The other day I met a young Orthodox Jew who approached me in Manhattan to say hello. We talked about the state of Jewry and of Israel, and I gained considerable respect for his intellect and his insight.
Then I asked him where he had grown up, and he told me, “In a really tough neighborhood in Brooklyn, where there is a lot of tension between the Jews and the shvartzas.” The comment broke my heart and my impression of him plummeted.
A friend with whom I discussed the incident told me that I judged the young man too harshly, that he might have meant nothing by it, and that it was just an expression to which he had been acclimated. He asked that, rather than judge this student, I lend him the benefit of the doubt and attempt instead to educate him as to why the term ought never be used.
I wrote a column last year about how the word “shvartza” must be retired forever (“The ‘S’ Word Has No Place In a Religious Jew’s Vocabulary,” op-ed, Feb. 2, 2007). It is an insulting, offensive, and derogatory term that has no place in the mouths of people committed to ethics. And since we Jews have a faith that demands the highest moral standards, it simply can never be part of our lexicon.
In the wake of that column, I was surprised to find that a number of people – religious and secular alike – wrote that I was exaggerating. Shvartza, they said, was an innocent and benign term that simply meant “black person.”
It doesn’t. It’s a pejorative, a term with a distinctly condescending connotation. My purpose in addressing this issue again is not to sound holier-than-thou or to be self-righteous. But when I hear the term, I feel pain. Pain that we Jews who have suffered so much persecution can be so callous as to speak condescendingly, however unintentionally, of other human beings. And pain that we religious Jews in particular can so betray our core values by inadvertently coming across as bigots.
I once found myself in a polite argument with a fellow Orthodox Jew after I had politely shared with him why the term shvartza is offensive. “It’s OK for you to criticize, Shmuley,” he said, “because you don’t live in a neighborhood where you have to be afraid to walk the streets or where your car gets vandalized every night. We don’t mean anything bad with the term, but we are the victims here.”
But why must an entire population be criminalized because of the sins of a few? And isn’t blaming an entire community not only racist but exactly the tactic used against Jews by the worst anti-Semites? How many Jew-haters harp on a few high profile white-collar criminals who are Jewish to reinforce anti-Semitic stereotypes?
Jews are called by the Torah to be a light unto the nations, and it is religious Jews in particular, who live lives openly committed to Jewish ritual and values, upon whom this responsibility first devolves. But what light is it that we impart when we use a term that betrays the Torah’s most sacred value – that there is only one God in heaven who created every human being in His likeness?
Just think how people who are unfamiliar with Jews must react when they hear any of us using an unpleasant expression about a fellow human being.
We Jews, a righteous and generous people, whose Torah calls us to the mighty ideal of loving our neighbor as ourselves, must never speak of another person contemptuously. How much more so that Orthodox Jews in particular, who are renowned the world over for their charity, humility, and loving-kindness, must be extra vigilant never to offer even a hint of discriminatory language.
Presidential hopeful Barack Obama has expressed the need for America to transcend red state and blue state divisiveness and come together for shared national purpose. But his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, has given speeches that places rifts over reconciliation and generates heat rather than healing. The same is true of Louis Farrakhan, whom Rev. Wright has praised, even though he is guilty of hate speech against Jews and Judaism.
Our moral authority to condemn such insensitive and inflammatory rhetoric is dependent upon us being utterly different in thought, speech, and action.
Who better than Jews and blacks know what is to suffer? And who better than Jews and blacks know that there can be no tolerance for intolerance? And who better than Jews and blacks need to come together to battle bigotry, defeat discrimination, and generate goodwill among all mankind?
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach hosts a daily national radio show on “Oprah and Friends” and is the author most recently of “The Broken American Male.” Visit his website at www.shmuley.com.