike them that makes them bad. It’s because G-d created them that makes them good. Because G-d created them, they therefore have a divine purpose for their existence.
That doesn’t mean a person can’t 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. That’s 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 don’t change the fact.
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, “I’m an anti-Semite, I dislike you.” For me, that’s easier to deal with than a stereotype, do you know why? Because a stereotype is invisible. You don’t even know you have it. You think that you’re right. You think that you’re objective.
It’s 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 yarmulke…
Jacobson: So I will often address that very directly by saying, “You don’t want to be stereotyped, I don’t want to be stereotyped.” You know why we stereotype, I think? And which is directly connected to racism. Because it’s easy to do so. We like to file things away. “You see a person like that? Oh, he must belong on this shelf.”
It’s easy and it’s 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. We’re going to have to take a break here as we’re approaching the end of the story. We want to say that we’re deeply grateful to Greta Sarfaty-Marchant for underwriting and helping to bring this program to you today.
We have just maybe two minutes left. We’ve been talking about racism. In two minutes, is there any kind of final comment you’d 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 we’re all surrounded by?
Jacobson: This goes back to a theme that’s been recurrent on our show, and that’s respecting ourselves, respecting others. It’s 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. It’s a crime against your own soul. Because in a way, if we’re all brothers and sisters, and we’re all part of a larger family, if you write off your brother, do you think you’re not affected by that?
Feder: So we are our brother’s keeper.
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 it’s important to stop ourselves and just say, “Hey, where am I going with my life? Isn’t there something greater, something more beautiful, more sensitive to this world than just my own foolish stereotypes?”
Feder: Thank you.