In My Own Words: Here we go again

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Do you ever feel like a broken record, repeating something that no one seems to hear? The title of this column, “Here we go again,” was written with a deep sigh of discouragement after reading the headline “Study: Asian Americans don’t feel safe – Rising hate crimes, lack of a voice are cited” in a recent online issue of USA Today. My reaction was something along the lines of “haven’t we dealt with this before?” and “why is this getting worse, not better?” I knew that I’d written about this issue before* – about the rising number of hate crimes against Asians since COVID started – but discrimination against Asians began long before that.

Why care about another minority group? I feel it’s my religious duty to work against discrimination and not just because Jews have known discrimination and the feeling of not belonging in most countries in which we’ve lived. We are morally obligated to care for our neighbors and to promote a just world. As post-Holocaust Jews, we cannot stand by when others are threatened.

Why do people feel the need to blame specific groups for societal ills? It’s easier to find a scapegoat than it is to do the hard work to solve a problem, especially when the solution demands a sacrifice. And when people search for someone to blame for their problems, it’s easy to point a finger at someone who looks, dresses or acts differently from us. What’s funny is that humans share more similarities than differences: that includes our physical appearances and our genetic markers. DNA shows we are really all members of one extended family. But when people need to feel special, they look for minor differences and magnify them. Once you begin blaming someone for the ills of the world, it’s difficult to know where to stop. 

The article I read mentioned the group Stop AAPI Hate (Stop Asian American and Pacific Islanders Hate), which I had never heard of before. On its website, it noted that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have reported more than 11,000 acts of hate against them since March 2020 and the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be getting better. The quotes from people who have been discriminated against are heartbreaking. How do people justify this behavior? They claim these innocent people are spreading COVID or that, because of their ancestry, they can’t possibly be citizens of the U.S. and therefore can’t stay in that hotel or keep that job or.... you can fill in the blank.

And what is even sadder is that, according to the USA Today article, they are not the only group that doesn’t feel safe or that they don’t belong in the U.S. This is also true of Blacks and Latinos, although the percentages differ slightly. The article wasn’t talking about people who just moved to this country: it was speaking of people whose families have lived in America for generations. We Jews are far luckier. Even when we feel uncomfortable in the U.S., it’s not quite the same: most of us are often able to blend into the background, to not stand out, but many groups don’t have the ability. Whether or not you consider Jews white, it’s much easier for many of us to act and look as if we are.

Perhaps the most discouraging thing is that I have no new answers. I applaud Stop AAPI Hate in its efforts to help people find legal means to solve their problems. There are other organizations that help Blacks and Latinos. We need to support those efforts. We can also speak up against discrimination, much as we wish others would do when the discrimination is aimed at us. 

Will this change our country? I have no idea. At one time, I thought we was becoming more accepting of differences. But we seem to have taken several steps backward. But that doesn’t mean we should stop our efforts. The quote that keeps me going comes from the Mishnah: it is not ours to complete the task, but neither is it ours to cease from it. In the Torah, we are told to love our neighbor as ourselves and to not ill-treat the strange because we were once strangers in a strange land. I don’t care which quote speaks to you – or if none of them do – but, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, remember that if we are not there for others, no one is going to be there for us. 

*To read my previous opeds on this topic, visit "In my Own Words: Blaming the wrong people" and "In My Own Words: Hate crimes." The first was published in June 2020 and the second in March 2022.