In a city of neighborhoods, the small park in the commercial center serves as a town square where people gather and rally around ideas. MacDonald Park fulfills this role in Forest Hills, as the site of a rally against anti-Semitism six months ago and this past Sunday for Black Lives Matter, the slogan and movement that emerged in the aftermath of highly publicized incidents of police violence against African American individuals.
“I carried this sign across the Brooklyn Bridge and then altered it for this rally,” said Masbia CEO Alexander Rapaport, a Borough Park chasid who is often the most visible Orthodox figure at rallies against racism. In his left hand, he was carrying an American flag as a nod to freedom of expression. Rapaport was warmly greeted by Councilman Donovan Richards, who wore a shirt with a West African-inspired design.
In contrast with a typical rally in the past, elected officials did not speak at this event, ceding the loudspeaker to young black activists who pointed out examples that for all of its diversity and progressive politics, Queens is not so different from other counties nationwide in its treatment of black people. The most extreme example is the police shooting of Jamaica resident Sean Bell in 2006, who was killed by 50 bullets shot in his direction. The police suspected that Bell or his passengers were armed, but no gun was found in his car.
Then there are the everyday examples of black shoppers in white neighborhoods receiving stares from white individuals, black motorists being pulled over and having their vehicle searched, and disparities in employment and education. As with previous rallies in Astoria, Jackson Heights, Jamaica, Far Rockaway, Bayside, and Flushing, it was nonviolent and consisted mostly of nearby residents.
I share Rapaport’s reasons for being at this rally. As we sought the support of African Americans at rallies against anti-Semitism, it made sense for us to reciprocate. On the same day on Ocean Parkway, dozens of Orthodox Jews marched alongside black Brooklynites in an expression of solidarity. Former Assemblyman Dov Hikind was among those marching. His successor Simcha Eichenstein and other Orthodox elected officials also expressed solidarity with the demonstrators and invoked George Floyd’s name in their statements.
The Jewish Community Council of the Rockaway Peninsula (JCCRP) participated in organizing the Far Rockaway march in memory of Floyd, headed by the organization’s Executive Director Moshe Brandsdorfer. He stood next to Richards, who noted the presence of the Jewish community at the event.
Unfortunately, the Forest Hills rally had only a handful of Jewish men wearing kippahs, and the most visible rabbi in attendance was Conservative Rabbi Gerald Skolnik of the Forest Hills Jewish Center. Across the street from the park are two Orthodox synagogues, but they were not represented at this event.
The majority of Orthodox Jews today are supportive or at the least sympathetic to President Donald Trump’s administration. The Black Lives Matter movement identifies him as a leading cause of racial tension in the country. Its leading voices support boycotting Israel, and identifying with Palestinian Arabs as “people of color.” The movement’s activists demand massive budget cuts to police departments across the country. There were also many rainbow flags flown at such rallies, a banner identifying a lifestyle antithetical to halachah. How can Orthodox Jews march at such demonstrations?
In my Touro College class on American Jewish history, I offer a lesson on black-Jewish relations. I cite novelist James Baldwin’s 1967 New York Times essay titled, “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White,” in which he explains the negative perceptions of Jews among his people.
“The Jews’ suffering is recognized as part of the moral history of the world, and the Jew is recognized as a contributor to the world’s history. This is not true for the blacks.”
He has a point, as much of the world knows about the Holocaust, death camps, Anne Frank, and Elie Wiesel. The memorials and personal accounts of slave ships, plantations, uprisings, Jim Crow, lynchings, and legal discrimination do not resonate as strongly in the world’s consciousness.
Baldwin spoke of how successful immigrants blended into the larger white population, benefiting from the privilege of skin color. “No one can deny that that Jew was a party to this, but it is senseless to assert that this was because of his Jewishness. One can be disappointed in the Jew if one is romantic enough – for not having learned from history; but if people did learn from history, history would be very different.”
Baldwin recognized the potential for blacks and Jews as natural allies, for what other white group has a better understanding of being an outsider? “This is precisely what is demanded of all the other white men in this country, and the Jew will not find it easier than anybody else?” he rhetorically asked.
The few Orthodox Jews who stood in MacDonald Park this past Sunday, and on Main Street earlier last week did it for George Floyd, and all African-Americans who suffered racial profiling through no fault of their own. We know what it means to suffer prejudice, having the sins of a few bad apples ascribed to an entire people, being the subject of negative stereotypes, and not feeling fully accepted by the diaspora societies in which we live.
After the rally, I thanked the police officers standing nearby for keeping the city safe. There is no contradiction here. Many NYPD officers have attended lectures on anti-Semitism and visited Holocaust memorials, where they learned how the power of the uniform was used to perpetrate history’s greatest evil. Such programs have given them an understanding of the Jewish community, its fears, and its vulnerabilities. I can imagine a similar result when police officers and the larger society develop an understanding of the African American experience.
By Sergey Kadinsky