Who has suffered more? Blacks or Jews?
What may sound like a ridiculous question is at the center of the decades-long sense of alienation between these two communities. Each seems intent on being the world's biggest victim, and since two kings cannot share a single crown, they have been at loggerheads as to who has had the stuffing kicked out of them most.
You would be justified in asking why either group would wish to claim the prize of world's biggest victim. But the question of who has suffered more is not as superficial as one might suppose. People perceive nobility in suffering such that the more one suffers, the greater one is. For Christians it is the very fact of Christ's suffering‑-his sacrificial death at the hands of his sadistic tormentors‑-that is redemptive, and Christian audiences around the world were spellbound by Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" precisely because it depicted, in the most graphic detail, the full extent of Christ's torment.
As a rabbi with a long and close association with the black community, I have discovered that the central element in the distance between the Jewish and black communities is how each seems to discount the suffering of the other. The Jewish community experienced the greatest tragedy in the history of the world, the Holocaust. The black community was inflicted with the greatest evil in the history of the United States, slavery. And yet, rather than making each side more sympathetic to the pain of the other, these experiences have created a strange game of suffering one-upmanship.
Jews are outraged that black leaders such as Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton take hurtful digs at Jews. "Don't they realize," the thinking goes, "that we Jews have faced millennia of marginalization and persecution. So how can a group that has been similarly marginalized and persecuted, albeit far less than we Jews, dare attack us? They especially should understand." To which the black community responds, "Puulleeaassee. Don't give us lectures on suffering. We wrote the book. And you Jews are stealing all the world's sympathy when it's blacks that have been enslaved, murdered, and slaughtered wherever we've been. And we still suffer the effects of racism today, even as you Jews have become, well, white, living in your pristine, middle-class suburbs, while persistent prejudice has confined us to the slums."
When I was the first white morning host on WWRL, America's oldest black radio station, arguments about who suffered more erupted between callers all the time. One black listener told me, "Look, Shmuley, it was terrible what Hitler did. But the Holocaust was only a single event. It killed six million Jews over five years. How can you compare that with slavery, which killed at least 150 million [the number he used] over 350 years?" Of course, the caller overlooked the fact that the Holocaust was only the culmination of 3,300 years of Jewish slaughter, but was there a point in my arguing that I was more hated?
On a TV show in England where I was pitted in a debate ostensibly about relationships with a black fashion model she got angry at me for suggesting that Israel is embattled and under siege. "Africa is where the problems are," she said. "The idea that Jews have suffered more than blacks is a big Jewish lie."
What we must all remember is that any attempt to promote one's own suffering and disqualify that of another is as pointless as it is immoral. For starters, how does one quantify suffering? And are we not automatically dismissive of another's suffering the moment we say that it doesn't much matter compared to an even greater tragedy?
But what is even stranger in this bizarre contest between two once-close communities who worked together handily in the fight for civil rights and, much earlier, in the very founding of the NAACP, is just how damaging this has been to young people. Do we really believe that young black men and women are going to want to study black history when it is reduced to, "People love sticking a pitchfork into us?" Do we really believe that the best way to inspire young Jews to lay claim to their tradition is by portraying that tradition as one of endless bloodletting and massacre? Does neither community have anything to offer its youth, save the notion that being part of either community labels one with the mark of Cain?
Perhaps this is why both the black and Jewish communities suffer the same malady of abandonment by the youth. The black community has today replaced great men like Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. Dubois, and Martin Luther King, Jr., with too many sleazy hip-hop artists, just as today's Jewish youth seem far more keen on buying shares in Google and attending Harvard Business School then reading the Bible and attending synagogue.
Creating greater closeness between these two communities, with so much history in common, will therefore be a two-fold process. First, it will involve acknowledging, rather than dismissing, each other's long history of suffering, and then going beyond suffering and creating a mutual vision of promise and blessing.
One great African-American woman, arguably its most influential, deserves credit for heroically reaching outside her own community's interests and highlighting the suffering of the Jews.
When Oprah Winfrey chose the greatest of the Holocaust memoirs, Elie Wiesel's "Night," as the most recent selection for her book club, catapulting the haunting and mesmerizing book to the top of the best-seller lists, she did so at the risk of accusations of neglecting her own heritage. Surely, many in the black community could argue that Oprah should be stressing the long history of African-American agony rather than the Jewish Holocaust.
That is why her grand gesture, which has brought the awareness of the Holocaust to so many millions, should be roundly applauded by the Jewish community. When Steven Spielberg made "Schindler's List," he became a hero to Jews the world over for bringing the knowledge of the Holocaust to world consciousness. We live at a time when the memory of the Holocaust is beginning to fade, and when a ferocious effort to minimize its scope is being made by even purportedly learned historians like the anti-Semite David Irving. And ideas like his are gaining ground in academic circles. Some even believe that in a hundred years' time, the doubters will gain the upper hand and the world will questions whether a tragedy of this magnitude ever took place. After the slaughter of six million innocent Jewish victims, can anyone imagine their memory now being exterminated as well? Oprah has given their memory more life.
Jewish reciprocity is in order. I believe that Jewish day schools should band together and make a great slavery memoir--and perhaps none better than the autobiography of Frederick Douglas--mandatory reading so that Jewish children understand just how much the African-American community endured. Not so that each community finally acknowledges the suffering of the other, but so that they substantiate the humanity of the other. Because when you begin to feel someone else's pain, you are no longer trapped in a prison of your own victimhood.