In my own words: Judaic and ethnic studies

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Although specific groups in the United States may have always had an interest in ethnic studies, most formal programs only began to flourish during the late 1960s, particularly in colleges and universities. The Judaic Studies Department at Binghamton University began in 1973 as the Judaic Studies Program with only three professors. It was not until 1991 that it became a formal department. According to the history (see here), this occurred “despite opposition from faculty in some departments.”

Imagine if there were limits put on what could be discussed in Judaic studies classes. What if professors were told to talk about Jewish history without mentioning antisemitism or discuss World War II and not mention the Holocaust? So, why are some politicians demanding that American Blacks talk about Black history without mentioning slavery or Jim Crow laws or lynching or the many other ways racism has affected and still affects their lives? Think this is absurd? Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has blocked the use a new advanced placement course on African American studies based on the Florida Stop WOKE Act.

For those unfamiliar with the act, the basic idea is simple: it’s illegal to make anyone feel guilty about acts performed by others of their kind (nationality, race, ethnicity, sex, etc.). In terms of Jewish history, that would mean not talking about the Holocaust, pogroms, the Inquisition, expulsion of Jews from countries, etc. because it might make the people of those countries feel uncomfortable and, even worse, make them feel bad about their country’s past. What we are supposed to do in the United States is act as if slavery and racism are not part of United States history, or that being a slave wasn’t really that bad, or other farcical ideas that are just as ridiculous. 

I don’t understand the desire to whitewash history. While I don’t feel personally responsible for slavery, as an proud American citizen, I do take collective responsibility for what our country did in the past. That includes finding ways to ameliorate the continuing results of those actions. What occurred in the past still affects people today – both socially and physically. Researchers are documenting the continuing physical effects on those whose parents, grandparents and great-grandparents lived through the Holocaust. How can the same not be true for those whose ancestors experienced slavery? And that doesn’t include the experience of seeing those who enslaved your ancestors being celebrated. While they are not exactly the same, I wouldn’t want to see my neighbor flying a Nazi flag. I can’t help but wonder how someone whose ancestors experienced slavery feels seeing the Confederate flag flying on government buildings.

No one person can correct every wrong the world faces. But to say we can’t talk about racism is the same as saying we can’t talk about antisemitism. To say that we should forget about slavery is the same as saying we should forget about the Holocaust. Jews cherish memory – talking about events that happened “in those days at this time” is part of our liturgy. We can’t solve all the world’s problems, but we are commanded by the ancient rabbis to do our part. It is not up to us to finish the task, but we are required to perform that work as best we can. As Hillel once said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”