By Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Carin Mrotz, and Audrey Sasson
Since the Covid-19 crisis began, Jewish social justice organizations have been working to free incarcerated people, including immigrants in ICE detention, as the virus sweeps through our nation’s prisons and jails. Jewish Community Action in Minnesota and Jews For Racial & Economic Justice in New York have partnered with other community groups to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to free people who are behind bars only because of their inability to pay bail. T’ruah, working nationally, has organized weekly virtual actions in which Jewish community members make simultaneous phone calls to their governors to advocate for the release of immigrants in detention, people imprisoned for nonviolent offenses, and elderly or otherwise vulnerable people.
This is not surprising. Even in “normal” times, the Jewish social justice sector lives out our Jewish values by working to build a more just society for everyone. That means partnering with the communities most directly impacted by injustice and organizing together to advocate for equity, including fighting to end mass incarceration and to ensure the human rights of immigrants and refugees.
This pandemic has laid bare the inequities that have always been part of our society, as Black and Latino people get sick and die at disproportionately high rates. This grim statistic reflects the overrepresentation of people of color in front-line jobs, such as food preparation and service, health care, and package delivery, as well as the overrepresentation of people of color in prisons and jails. As the coronavirus tears through prisons and jails, where social distancing is impossible and protective equipment and hand sanitizer are generally banned, people of color get sick at disproportionately higher rates. Michael Tyson, the first person to die in the New York City jail system, had landed at Rikers Island because of a technical parole violation – which became a death sentence.
Progressive Jewish organizations have been calling for decades for an end to mass incarceration and to the detention of immigrants, as well as for universal health care and laws that protect workers and their right to organize. Now, in real time, we are witnessing why structural inequities constitute a matter of life and death. A disaster like the COVID-19 pandemic affects all of us, billionaire and undocumented immigrant alike. But it doesn’t threaten us all equally. The fact that our communities and institutions do not have equal resources, equal access to power, or equal rights results in the virus – and its economic consequences – having a much more severe impact on certain groups than others.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
A disaster of the scale of this pandemic demands immediate action and short term rapid response. Individuals and communities desperately need direct support, such as food, medical equipment, and relief funds.
But we must also consider the bigger picture. There may always be hurricanes and disease. But if we don’t address the structural inequities built into our politics and society, we will move from crisis to crisis, each time with those at the top making it through relatively unscathed, while those at the bottom bear the brunt of the pain.
Just because this is how it’s always been doesn’t mean there isn’t a better way.That’s why this work is so important. And it’s why the Jewish social justice community isn’t slowing down – even in the midst of a global crisis.
This is the most Jewish response possible. Even in the darkest moments of our history, Jews have always asserted the possibility of a perfected and just world. And we haven’t left these dreams in the realm of theology. The Jewish legal system includes a body of civil law that insists that both victims of crime and those accused of crimes deserve dignity and a fair trial, protects low-wage workers from exploitation, and aspires to universal access to health care.
Most of us engage with justice work because our Jewish values drive us to create a more equitable world for everyone, Jewish or not. But our work also has a direct impact on the safety of the Jewish community.
History has taught us that moments of economic uncertainty are especially dangerous for Jews. Already, conspiracy theorists claim that George Soros created the virus, and protesters in Ohio have waved signs with a classic antisemitic image of a hooknosed, bearded character and the words “the real plague.” The Haredi community in New York, which experienced an early outbreak, has fought off suspicion and accusatory headlines that blame them for spreading the virus. Orthodox Jews have recently turned out by the thousands to donate blood plasma, for trials that test whether those who have recovered from Covid-19 have valuable antibodies that might help others.
It’s not only the Jewish community that has been singled out for hatred in this moment, of course. Because of the virus’s origins in Wuhan, China, Asian Americans have been primary targets of violence and racist language. Recognizing our shared interest in countering hate crimes, Jewish social justice organizations have partnered with the Asian Pacific-Inslander community to fight scapegoating and hate violence related to COVID-19.
When Jews show up in social justice movements, and form real partnerships with other communities, we build the long-term relationships and trust that supplant stereotypes and rumors. And by demonstrating the ways in which inequitable laws and policies lead to economic and health disparities, progressive organizations – Jewish and not – counter efforts to scapegoat Jews or any other ethnic community for the country’s woes.
As our country faces a potentially sustained economic crisis, many in the Jewish community have begun talking about what constitutes an essential Jewish organization. All of our institutions, from synagogues to JCCs to social service agencies, face the possibility of major losses in revenue and even closure. In this environment, it would be easy to dismiss the Jewish social justice sector as a non-essential part of the Jewish community.
This would be a mistake. The more than sixty national and local organizations that are members and affiliates of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable (JSJR) serve crucial roles in helping our community to envision a more just world. We partner with other communities to ensure that the Jewish community maintains strong relationships and partnerships that protect all of us; we live our Jewish values by building a new “normal” based on principles of equity and justice.
In the rebuilding process, financial support for the organizations that sustain the ritual, educational, and spiritual life of our community will be crucial, as will funding for social service organizations that offer emergency food and financial support in this moment of short-term crisis. However we also need the Jewish community to be deeply engaged in the long-term work of ensuring that everyone in our country has health care, fair wages, the right to organize, safety protections, and other basic human rights. And we need our community to build and maintain strong relationships with other communities. Only then will we move beyond recovery to averting future disasters, beyond confronting hate crimes to wiping out bigotry, and beyond rapid response to collective transformation.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. Carin Mrotz is the Executive Director of Jewish Community Action. Audrey Sasson is the Executive Director of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice.