Rabbi Uram: The moral arrogance of prejudice

The events in Ferguson have hung over me day and night this past month.

They have affected me deeply both because of my sense that all humanity is created in the image of God and because of my interest in combating prejudice and injustice of all kinds.

But there is another reason why it has affected me so deeply. Unfortunately, although Ferguson is a tragic and horrible example, it is not a singular event. Rather, it is a part of something much larger.

The evil that underlies contemporary racism and prejudice of all kinds is two-fold: First, it is fueled by one person’s ability to dehumanize another person and fold him or her into a larger group that is anonymous, easy to hate, and easy to harm.

Second, it expresses a kind of moral arrogance that allows one person to see another human being as something different or less important.

This impulse is contrary to the very first value taught in the Bible. The story of Adam and Eve does more than tell the story of the first man and woman. It teaches us that all of humanity is created from the same parents and therefore we are all equal and all bound up with each other.

As a Jew, when I read the news about Ferguson and other examples of ways in which African Americans are harassed or discriminated against in America, in addition to my feeling of anger about the state of racism, I also see my own family’s story here.

This is not to say that Ferguson is my tragedy. It’s not. It belongs to another community with another set of challenges.

But as a Jew and as a human being, I share some part of it because injustice to one person affects all of us. It erodes the essential foundation uponwhich our society stands—equality of opportunity and the freedom to improve your life.

It also reminds us that while Michael Brown may have been the victim in Ferguson because he was seen as “other” and therefore a threat, in a different situation, that could be any of us.

We could be attacked because we’re Jewish, because we’re gay, or because we’re white. It doesn’t matter what you are, as long as you can imagine being in a situation where you’re the one who is perceived as being different.

This week at Temple University, a Jewish student reported being punched in the face as anti-Semitic slurs were hurled at him by an activist associated with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). While it’s not clear if the motivation for the attack was the student’s Jewishness or because he supports the State of Israel, it is clear that he was physically hurt based on who he is or what he believes.

While this incident is not, in any way, on the scale of what took place in Ferguson, it emerges from same evil.

To hurt someone, who poses you no threat, solely based on who they are or what they believe can only happen when something is broken or missing in the way that person sees the world.

It requires that the attacker forget everything else about the human being before him and reduce that person to an anonymous “other.” It requires that the attacker forget that this person has a mother and a father, that this person has emotions and hopes like all others, and that this person contains a world of thoughts and possibilities independent of the identity or belief that the attacker sees.

This kind of dehumanization based on race, religion or political ideology affects all of us because it either happens to us, or it happens around us and we don’t do enough to stop it.

I am not sure if it can be said that Judaism has a singular essence. But, Leviticus 19 stands at the center of the Torah.

This profound chapter of the Bible reminds us both to love our neighbor as ourselves and to not stand idly by when he bleeds.

It seems to me this basic wisdom is just as relevant today as it was the day it was written.

We must all stand up to be part of building a better world free of the kind of racism and dehumanization that continues to simmer all around us.

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