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On racism

“On this subject, I do not wish to think, to speak, or to write with moderation. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and I will be heard.”

Religion and race. How can the two be uttered together? To act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is God’s beloved child. To act in the spirit of race is to sunder, to slash, to dismember the flesh of living humanity. Is this the way to honor a father: to torture his child? How can we hear the word “race” and feel no self reproach?

And racism is worse than idolatry...

Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.”

These are not my words but taken from a speech entitled “Religion and Race”. It was given in 1963 by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel at a conference in Chicago, where he met Martin Luther King. The two became friends and in 1965 would march together at Selma, Alabama.

Things have improved in seventy years, but unfortunately Heschel’s words ring true today. And in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd it becomes necessary to restate once again, that as Jews we join all those who condemn and repudiate racial violence.

We must love our neighbours as ourselves. And we must stand shoulder to shoulder with all those condemning hate and ignorance.

In the same speech Heschel framed this imperative in terms of our prophetic tradition:

“The prophets’ great contribution to humanity was the discovery of the evil of indifference. One may be decent and sinister, pious and sinful.

The prophet is a person who suffers the harms done to others. Wherever a crime is committed, it is as if the prophet were the victim and the prey. The prophet’s angry words cry. The wrath of God is a lamentation.”

We inherit this prophetic tradition and we should neither reject it nor stand idly by. From our own history we know only too well how others have been bystanders to our own suffering. And while Singapore may seem a safe and happy bubble far from the United States, we know the world is small, and many of the UHC have family in America. We also ignore racial injustice on our own doorstep - be it in Israel or Singapore- at our peril. We cannot stand indifferent, “decent and sinister” in Heschel’s words, “pious and sinful”.

So what is our call to action? Well first it’s perhaps to engage and investigate and understand better what we need to do. And then it’s to work with every breath and ounce of strength for a more just society, where racial discrimination is eradicated and banished to a shameful chapter of history.

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