Nov. 4, 2008, 11p.m., Times Square, New York City – The taxi horns are honking, the young people are jumping for joy. Barack Obama has just been declared president-elect of the United States. Amidst the collective euphoria, a young man on a bicycle sees me and my yarmulke, rides over, and says, “Hey man, you didn’t vote for Obama, did you?” “Why would you say that,” I ask him. “You don’t even know me.” “Because I’m from Israel, and I didn’t either.” Interesting assumption – that Jews are not applauding the election of America’s first black president.
Truth Regardless of ConsequencesIt’s an impression that we had best quickly correct, because an African-American’s victory as president of the United States is a triumph for every Jewish man, woman, and child.
Yes, I know that many within our community are concerned about Obama and Israel – and especially his declared willingness to meet with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And, no doubt, our community will do its utmost to tell him why that’s a bad idea. But that should not change our shared pride in the fact that a special man from a downtrodden minority has reached the highest office in the land.
When I was chosen to host “Shalom in the Home” on TLC, I was asked if I would trim my beard to fit in more with American sensibilities. And could we take my black yarmulke and jazz it up with some color? My name was already weird enough. Why alienate Americans in the heartland further by having those bizarre strings hang from my pants while I talked to troubled couples about their marriages? If only those same producers could have known that two years later a black man, with an African name as strange as my own and with a father who was raised a Muslim, would be elected president of the United States, they might have thought differently about my ability to appeal to the American mainstream.
How many Jewish men and women changed their strange-sounding names to hide their ethnicity? How many were convinced that only by jettisoning “Jewish peculiarity” could they succeed? How ironic that Barack Obama would be the one to prove how misguided they were.
When I served as rabbi at Oxford, some of the brightest Jewish Rhodes and Marshall scholars arrived at the University with yarmulkes that were quickly taken off. They had no choice, they told me, if they were to get ahead. Similarly, many abandoned Jewish ritual observances, like putting on tefillin, that they saw as backward and primitive. Some were students who nursed aspirations of being president. Sophistication was essential if they were to play a role on the world stage. Now a black man whose Kenyan relatives were on Wednesday slaughtering sheep and goats to celebrate his victory is the most powerful man on earth.
What Barack Obama has done is remove from every Jewish person, and indeed every member of any ethnic minority, the excuse that they cannot succeed because of prejudice. He has removed all excuses that they failed for any reason other than their own lack of exertion.
The guiding principle of my life has always been the first chapter of Genesis, where the Torah declares that every human being is created equally in God’s image. As a Jew, I have always loved America, the world’s first modern republic dedicated to the notion that all people are of infinite value and free and that no one is born more royal than anyone else. And Jews have prospered mightily in this country. But against the backdrop of that love of country was the knowledge that just 143 years ago black women were put on a block, their teeth and gums examined, and sold to the highest bidder like cattle, their babies ripped away from their mother’s breasts to serve as human chattel. The greatest country on earth was guilty of an all-American abomination.
And even after Abraham Lincoln took a bullet to the head after he had become the great emancipator, the iniquity continued with Jim Crow laws and segregation. Few of us can comprehend how in our lifetimes a black kid kicking a soccer ball in Georgia in the shimmering heat of August, beads of sweat dripping from his temples, was denied drinking water from a water fountain because of the color of his skin.
And now the most powerful man in the universe is a man with black skin. If we in the Jewish community cannot celebrate that achievement, whatever disagreements we may have with president-elect Obama on some important policies, then we have no sense of history.
There are those who believe that the black and Jewish communities share a common history of persecution, that what binds them is the shared distinction of being the world’s foremost victims. But that is a fool’s understanding of our bond. In truth, the relationship between blacks and Jews is a relationship that is built on a shared faith rather than shared oppression, a common destiny rather than a common history, shared values rather than shared interests, and a mutual commitment to social justice rather than a mutual alienation from the mainstream.
We who know what it is like to be targeted for our very being salute a man who caused others to transcend their innate prejudice. And we who know what it is like to be hated when we have caused no offense pay homage to a man who has caused others to rise above their personal demons and embrace the better angels of their nature.
Three summers ago, I drove my children in an RV out to Memphis, Tenn., to visit the sites of the last days of Martin Luther King Jr. We stopped at the Masonic Temple where he declared, just 22 hours before he died, that “Tonight I am fearing no man â€¦ because the Lord has taken me over the mountain.”
We stood outside the patio of the Lorraine Motel where an assassin’s bullet took the life of a man who had transformed the Bible into a modern manifesto of liberty. And as I stood at that sacred spot with my children, I read the haunting words on a marble slab that had been put there just one week after King’s death by his dear friend Ralph Abernathy. It quoted from Genesis and the story of Joseph: “Behold, there cometh the dreamer. Come let us slay him and let us see what shall become of his dreams.” Indeed, we have all witnessed the final chapter of what has become of his dreams.