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The "You're a Human" Challenge

07/02/19 08:09:45 AM

Feb7

Chaim Strauchler

We live in an age of frivolous challenges. The latest of these is the "Ten Year Challenge." It follows the "Ice Bucket Challenge," the "Mannequin Challenge," and various "Dance Challenges." I would like to suggest a more meaningful challenge. Call it, "You're a Human Challenge" (or in Torah terms - "the tzelem elokim challenge"). 

Much has been said and written about our inability to speak civilly with those with whom we disagree. The challenge: find the comment on your social media feed with which you most disagree. Call the author and (with permission) record a respectful conversation (audio or video). I tried the challenge this past week. I called Rabbi Barat Ellman - a Facebook friend (and a member of my Wexner Graduate Fellowship class) who has defended Tamika Mallory, the Washington Women's March leader who has refused to publicly condemn Louis Farrakhan's anti-Semitic statements. I thank Barat for agreeing to participate in the challenge.

Due to technical problems, we weren't able to record our conversation. (I guess this "challenge" won't go viral.) We began our conversation speaking about our common objective, a society with less hatred and greater equality. I asked Barat to explain her willingness to see Mallory's view of Jews as part of a learning process, and not to see these views (coming from a public leader) as normalizing anti-Semitism. Barat explained that African American anti-Semitism (in her experience) is a function of un-interrogated absorbed tropes rather than animus. The intensity of racism that they experience prevents them from seeing other's oppression. 

While Barat is intensely critical of Farrakhan, she does not feel comfortable as a white woman making demands of a black woman. Moreover, Barat said that Mallory has been involved in conversations with Jewish leaders, including herself, and has earnestly begun the project of learning about anti-Semitism. Differentiating between private and public statements that Mallory made, Barat argued that she takes seriously Mallory's explanation that the relationships that link Farrakhan to black communities mean that she cannot denounce him. Therefore, Mallory's failure to distance herself from Farrakhan does not itself warrant an outcome, where a black woman would lose her position at the head of a national women's movement. 

I argued that learning about anti-Semitism must take place before we allow a person to stand upon our shoulders (on a national stage). I argued that until such learning is completed and integrated into a person's character great risks remain. We do not know what hateful influences will guide what actions to the detriment of Jews and Americans.

Our conversation continued in many directions. We spoke about what "crossed lines" might constitute a reason to strip a leader of leadership. We spoke about our understanding of America's shortcomings and America's promise. I agreed with much of what Barat said, but I also disagreed. I think Barat can say the same thing about what I shared. I learned something. Barat told me that she did too, and that she found the challenge to be valuable and meaningful. We conducted a civil and respectful conversation. Now it's your turn. Are you up for the challenge?

Sun, 20 October 2019 21 Tishrei 5780