Does living in St. Louis make me an authority on the Ferguson riots or the Michael Brown shooting? On the one hand, local news offers a view of events more pure, more raw, and more personal than anything found in national coverage. More significant, perhaps, is how the fear of spreading violence, made real by advisory statements from local police and local rabbis, descended upon our community more palpably than the first snowfall of winter.
But let’s be honest. The violence hasn’t spread. Ten miles sounds perilously close to the images spilling over television screens around the world; but I was no more affected by the rioting than you were in New York or Israel or Madagascar.
In University City, St. Louis’s predominantly Torah observant neighborhood, you find an even mixture of middle-class Jews and middle-class blacks. The families next door and across the street from my house are African American, and we couldn’t wish for nicer neighbors. Indeed, for all the portents of spreading violence, not a whisper of civil unrest has disturbed our ethnically divided neighborhood… Baruch Hashem.
So who am I to opine on the Ferguson violence? Frankly, my perspective has more to do with what I do than with where I live. I’m a high school teacher. My subject is Jewish history.
So my first thought was that Jews have had plenty of cause for grievance over the generations. Relentless Roman pogroms, forced conversions by Almohad Muslims, massacres by the Crusader armies, the Cossack uprising in Poland, the expulsion of Jews from Spain (and Portugal, and Britain, and France, ad nauseum), the blood libels of Europe and North Africa and, of course, the Holocaust, have provided ample justification for a culture of entitlement based on historical victimhood.
And yet the Jews have never responded that way. Our collective equanimity comes largely from our religious sensitivity, which dictates that absolute justice is reserved for the World to Come; the best we can hope for in this world is an imperfect system that prevents, according to the teaching of our sages, man from swallowing his fellow alive. We need only watch recent news reports to witness what happens when the rule of law is abandoned.
And so, collectively, we have accepted with stoicism the injustices perpetrated upon us by the nations of the earth, defending ourselves when we could, resigning ourselves to Divine judgment when we could not. But we never responded with random violence, never vented our rage against one another, never burned down our own communities because we had no where else to direct our fury.
Well, almost never.