By RABBI MICAH STREIFFER
It’s amazing how quickly the world can change. Nearly two weeks after his death under the knee of a police officer, George Floyd has become a household name and his memory has become the catalyst for a burgeoning anti-racism movement. How are we, as Jews and Canadians, to respond to this moment? What wisdom can our tradition and our history lend us?
We find this in Torah.
When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow person, thus breaking faith with the Eternal, they shall confess the wrong they have done and make restitution (Numbers 5:5-6).
Ostensibly, this passage is about theft, but the Rabbis assert that it is actually about humanity. For one thing, it teaches that a wrong against a fellow human is also a wrong against God – an expression of our value that people are created B’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image.
Further, the Etz Hayim comments that “every breach of faith is a form of theft, stealing another’s trust under false pretenses.” So this text is actually an admonishment of the way that we fail to recognize the image of God in our fellow human beings – how we steal one another’s dignity and treat some people as lesser. This is exactly the discussion that is being called for in our society.
In some ways, the unrest we are watching south of the border is a uniquely American phenomenon, born of slavery and of centuries of discrimination against African-Americans. But let’s not kid ourselves: Racism is not limited to one country.
Canada has a complicated relationship with racial justice issues. On one hand, we live in a society that prides itself on diversity, where you can keep your name and heritage and still be Canadian, and where the streets are filled an incredible rainbow of diversity.
But we also live in a society with a deep history of discrimination. Canada had slavery, both the enslavement of Indigenous people and the importation of African slaves. The numbers were considerably smaller than south of the border, but the practice existed. Canada also has a history of mistreatment of its Indigenous peoples, from forced assimilation, to the restriction of individual liberties, to the tragedy of residential schools.
A history of unaddressed systemic discrimination can only lead to a present that includes systemic discrimination. And that is where we are today. According to recent studies, Black Canadians earn, on average, one-fourth to one-third less than new immigrants who are not a visible minority.
Black Canadians have an unemployment rate five to seven percent higher than other Canadians, and are less likely to be able to obtain a university degree.
Indigenous people experience unspeakable levels of poverty: Four out of every 10 Indigenous children live in poverty. And Indigenous women are far more likely to be victims of violent crime.
Both Black and Indigenous Canadians are overrepresented in Canada’s prison system because of underlying issues like poverty and unequal access to education, and because of their strikingly different treatment in the justice system.
And in just the last few weeks, there have been several notable cases of police violence against Black and Indigenous Canadians, some with tragic results.
In other words, we live in a society that has a racism problem. Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau affirmed that “there is systemic discrimination in Canada, which means our systems treat Canadians of colour, Canadians who are racialized, differently than they do others.”
The fact that we can say this out loud is an important step forward. The fact that our children study the residential schools, that we have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that the Ontario government has pledged money to help the Black community recover from COVID – all these represent steps in the right direction. But they are also reminders that there is much work to be done.
We Jews have our own history of persecution, which makes us sensitive to this issue. Many in our Canadian Jewish community are the descendants of Holocaust survivors. And our tradition speaks to the importance of upholding the dignity of every human being: As it says in Tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud (37a), “Anyone who destroys a single life is considered to have destroyed an entire world.”
With those as our values and with this as our history, we need to be a voice for the dignity of our neighbours.
In this moment of transformation, it is important to listen. After all, what higher Jewish command is there than shema – listen? Let us listen to the stories being told in the public square – stories of pain, sorrow, and hope. Let us open our eyes to the lived experience of people of colour, and to the realities of institutionalized racism in our society. And let us, as a society, begin to transform that listening into systemic change that can make a difference in people’s lives.
Rabbi Micah Streiffer is spiritual leader of Kol Ami, a Reform congregation in Thornhill, Ontario