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Rabbi Shai Held: All men were created equal, but not all men are treated equally.

White indifference towards racial discrimination of African-Americans only helps racial tensions increase, he says.

Editor’s Note: Rabbi Shai Held, a leading Jewish theologian and educator, is co-founder and dean of the Hadar Institute and the author of “Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

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From its founding, the United States professed that “all men are created equal,” and from its founding, it made a mockery of this core value. People of color were treated as chattel, derided as “savages” and enslaved and degraded at every turn. It is one of the tragic ironies of human history: We don’t usually oppress those we see as fully human. So first we dehumanize, and then we feel licensed to oppress.

Rabbi Shai Held
Courtesy of Jörg Windau
Rabbi Shai Held

The United States has undeniably made progress, but we have also gotten profoundly stuck. Many of us dreamed that the election of an African-American president would usher in a new era, one in which the dreams of Martin Luther King, Jr. and so many others would finally be fulfilled. Yet bigoted demagogues insisted, against all evidence to the contrary, that our first black president simply couldn’t be a real American. The loudest and most repugnant of them is now the Republican nominee for president. Sadly, electing a black man unleashed America’s racial subconscious like nothing else could, and what we are now witnessing is ugly, frightening and frankly devastating.

But leave the president aside. The bodies of African-American men keep piling up, killed by police officers for nothing, it seems, besides being black. White America has made progress since the days of slavery, but it has not yet come to see, feel and believe that all human beings (not just men) are created equal, and that black people are no less human than white people.

If you’re white and you don’t believe that white privilege is real, talk to an African-American parent about “the conversation,” in which they teach their children to be cautious and tentative around officers of the law.

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And if you don’t believe that white privilege is real, you aren’t looking hard enough. I had an experience not long ago that is seared into my consciousness. I participated in a nonviolent protest on the Upper West Side of Manhattan after a group of New York City police officers had killed Eric Garner. As he was about to arrest me, a police officer looked at the prayer shawl I was wearing and gingerly asked, “Sir, is it OK if I touch this?” I almost broke into tears. The contrast between the treatment I, a well-connected white man, received, and the treatment Eric Garner, a poor African-American man, received, has haunted me every day since.

There are concrete issues to address about police brutality and accountability. But there is also a much more fundamental issue to confront: do white Americans really believe that African-American people matter, and matter just as much as they do?

I’m a rabbi, and in moments like this I turn to the Bible for guidance and inspiration. Over the past few days, I’ve been unable to stop thinking about this: In the first chapter of Genesis, as God proceeds through the work of creation, the Bible repeatedly draws our attention to the dazzling variety of what God makes. Genesis 1 reads like a hymn to biodiversity: God does not just create vegetation, God creates vegetation “of every kind”; God does not just create animals, God creates animals “of every kind.” Similarly with sea creatures, birds and beasts, the Bible seems to revel in the breathtaking multifariousness of God’s creation. As we progress through the chapter, we come to expect that everything God brings into existence will be created in stunning and multi-colored diversity.

But then comes the creation of the human being, and suddenly we hear nothing at all about diversity. The omission is striking – the Bible is suggesting that in contrast to vegetation and the (rest of the) animal kingdom, there simply are no kinds of human beings. We are all descended from Adam, the ancestor to us all. Only after we establish that fact, can we safely, responsibly, go on to celebrate and defend human diversity.

Jews don’t just read the Bible, though; we also read our traditional commentators. One of the most startling comments in the history of Judaism is that of Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, who observes that in the eyes of God, there is ultimately no distinction between “those who oppress” and “those who witness the oppression and keep silent.” This is haunting, and daunting, but more importantly, it is intensely demanding. In a society where some are oppressed, all are implicated.

We are all implicated in deeper ways as well. As American citizens, we do not have the privilege of standing outside and asking whether or not we should get involved. The police in this country work for us, for all of us — they often do wonderful, courageous and exemplary work — and their actions thus involve and implicate us. Just as we celebrate the enormous good that they do, we are ashamed when their behavior is far less than exemplary.

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Ibn Ezra’s question, then, ought to be ours: As human dignity is trodden and trampled upon again and again (and again), what will we do? We have the psychological ability to turn away, but we have the moral obligation to respond and take action.

All human beings are created equal, but we are not treated equally. As the Bible reminds us, there is no “we” and “they” here; there is only humanity. We are all involved, and we are all implicated. The only question is whether and when we will all respond. The hour is late, the time is now.