We are living through a period of heightened social consciousness. What began as protests over a police officer murdering George Floyd has morphed into a mass movement against racism and systemic injustice. This campaign has significantly altered our country’s discourse to prioritize the marginalized.
This movement is a good thing. It’s a good thing to hold everyone — especially those in power or who have a large audience — accountable. The most recent example of a public figure being reprimanded occurred last weekend, when DeSean Jackson, a wide receiver on the Philadelphia Eagles, posted a slew of anti-Semitic content on his Instagram page, including photos of and writing from the anti-Semite Reverend Louis Farrakhan. A false quote attributed to Adolf Hitler garnered the most attention, which said Jews only care about world domination and oppressing Black people.
As a Jewish man, I was hurt. But I was not surprised. People are largely uneducated about anti-Semitism. Jackson, and those who have doubled down and continued to defend his posts, need to be educated — about anti-Semitism, but also about the historic relationship between Jews and Black Americans. Contrary to Jackson’s post, Jews have routinely been at the front lines supporting Black and Brown people’s search for equality.
Take Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, for example. Heschel marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in the Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches. When asked about his participation, Heschel said he felt like his “legs were praying” as he walked with Dr. King.
“Heschel articulated to many Jewish Americans and African Americans the notion that they had a responsibility for each other’s liberation and for the plight of all suffering fellow humans around the world,” according to the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford.
As I continued to reflect on the situation, and on Heschel’s teachings, I ended up agreeing with my good friend Ben Natan, who wrote, “In Jackson’s case, this seems more like a case of ignorance than someone who has hate in their heart for the Jewish people.”
I obviously don’t — and can’t — speak for all Jews. Every Jew’s experience with anti-Semitism is unique. I also have no interest in participating in an unnecessary and divisive discussion over whose trauma is worse or somehow more deserving of attention.
If we immediately rush to judgment and vilify, we suffocate our ability for growth. DeSean Jackson is an adult, and a public figure, and he should recognize that what he says (or posts) will have repercussions. But instead of demonizing him, I believe the answer is education, discussion, compassion and empathy.
Jackson’s education is starting to take place now. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Jackson is meeting with a group fighting against anti-Semitism and a 94-year-old Holocaust survivor. But there will be more DeSean Jacksons, more people who fall victim to Farrakhan and others’ hateful words.
We also can’t let those with malicious intent hijack this incident to remove the focus from the systemic and overt racism that Black Americans face daily. Since the beginning of U.S history, Black Americans have been systematically oppressed in a way that I, as a white man (regardless of religion), will never be able to understand. I also believe that we have a responsibility as Jews — people who also experience oppression — to be the most supportive and vocal advocates for Black people in America.
I urge my fellow Jews to continue to take this time to educate and enlighten non-Jews on the Jewish experience, but also to stay focused and continue to advocate for Black Americans.