A fine apology from the March for Racial Justice

SorryWatch exists because good apologies are hard. When human beings are challenged on our behavior, we often react with defensiveness. We may obfuscate a bit. We may make excuses. And this is natural. No one wants to feel uncomfortable; it’s not fun to examine one’s decision-making and find it wanting. A true test of character is when someone works through those feelings of discomfort, chooses to listen, considers others’ reactions and responses, and then decides to apologize.

This is what the organizers of the March for Racial Justice did. We commend them.

Here’s what happened.

On August 13, in the wake of Neo-Nazi marches and murder in Charlottesville, the March for Racial Justice was announced. The march was originally slated for September 9, but due to a permitting issue at the Mall on Washington, was moved to September 30. This date is Yom Kippur, the holiest date in the Jewish calendar, a fast day, a day when most Jews are in synagogue.

Jewish activists immediately spoke out. How could the event be scheduled on the one day of the year Jews were least likely to be able to attend? The March for Racial Justice organizers issued a statement. It was not good.

The core leadership of the March for Racial Justice regrets the scheduling conflict of the September 30 date for the March for Racial Justice and the Yom Kippur holiday, the Day of Atonement. The decision to schedule the March for Racial Justice on September 30 was made in honor of the anniversary of 227 Black lives lost and 122 unjustly imprisoned during the Elaine Massacre of 1919, considered one of the largest mass lynchings in the history of the United States. The core leadership of the March for Racial Justice recognizes and celebrates the historical unity between African Americans and Americans of the Jewish faith. These two communities are natural partners, as each have a history of persecution and discrimination. This unity was exemplified by the friendship of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King who marched together from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. When asked why he joined Dr. King for the march, Rabbi Heschel replied, “when I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.” When we discussed the date of our March with Rabbi Hannah Spiro, she stated that this march might be a powerful opportunity for Jews to pray with their feet in between services on Yom Kippur afternoon. Rabbi Spiro pointed out that many members of Jewish faith will prefer to spend the day in silent reflection, and that the fast may not allow for many to come out – but that some Jews may find it powerful to know that this march is happening in parallel with their fast; in the spirit of Isaiah 58, which calls for a “fast that breaks every yoke and lets the oppressed go free.” Our hope as the core leadership for the March for Racial Justice is that we can emulate the spirit and bond between Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel for our country and the world to bear witness to our determination to come together in love and unity. We hope that the occurrence this year of Yom Kippur and the Elaine Massacre anniversary on the same date can be a another point of solidarity and the continuation of a long and powerful history.

Why is this not good? First, “regret” is not “apology.” The former concerns itself with how the speaker feels; the latter is concerned with how the listener feels. When you apologize, you own what you’ve done. When you regret, you’re simply throwing up your hands and saying “ah, well.” Mentioning the friendship of Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel is nice, but it still relegates Jews to sidekicks in another group’s story. (A status that African-Americans know all too well.) Jews have their own history with those claiming racial superiority. I have no wish to engage in arguments about whether Jews are white; I say that white Jews are white and non-white Jews are not white. REGARDLESS: What matters for the purpose of this discussion is that Nazis and Neo-Nazis have never considered Jews white. To them, Jews are a filthy race. “Jew will not replace us” is a pretty clear indication of other-dom.) There is no question that in the USA today, African-Americans are far more marginalized than Jews. But both groups are targeted by the Neo-Nazis because of race.

And in an event designed to show unity against hate, leaving out one of the prominent targets of hate was beyond hurtful.

Furthermore, the organizers put Rabbi Hannah Spiro in a terrible position. They didn’t state her affiliation because she was speaking as a private citizen — the rabbi of a synagogue in DC near the Mall — not as a march organizer or activist. Fellow Jews were distressed that she seemed to be encouraging them to skip synagogue on the holiest day of the year. But as she herself told the Jewish community on her Facebook page:

The organizers hurt her in her own community, by using only some of her words and using them in a deliberately misleading way.

BUT THEN. They made things right, or nearly so. Check out the full statement on the March for Racial Justice’s site. This is SorryWatch, though, so we’ll just focus on the apology:

Choosing this date, we now know, was a grave and hurtful oversight on our part. It was unintentional and we are sorry for this pain as well as for the time it has taken for us to respond. Our mistake highlights the need for our communities to form stronger relationships.

After the horrifying events of the past weekend in Charlottesville, and the remarks by the President suggesting that “both sides” are to blame, we understand more than ever the need for unity against those who hate us in our many identities.  We have learned from our Jewish friends that Yom Kippur is a day of making amends and of asking and receiving forgiveness. We hope that our sincere apology will be received with compassion, and that we will build a stronger relationship among all our communities as a result.

While we continue to move forward with plans for the main march in Washington, DC on the anniversary of the Elaine massacre, we are working on ways to include the Jewish community on Saturday 9/30 after sundown and/or on Sunday 10/1.

We will be seeking a permit for the sister march in New York City for the afternoon of Sunday, October 1 and will share that information as quickly as we can. Many other sister marches are now being planned for Sunday, October 1 as well and we will keep everyone informed as those additional marches and rallies as they develop.

Our goal is and has always been to bring those committed to racial justice together and we are doing all we can to honor that important goal. We will continue to seek the thoughts and advice of religious and community leaders as this movement grows, and we will face those moments where fellow citizens register their concerns honestly and realistically.  As we share a big world with many people, all with their own rights to their freedoms of speech, expression and religion, we will always do our utmost to consider all points of view.

We are marching in solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters who are observing the holiest of days on the Jewish calendar. Holding fast to Jewish tradition is also an act of resistance, in the face of growing anti-Semitism. We recognize and lift up the intersection of anti-Semitism and racism perpetrated by white supremacists, whether they wave Confederate flags, don swastikas, beat and kill people on the streets in Charlottesville, deface Holocaust memorials, or threaten and harass members of our communities and our religious and community spaces. And we recognize the need for all of us to work together in the face of an administration that condones widespread oppression of all those most vulnerable among us.

This is a long-term struggle and our relationship to each other transcends one day and one march. As we learn from this planning mis-step, we are working with Jewish leaders to make racial justice resources and prayers available for Yom Kippur observances in Jewish communities as well. We hope that on that holy day, Jews in synagogues across our country will pray for racial justice – lifting up black and brown people, Jewish and non-Jewish – in hope for safety and wholeness. Spiritual sustenance is an essential part of this work for justice. We’re committed to working together with the Jewish community throughout the year and every year until true justice for all of us is won.

The March for Racial Justice
August 15, 2017

Why is this good?

It uses the word “sorry” and “apology” instead of “regret.” It names the thing the organizers did wrong. It explains, correctly and well, what Yom Kippur is, and draws a perfect parallel between the meaning of the holiday itself and the need for this statement. It attempts to make amends by adding a sister march on a different date that Jewish activists can participate in. It makes clear that real listening happened, and it pledges to continue listening in the future. It includes Jews in a recitation of those people under attack, and recognizes their role in the struggle for justice. It mentions working with Jewish leaders on resources and prayers adaptable for use in synagogue on Yom Kippur. And — a small thing, but one that is meaningful to me — it uses the phrase “lifting up black and brown people, Jewish and non-Jewish.” Black and brown Jews frequently see their religious identity erased, sadly, by both Jews and non-Jews. It is powerful to name and recognize them.

I have quibbles. I wish the apology began in the first paragraph and not the third. I wish the headline began with “An apology” rather than “A statement.” I wish there were a specific, public apology to Hannah Spiro. And I cannot help but doubt the statement “The organizers of the March for Racial Justice did not realize that September 30 was Yom Kippur.” Look, it’s written on every farshtunkiner American calendar. I would have preferred the statement, “The organizers of the March for Racial Justice did not realize how central Yom Kippur is to Judaism and why this date would likely prevent Jews from participating in the March.”

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights (I am, full disclosure, a big fan of both the rabbi and the organization), who has put her body on the line for intersectional justice in the past, was pleased with the statement, so I am too. I’ll end with her wise words (though if you want more on Rambam and forgiveness, SorryWatch has you covered):

1. I have been blown away by the ways in which Dorcas DavisTigre Di Forlivo and the other organizers have modeled teshuvah in the past few days. This is an important lesson for all of us in the last few days before the month of Elul when the season of repentance starts. When I reached out to them, they were incredibly open to getting on the phone and zoom right away, to listening, to sharing honestly, and to working on a solution. I am also grateful as always to partners in the Jewish community, including Rebecca Ennen, April Aviva Baskin, and Scott Perlo who also separately reached out. This group and a few more did a lot of hard work, and spent a lot of late nights this week working on a resolution that may not be perfect, but that will enable Jewish communities to participate in this event in some way, even if not in the march itself. (Including–very importantly–moving the date of the New York City march to Sunday, Oct. 1)

2. We know that coalition work is hard. But in a time when Nazis march freely in the street, and white supremacists feel emboldened by this President to spew their hatred of Jews, people of color, immigrants, etc. (note: these are not necessarily separate categories of people!) without shame, it is more important than ever to work across lines of difference even–and especially–when it’s difficult, and when feelings are hurt.

3. Jewish friends: Rambam taught:

“אסור לאדם שיהיה אכזרי ולא יתפייס, אלא יהיה נוח לרצות וקשה לכעוס, ובשעה שמבקש ממנו החוטא למחול, מוחל בלבב שלם ובנפש חפצה; ואפילו הצר לו הרבה וחטא לו הרבה, לא ייקום וייטור”

It is forbidden for a person to be cruel and refuse to be appeased. Rather, a person should be easily pacified but difficult to anger. And when the one who has wronged him/her/them, asks for forgiveness, one should forgive this person with a whole heart, and with a willing spirit. Even if this person caused great pain and did a great wrong, one should not seek revenge or bear a grudge. (Hilchot Teshuva 2:10)

I know that some of you still want the date to be changed. I wish this were possible too. But given the difficulty of securing permits for the National Mall, it’s not. So let’s take Rambam’s advice and accept this apology “with a whole heart and with a willing spirit,” in the spirit in which it was offered.

So here are a few things we can do now:

A. Go to the March for Racial Justice page and say thank you. Tell them you accept the apology. Affirm your commitment to working together now and in the future.

B. Get involved. Go to the FB page or website and volunteer to work on one of the sister marches, in NYC or elsewhere. Or volunteer to help plan what happens in DC Saturday night or Sunday. (don’t write to me to ask how–just go directly to the page!–you’ll find what you need, and the partners you need.)

C. If you’ll be in shul on Yom Kippur–and especially if you’ll be leading services, incorporate into Yizkor the El Maleh Rachamim produced by T’ruah in memory of those killed in racist violence http://www.truah.org/…/el-maleh-rachamim-for-victims-of-ra…/

D. Reach out to partners locally. Make new friends. Talk to people who are not in your immediate community. Everything helps. As I said above, with Nazis and white nationalists carrying assault rifles through our streets, we need each other more than ever, and must be committed to tackling the inevitable missteps and hurt feelings that will happen along the way.

On Yom Kippur, Jews traditionally say “G’mar tov” to each other. It means “finish well.” Finish your fast well; finish the Hebrew year well. But g’mar tov also might apply to apologies. Even if we begin them poorly, we can always urge ourselves to finish well.

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4 Responses to A fine apology from the March for Racial Justice

  1. tanita says:

    Love that “finish well.” It’s such a hopeful thing, no matter which sideways manner in which you began.

  2. Saurs says:

    As always, excellent summary and analysis, both. Thanks, snarly.

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  4. Jane Arnold says:

    A local group presented this at my NAACP meeting last night, and I brought up Yom Kippur. You are generous to be forgiving. I was quite angry, although my local chapter immediately supported a 10/1 march.
    First, yes, Yom Kippur is on every single calendar that marks holidays. Can’t you read? Second, and I wish this were not so, there are far too many dates that remind us of terrible incidents happening to African-Americans. Why is Elaine special? It is horrible, but unlike Yom Kippur, it is not a unique day.
    Finally, please stay out of my observances and don’t make suggestions about what to do during my services. Praying for racial justice has nothing to do with Yom Kippur.
    All of that said, R. Jacobs’ comments are helpful, particularly #C. And thanks again to my local NAACP chapter, who said, “absolutely not–let’s do October 1,” even in face of reluctance from the march presenters.

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