'Be More Like the Jews'

After our discussion last week on the Jewish community of Lawndale, housing discrimination, and integration, someone sent me the following piece by Jill Jacobs entitled "When the Slumlord Is Us." It's a fascinating read. What you see is a community grappling with the tension between its commitment to kinship and its commitment to social justice. 


Here's a section detailing the efforts by a couple of Jewish communities to expose slumlords in their midst:

Using even more formal means, in 1968 a Boston rabbinic court, or beit din, forced three brothers -- Israel, Joseph and Raphael Mindick -- to make repairs to their buildings. When the Mindicks failed to comply with the initial ruling, the beit din took action again. In their book "The Death of an American Jewish Community," Hillel Levine and Lawrence Harmon recount: "Tenants in twenty of the brothers' buildings went on a rent strike that winter, charging that the landlords had failed to live up to the terms of the rabbinic court's agreement. The rabbis concurred and slapped the Mindicks with a $48,000 fine to be distributed among the affected tenants."

Just three years later, another Boston rabbi, the newly ordained Daniel Polish, publicly confronted Jewish slumlord Maurice Gordon, a prominent member of the Boston Jewish community. Speaking at a protest against an Israel Bonds event honoring Gordon, Polish said:
Our gut instinct is to come to the defense of any of our own who are criticized or attacked for whatever reason.... 

It is no accident that the office of Bonds of Israel and Capital for Israel Incorporated and the Development Corporation for Israel are all located in the building at 141 Milk Street, a building owned by Maurice Gordon. And it is no accident that these organizations, along with others in the Jewish community, have repeatedly showered this 'philanthropist' and his family with honor and distinction. ... It is time the Jewish agencies severed their dependence on, and desisted from honoring and elevating men whose values are in explicit conflict with the Jewish people and whose conduct can only be described as contemptible.

It has now been four decades since the rabbis of Boston took action, and almost two years since the Madoff scandal rocked the Jewish world. Have we learned anything? Will Jewish organizations continue to accept donations from landlords whose wealth comes at the expense of guaranteeing safe living conditions for their tenants? Will these landlords continue to be accorded positions of honor in their Jewish communitiess? Or are we finally ready for teshuvah?
As I've said before, when I was kid it was common for other black folks to say "We should be more like the Jews." In fact I was at a recent event where a young white man told me that "Blacks should be more like the Jews." I think what people are referring to is the kind of cohesion  evidenced in this article. But culture and mores don't spring from the blood and bone, they spring from experience--lived and collective. To "be like the Jews" you'd have to have actually been like the Jews in all that that means. You don't get to cherry-pick the experience. 

Reading the article made me a little sad. On one level, I think its laudable to leverage tradition to humanistic ends. But on another level, I felt this sort of collective shame seeping through that is very familiar. The racist housing policies of this country sometimes feature Jewish individuals behaving immorally, but in general they feature garden variety white people obeying the dictates of history. 

A useful parallel might be the notion that blacks were, somehow, responsible for failure to establish equal marriage rights in 2008. The story doesn't hold up to scrutiny  I knew that. I wrote about that. And yet in my private moments I felt deeply ashamed. That is because I actually believe that marriage equality is a civil right. I believe the prohibition against forming family doesn't just hearken back to Jim Crow, but to the worst of slavery. And I think it's a betrayal of "our" history to act otherwise. 

And yet isn't this long war about the right to be an individual? And doesn't being an individual mean the end of collective expectations? And doesn't my shame really originate in the fact that in 2008 we lent credence to the ugly stereotype of black pathology and hyper-masculinity? Doesn't much of the handwringing over Jewish slumlords come from the same place? 

I think the tradition part of this is valuable. The stereotype-response portion, not so much. (Though I wonder if one feeds the need for the other.) When public opinion on marriage equality shifted it was not credited to black people anyway, but to the super-powers of Barack Obama. People believe what they want. 


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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