Black Lives Matter: My Jewish Perspective

One psychiatrist offers his thoughts on anti-black racism through the lens of anti-Semitism.

“Dear Mr Brown,” the letter from the Director of Admissions at Emory University in Georgia, dated August 1, 1959, tersely said. “Acknowledgment is made of your letter of July 30, enclosing your application for admission to our School of Medicine.”

"I am sorry I must write you that we are not authorized to consider for admission a member of the Negro race.

I regret that we cannot help you.

Yours very truly,

LL Roberts

Director of Admissions

PS I am returning herewith your $5 application fee."

I cannot imagine what Mr Brown thought, but I know what he did. His grandson Greg, a family friend, showed us the letter and told us the story. After receiving the rejection letter, undeterred, Mr Brown applied and was accepted to Howard University College of Medicine. The school was founded in 1868 to fill the health care needs of black individuals in the United States. Mr Brown fulfilled his goal of becoming a physician.

Just 4 years after Mr Brown was rejected by Emory University, I entered medical school in Mexico City. As a graduation requirement, all the students needed to devote a year to social service, working as physicians in medically underserved areas. This was a way of paying back society at large for the almost free education that all professionals received at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. It also created social consciousness. One of the most coveted placement sites was at the medical clinics operated by Petroleos Mexicanos, the national oil company. They offered the best salaries and probably the best locations. One hundred applicants were selected based on their GPA. I knew I had a very good shot at one of these positions because my GPA was at least in the top 100 out of a class of 1200. Even if everybody applied, which was quite unlikely, I would be almost at the top.

I was vaguely aware of the un-official anti-Semitism in professional circles. Nevertheless, I was surprised when I learned that I had not been accepted at Petroleos Mexicanos, no reason given. Reading the accepted students’ names, I realized that none of my friends with Jewish sounding names had been accepted. I knew they had applied, and our GPAs were higher than the GPAs of many of the students who got in. This was my first personal encounter with discrimination.

As painful as my rejection was (at the time it seemed catastrophic), it pales in comparison to Mr Brown’s rejection letter. Like him, I applied to a different institution and got an internship in the Department of Genetics of a hospital for developmentally disabled children in Mexico City. This allowed me to stay in the city, marry my current wife, and gave me time to apply to a prestigious residency in the United States. Although Mr Brown and I managed to survive and come out ahead from these experiences, I often think about the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of minorities, that are not so fortunate.

I learned about persecution and discrimination from my teachers and my parents’ friends, many of whom were Holocaust survivors. It was not unusual to hear them contrast their current life with what happened to them in the Shoah: the hunger, the cold, the smell of burning bodies, the imminent threat to their lives. My father-in-law, a refugee from the Spanish Civil War, often used to tell how he “ate rats during the war to survive.”

I often try to imagine what it must be like to live in horrific situations. During the long interminable training runs for the marathon, as the fatigue and the cold set in, my mind often goes back to the harsh European winters and the Jews in the concentration and labor camps. Their thin uniforms stuffed with newspapers to protect them from the cold, exhausted but not having the choice of quitting. I am free to stop at any time: my wife will come and pick me up, or I could take an Uber. The Jews in the camps had no choice. If they stopped to rest, they would be killed.

Through the years, I learned to relate to the suffering of my people. But how can I understand and connect to the suffering of black individuals and other minorities in our country? And then, how can I fight the discrimination and the hatred they suffer to make their lives and, by extension, my life a better one?

The Torah mentions that we were enslaved for 400 years; the black minority in our country has seen enslavement in one form or another for 400 years. We were persecuted in the crusades, lynched in the pogroms, burned, and choked in the gas chambers. Black individuals have also been victimized, persecuted, oppressed, lynched, burned, and choked. I believe we can do something to stop the cycle of hate, and the time is now. 

The Torah tells us repeatedly to protect the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the dispossessed, take care of the stranger, and seek justice. Our tradition reinforces these ideas by recreating them at every one of our celebrations and festivals. On Passover, during the Haggadah reading, we reenact the experience of slavery and the march to freedom. And at every turn, we are reminded, drilled, to behave ethically because our ancestors were once strangers in a strange land. They were slaves in Egypt.

As a scientist, I know that suspicion and fear of the stranger, of those who do not look like us, is a survival mechanism; it is hardwired in the brain. But it is anachronistic in an interconnected world. When we increase personal contacts, develop familiarity, and coexist with strangers, we can become inoculated against our prejudices. I also know I need to learn to check my biases, be aware of them, and fight against them.

Jewish tradition teaches us that humans have an evil inclination, the Yetzer HaRah. We all have the potential to cause harm. We need to get immunized against it. We have the formula to develop an efficient vaccine. First, we strive to raise consciousness and awareness, leading to action. Second, we take stock of what we have become and commit to create and execute a remediation plan: recognize what is not right with us and around us; make amends to those we may have harmed or aggrieved, whether people, beasts, or nature; and right the wrongs by devoting our energies to improve not only our lives, but the lives of those who need help to do it for themselves.

It is a daunting undertaking to fight discrimination, develop empathy, and understand those different from us. In my ideal world, we will stop individuals from suffering just because of the color of their skin, their gender, their heritage, or religion. When people commit to fighting injustice, they become vaccinated against intolerance. Thus we will develop herd immunity to protect us from the virus of discrimination and hatred.

And then we will have the privilege to live in a fair and just society.

Dr Rubinstein is a practicing child psychiatrist in Westchester County and is on the faculty of the College of Physicians and Surgeon at Columbia University.