Commentary on Parshat Balak (Numbers 22:2 – 25:9)
“When will they get here??” It had been hours since my husband and older son had landed in Tel Aviv, and my younger son’s anticipation of their arrival in Jerusalem a few weeks ago was frustrated by the long delay. Half of my family was at a standstill, as the main roads were blocked by large demonstrations provoked by the death of 19 year-old Solomon Tekah, an unarmed Ethiopian Israeli shot by an off-duty Israeli police officer.
While the details of the shooting are highly contested, nationwide protests ensued, highlighting the racism that many Jews of Ethiopian descent say that they experience daily in Israel. While the details are very different in the United States and in Israel, and Israeli racism does not map onto the same binaries we often understand in the U.S., in both of our societies people of color and ethnic minorities suffer from interpersonal and systemic racism. And sadly, both in Israel and in the United States, it is often through irrefutably violent acts that our eyes are opened to a reality that has existed all along.
In Parshat Balak we read of the non-Israelite prophet, Balaam, hired to curse the people Israel by the Moabite king. Knowing that God does not wish him to curse the Israelites, Balaam at first demurs. Under more pressure from King Balak, Balaam indicates that he will be unable to curse a people that God wishes to bless, yet he sets out on his donkey anyway. On his journey, an angel of God blocks the path—which the donkey sees, but the prophet cannot. Each time the angel blocks the path, Balaam beats his donkey into continuing the journey. After the third beating, and an admonishment of Balaam by the donkey (which has now begun to speak), Balaam’s “eyes are uncovered” and he is no longer blind to the angel that has been blocking his path.
Balaam, like many good people, was blinded by hope, rather than willful ignorance. He was sure that he would not curse the Israelites, for he served God. So, what harm could it do to appear to follow the King’s command? Yet, he was blind to the ways that even embarking on the journey at the request of the king was itself supporting an oppressive regime. It is easy to be blind to the ways that we sustain and even lend support to systems of oppression while espousing the opposite values, especially when those systems may be to our benefit. Like Balaam, many white people who support the idea of equality, with no intended ill will towards people of color, do not see how we lend tacit or implicit support to racist systems.
Recently, I was discussing white privilege with a family member who was part of the civil rights movement. They quoted Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” This prophetic vision is noble — and yet it is often used to promote “color-blindness,” which sociologists define as the assertion, usually by the dominant racial group, that race does not matter and that racism can be overcome by ignoring race.
The challenge of color-blindness is that it allows those who most benefit from the systems that privilege white people to continue to ignore, and therefore not work to dismantle, these systems. As a white person, there is little that causes me to think about the fact that “nude” and “flesh”-colored pantyhose and bandages match my skin tone — much less to notice much larger and more impactful privileges, such as preferential treatment at car dealerships or with mortgage lenders. It should not take police shootings of unarmed black men for white people to notice that we are given the “benefit of the doubt” in many situations where people of color are not, with often tragic outcomes. The privileges of whiteness do not mean that white people always have it easy; they do mean that people perceived as white are given advantages relative to people of color in the same situations.
In the United States, it is challenging for Ashkenazi Jews who are perceived as white to always recognize how we also benefit from systemic racism. Whether personally or in past generations, we too have been victims of hate and prejudice. Often, anti-Semitism and our suffering at the hands of white supremacists is ignored or downplayed, and we feel ourselves needing to amplify our victimhood in ways that can also blind white Jews to our concurrent privileges. Additionally, we often neglect where we uphold biases and racism in our own American Jewish communities, in which (according to recent population surveys) 15 percent of us are people of color. And, it is also easy for those of us outside of Israel to misunderstand racism and supremacy in Israel, and to try to simplify it by erroneously mapping it onto American racial categories and experiences.
We should not need extraordinary or violent acts to force our eyes to be open to racism in the United State and Israel, but here we are. And like the prophet, it is only through open-eyed awareness that we can possibly bring blessing upon those who would be cursed by those in power. It is only through acknowledging race and racism that we can work to dismantle it. We can read, we can listen, we can join those organizations and people in the United States and in Israel who are working to promote racial justice. With open eyes, we can find useful ways to uncover the eyes of those who are blindly beating donkeys, unaware of the injustice they are perpetuating. One day, may we indeed create societies in Israel and in the United States where, every member of our society will experience the blessing of Balaam: “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov: How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.”
Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein is the Executive Director of the Center for Rabbinic Entrepreneurs at the Office of Innovation of Hillel International.