Jews must take helm in healing black-white divisions

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For blacks and whites in America, this is a time of ignorance, lack of contact and communication, and great division. The reactions of many in both communities to last week's O.J. Simpson verdict reflect how little we know each other, and how separately we form our understandings of race.

The result of this long-brewing condition is the dangerous preponderance of unsophisticated responses to race issues in both communities.

As Jews, we have suffered prejudice and persecution throughout history because of unsophisticated understandings of who we are. In our people's struggles to win tolerance and even respect from our host communities, we have repeatedly tried to get leaders to transcend their rigid ideas about Jews and come to appreciate us.

Often our efforts were unsuccessful, but in the past 50 years we have had some extraordinary successes.

Recently, for example, many Christian churches have acknowledged that their sacred texts contain elements that are anti-Jewish. The weight of the Holocaust and the efforts of Jews to get Christians to see Jews as more complex than their Christian Bible portrayals have combined to create a new era of tolerance and respect of Jews among these Christian groups.

Similarly, for the first time in the Muslim world, some are letting go of the belief that Jews are not a natural part of the Middle East. Koranic teachings about Jews have created an institutionalized anti-Semitism within Islam. Yet with the progress of the peace process and increasing contact between Jews and Muslims, many Muslims are starting to see us as more than the sum of their teachings.

We Jews have been relatively successful at getting others in the world to adopt a more sophisticated understanding of us — one that includes listening to our definition of ourselves. History has imbued us with this skill — this ability to insist that others rise above lazy, unsophisticated thinking and recognize what we can offer America in this time of racial division and deep social need.

Unsophisticated understandings of blacks by whites, and of whites by blacks, were evident throughout the day after the not-guilty verdict was read aloud in Lance Ito's courtroom.

Listening to the radio in my car and flipping stations, I landed on a conservative AM talk show. The host was listening to an African American caller say that the lies and beliefs of detective Mark Fuhrman demonstrated an institutionalized racism that causes an uneven racial playing field in America. The white talk show host responded self-righteously and angrily, saying, "Yeah, well how many murders are your people going to commit in order to level the playing field?"

The message: Whites are the victims in the grand race equation, and blacks are dangerous and need to be controlled.

And in the black community, NBC News showed us the reaction of a group of Howard University students to the verdict. Their cheers of joy, and the opinions expressed by many that this verdict represents a great moment in the cause of racial justice, are not the most thoughtful, far-sighted responses.

Neither are the claims some in the black community made that O.J. had to be innocent because Fuhrman is a racist, or because O.J. is a black man in an America run by a white power structure. The message: Whites are capable of doing nothing but doling out lies and tricks to blacks, and can never be trusted.

Perhaps the worst effect of people holding oversimplified understandings of other groups is that they develop an unsophisticated sense of their own group as well. Whites come to see themselves as a besieged group, incapable of changing and reaching out to minorities. And blacks come to see themselves as unattractive, violent, and incapable of succeeding in white-dominated America.

But in the aftermath of the Simpson verdict, we Jews — perhaps singularly among the peoples of this nation — can offer essential leadership and healing as the media prepares to flood the airwaves with unsophisticated white and black views about each other.

We should make clear that unsophisticated views are dangerous, divisive, self-defeating, and contribute to prejudice. We should say that we have pushed hard to get other groups to see us in a complex way, and that we have succeeded because of it.

Our community's leaders should convene high-profile forums and workshops on building intergroup dialogue. We should say to all communities that a state of emergency exists, and that if we are to survive as a nation, we must get to know each other. We must develop sophisticated and complex understandings of each other. We should lead.

I encourage all American Jews to demand this kind of leadership from their federations, from the Anti-Defamation League, and from their rabbis. If Jewish leaders want a concrete example to follow, they should look to innovative Jews such as Michael Taller, the assistant director at Berkeley Hillel's Jewish Student Center at U.C. Berkeley.

Last spring, Taller proposed the creation of a community relations and alliance-building position at Berkeley Hillel, to serve the increasingly racially and ethnically fractured campus community. The grant proposal he submitted to start the project was rejected, despite last year's signs of ethnic and racial breakdown in California, including the passage of an anti-immigrant proposition and the ending of affirmative action in the U.C. system.

Taller's grant continues to go unfilled, even though last Tuesday's verdict and the responses it evoked in black and white communities sounded off another warning signal that America is breaking apart.

By taking a leadership role on this issue, Jews can give tremendous meaning to our arduous journey of survival. History is handing us a golden opportunity. This is our chance to make our greatest contribution to this broken, bleeding America.