Thursday, February 16, 2012

Racism, Insult, “Other”-ing, Religion & the “rich Jews” comment

Roman Arnusch Photo Sun-Herald/Janie Barrett

Late at night, a Jewish couple, Dr. Jeffrey and Mrs Cheryl Bogan, asked about getting a train home. A State Rail customer service manager, Roman Arnusch commented repeatedly and laughingly, “They’re all Jews living in the Eastern Suburbs. They’re all wealthy – they can afford to get a taxi”. A complaint was made and he was fired but then reinstated by an appeals board that declared his comment “racist, offensive, uncalled for and completely inappropriate” but deemed a six-month suspension without pay to be sufficient punishment [1].

This anecdote highlights one of the controversies about prejudice. Some have argued that racism used to be clear and harsh but now it seems to be about groups complaining about perceived insults and driven by the “multicultural industry”[2]. I do not think that is a reasonable description of the situation with the Bogans, who made it clear they were more outraged than hurt. Still, I think it is useful to discriminate between discriminations, and recognise the varying degree of harm they cause. In this article I also examine the trade off some religious communities including some Jewish groups would seek in which they would prioritise religious practices over inclusion.

The Power Factor
Racism has been defined as “a form of privilege or oppression resulting from a societal system in which people are divided into ‘races’, with power unevenly distributed (or produced) based on these racial classifications. Classifications are socially constructed and are based on perceived biological, cultural, religious or other differences, which are reflected in and reinforced through attitudes, beliefs, behaviours, laws, norms and practices[3].

The link between power and discrimination is also reflected in a Torah source. The principle that is repeated the most times, in the Torah relates to the treatment of the stranger which is mentioned 36 times[4], more than love of God or keeping the Sabbath[5]. “And the stranger[6], you should not mistreat, nor should you oppress him as you were strangers in the land of Egypt[7]”. This is explained as a warning to avoid oppressing the stranger just because you have more power than he does, instead we should remember that we were strangers just as he is now. “The Torah mentions the stranger, who has no power, this is just like the orphan and the widow[8] who are (native) Israelites that also have no power[9]. They don’t have the networks that can protect them and are particularly vulnerable. While every person deserves to be treated like an individual, rather than based on some ignorant generalisation about his or her group, it is far more serious when there is a power imbalance involved.  

I was a little relieved to read that Mr. Arnusch will not be permanently unemployed as a punishment for his offensive comments about Jews. I am glad he did not just get away with it, but like Dr. Bogan himself, I would not want him to be deprived of a job. I find his comment highly offensive, discriminatory and wrong. One particularly offensive aspect of it is that in talking about Jews in this way he promotes a view of all Jews as the “other”, people not like “us” normal people. This is an expression of the “new racism” that is not explicit about some people being better than others are, instead it positions some as “normal” and others as “different”. Still, I think there is a big difference between offensive bigoted generalisations aimed at a group like Australian Jews and those aimed at Blacks or Aboriginal people. The difference is the degree of powerlessness.

The Bystander
Considering the importance of power in the most severe form of prejudice, the role of the bystander becomes even more important. I recently had a conversation with Dr. Simon Longstaff who pointed out that in many of the photographs of Nazi Germany he saw in the Sydney Jewish Museum, there are people standing and watching. The issue of the bystander to mistreatment of the vulnerable is hinted at the change from singular to plural in the following verses. “You (plural) shall not oppress לֹא תְעַנּוּן any widow or orphan. If you (singular)אִם עַנֵּה תְעַנֶּה oppress him, [beware,] for if he cries out to Me, I will surely hear his cry[10]”. The change teaches us that anyone who sees a person oppressing the an orphan or a widow and does not help them he too is considered to have oppressed them[11].

Religious Considerations
While Torah is very clear about oppressive prejudice against the vulnerable, it is not against all forms of discrimination if it deems it necessary for carrying out the religion properly. In introducing the section about laws relating to monetary matters such as slaves and damages, the Torah states “And these are the ordinances that you shall set before them[12]”.  The word “them” is interpreted as requiring litigants to use a Jewish religious court even in the case where the laws of the idol worshippers court are consistent with Torah law[13].

It could be argued that this is simply a case of prejudice against people of another faith. Our tradition sees bypassing the Torah based court in favour of one administered by idol worshipers or non-Jews as insulting toward God and the Torah. (An exception is the case of a thug who refused to yield to the authority of a Torah court, in which case dispensation can be sought in order to save property in an “idol worshipper’s court”)[14]. In Judaism, even a ruling on a practical monetary dispute is a form of worship. “God says to judges be careful with the judgement as I sit among you[15]”. The administration of these laws is a dear to God as the Ten Commandments[16]. It also compared to a King who gives his beloved youngest son a gift of his beloved orchard[17]. The intention and religious spirit of the proceedings would be seen as highly significant, rather than just as a means to an end. Perhaps, settling a dispute outside a religious court could be compared to offering sacrifices outside the temple.

Of course, one option would be to reject these traditions. For those who uphold these teachings, there needs to be self-vigilance to ensure that these religious teachings do not have the effect of leading to disrespect of people of other faiths or none. As we are taught, “therefore man was created alone so that the families will not provoke one another to say my ancestor was greater than yours[18]”.

Not all prejudice is the same. The crushing exercise of power by members of a privileged group is the most serious. Jews in particular are called on to have empathy with others who find themselves as outsiders just as we had been “and we know the spirit of the stranger[19]”. Ridicule of people is still a serious matter, even where there is no power imbalance. When religious principles elevate one group over others, we must beware of unintended consequences.

[2] Article appeared in the Australian Newspaper making these arguments, unfortunately, I have been unable to find the original article
[3] Paradies Y 2006a, ‘Defining, conceptualising and characterising racism in health research’, Critical Public Health, 19(2), pp. 143–57. cited in More than tolerance: Embracing diversity for health
Discrimination affecting migrant and refugee communities in Victoria, its health consequences, community attitudes and solutions, A summary report
[4] Talmud Bava Metzia 59b
[5] Liebowitz, N, New Studies in Shemot Exodus p.380
[6] The Hebrew word is Ger, which can be translated as a stranger as Rashi on this verse states “every expression of the word Ger is a person who was not born in that country/state, only he came from a different country to live there”. It is used this way in Abraham’s statement “I am a stranger and a resident among you” in Genesis 23:4. It is translated as a stranger on The same word is also used to refer to a convert and a lot of commentaries understand it that way
[7] Exodus 22:20
[8] The widow and the orphan are mentioned in the very next sentence, which suggests that the preceding example of the stranger is similar in that all three groups lack power
[9] Ibn Ezra
[10] Exodus 22:21-22
[11] Ibn Ezra
[12] Exodus 21:1
[13] Talmud Gitin 88b
[14] Maimonides Yad Hachazakah laws of Sanhedrin 26:7
[15] Midrash Aggada , cited in Torah Shlaima vo. 17, p.7
[16] Midrash Hashkem, cited in Torah Shlaima vo. 17, p.4
[17] Manuscript Yalkut Albichani, cited cited in Torah Shlaima vo. 17, p.6
[18] Talmud Sanhedrin 38a
[19] Exodus 23:9

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