I can’t remember the name of the comic who talked about going back to his home town after many years. As he walked around the old neighborhood he saw his childhood friend near the park, ran up and gave him a big hug, saying, “You haven’t changed a bit!”
Then he realized his friend wasn’t ten years old any more.
I find myself recognizing lots of people in crowds these days. They transport me back to when I was as young as they look! Some of it is wishful thinking, I am sure. Some of it the propensity of our brains to fill in information with which they are familiar. And some of it is that there are infinite personalities but a finite number of ways to arrange noses, ears and mouths.
When these faux-familiar experiences happen, I like to think that it is one of the ways we see ourselves in others. And when we see ourselves in others, it is harder to “other-ise” those people.
Jews in the US are struggling right now with the Black Lives Matter movement. We want to recognize our own selves in the cri de coeur. Like a lot of Americans who are not black, some of us have struggled with the All Lives – Blue Lives – Black Lives debate. The name of the movement is borne of pain of a very particular kind. Even if the intent is solidarity, appropriating the name to include others only heightens the pain – and we know that from the attempts to appropriate our history of suffering.
In fact, many of us took deep offense when BLM included a plank in its action platform that took aim at Israel’s relationship with Palestinians. By using language redolent of racist policies in South Africa past and calling for economic sanctions reminiscent of our own boycotts of businesses that legitimized anti-Jewish practices, the authors of the manifesto triggered a sense of shock and outrage among many who believed they were acting as allies. (Those who dismissed Black Lives Matter as reverse racism only found justification for their own prejudices.)
Jews, especially politically progressive Jews, want to recognize themselves in Black Lives Matter, and they want African Americans to recognize them back. But even if we are walking around the old neighborhood, we’re not ten years old any more.
At the very beginning of Moses’s long valedictories in Deuteronomy, he warns the Israelites about “recognizing faces in judgment” (1:17). The idiom mostly likely is a caution about impartiality, but it really emphasizes the tendency of people to seek something of themselves in others – we call it empathy. The cautionary statement applies equally to both litigants in a case and, by extension, to both sides in a lawsuit. The judge’s sympathies are irrelevant to justice to be served; the individual’s sympathies are irrelevant to judgments on issues.
Doesn’t that seem to be paradoxical (if not contradictory)? We become more compassionate when we see our commonality with others, yet it is dispassionate reflection that seems to lead to the wisest and most just conclusions!
I remember something I learned as an undergraduate (a very long time ago) about a study of prejudice in perception conducted in the middle of the last century. Social scientists created a drawing of a bus. Standing next to each other were two men of similar height and posture. The white man was dressed in overalls and holding a tool box. The black man was dressed in a suit and holding a brief case. The scientists posited that ingrained prejudices being what they were, most people would reverse the races of the laborer and the businessman after a quick look.
They found a group willing to act as their subjects at a gathering of pharmacists. They administered the test and discovered that most participants accurately identified which man was which. But they also discovered that 100% of the subjects noticed a detail that was incidental to the scientists. Outside the window of the bus, partially obscured, was a sign for a drug store with the iconic “r-x.” The participants identified with the detail closest to themselves and made them central against the intent of the originators.
Moses’s caution to the Israelites in matters of judging makes the same point. When you “recognize” the person before you, that point of mutuality defines your perception. In times of personal need, such a connection may generate exactly the kind of compassion that motivates support and encouragement. But in times when a certain objectivity is necessary, such a connection may skew your perception and frustrate the real concern at hand.
I have read the statements of the authors of the Black Lives Matter document about their characterization of Israel. I disagree with their rationale, but I understand this much: it is the drug-store sign in the window. Making it the centerpiece of this struggle with racism and justice serves a Jewish perception of our place in the world, but does not focus on the Black Lives Matter concerns. In fact, it creates the opposite effect. We have appointed ourselves judges and insisted on recognizing ourselves.
More than one Jewish observer has said, “I believe black lives matter, but I do not believe Black Lives Matter.” As an expression of Jewish pain, I subscribe to that statement. If BLM leaders seek to develop compassion for Jewish supporters, they will recognize themselves in our cri de coeur. But if the manifesto is to be considered as a reflection of the African American experience in the United States, then my fellow Jews need to see not themselves in the document but the people whose experiences it represents.