An Open Letter To My Jewish Friends: It's Time To Speak Up

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Zach Schaffer is a senior studying political science and communication/rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh. On campus, he serves as President of the Hillel Jewish Student Union and President of Beta Theta Pi. He also holds various other leadership positions in the Diversity Council, 70 Faces Magazine, The Pitt News, and other organizations. He has spent his last two summers in D.C., and after graduation he plans to work on the 2016 campaign. He is pictured at left during The David Project's 2013-14 Israel Uncovered Mission to Israel.

Hey friends! A lot of you know me as the kid who was crazy about USY (Jewish youth group) in high school; the president of Hillel at Pitt; or the kid who goes to Israel too much. What you might not know, however, is why I am such a strong ally to the African American community. Or, why this past week's tragedy in Charleston affected me as it did. 

Well, it's a pretty easy answer. It's the same reason why all of you need to be hurt and angry and afraid. It's the very same reason why you all must publicly denounce what happened and do all that you can to stand with our black friends in this country.

So, the reason that I care and the reason that you should too? Judaism, Jewish history, and maybe even a healthy dose of Jewish guilt too.

When I first heard about this tragedy, it broke my heart. But it was a familiar heartbreak. My heart hurt in the same way it did when I heard that Jews were targeted in a kosher supermarket in France. My soul stung just as it does when synagogues are attacked around the globe or when Jews are murdered in cold-blood in Israel. I felt lost, like when I learned that I lost eleven families members to the Holocaust.

We are history's greatest victim. As it is often said, anti-Semitism is "the longest hatred." It is a bigotry that has persisted for thousands of years. It has taken many forms, and inhabited itself within differing cultures, religions, and nations. We know what it is like to be hated because of who we are. We understand the meaning of being in the minority. We still struggle to rid the world of negative and false stereotypes nearly as old as our culture.

We're cheap; we're taking over the world; we use Christian baby blood in matzah; we're duplicitous; we're greedy; we killed Jesus; we're dirty; we're genetically inferior; and the list goes on.

Many of us have experienced these stereotypes firsthand in this country. For those of you that haven't, give it time. You should also know, as I'm sure you do, that there are many countries today where being Jewish is a death sentence. Then there are others where you should expect daily insults and threats hurled your way, being spit on, and even threatened or attacked.

Your ancestors have been the victims of institutionalized discrimination, pogroms, and genocide. Surely, our collect conscious must not have forgotten our past.

As a Jew, you also certainly know the adage "Never Forget" and all the meaning contained in that pithy phrase. We must never forget the atrocities that humankind can perpetrate. We must never forget what happened when we allowed ourselves to become victims. We must never forget, no matter how comfortable we think we are, that anti-Semitism may just be around the corner. Why must we never forget? So history does not repeat itself.

We must also never forget the righteous among the nations that came to our defense, fought for us, hid us, and liberated us. We must never forget that all people can be victims of discrimination.

This is our chance to be righteous among the nations. This is our opportunity to show to ourselves and the millions that we mourn that we have not forgotten.

We have a moral obligation to engage in racial dialogue in our community and elsewhere. We also have a long history of just that. Jewish Americans were perhaps the most active allies of any group during the Civil Rights Movement.

Jewish philanthropy helped to establish the NAACP, fund thousands of elementary schools for black children in the South, and contribute to the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Of the white freedom riders, more than two-thirds were Jewish. History shows us that "96 percent of the national Jewish community supported President Kennedy's decision to dispatch federal troops to help enforce desegregation in Montgomery, Alabama in 1961."

Our history is intertwined with that of African Americans. It's clear why we have supported them for so long in this country. For much of our time here, Jews were often not considered to be fully white themselves. We understood their struggle for it was our own. Now, we are no longer victim in America of the hate that black Americans fall prey to. Now, we're relatively safe. But, we must never forget that for a long time we were not; in other countries today we are not.

I implore all of you to think deeply about our history – and present – as Jews, and ask yourself, can we not relate?

Let us live up to our Jewish values and to our history; let us once again commit ourselves to standing with our black brothers and sisters.

We cannot be silent any longer. As a Jew, I'm sure you've heard Niemoller's Holocaust poem that ends with, "Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me." Well, right now they're not coming for us, they’re coming for someone else – and we must speak up.

Reach out to your Black American friends and see what you can do. Attend a vigil. Make a Facebook status. Re-evaluate the words you use and the subconscious biases you may have. Let us follow the path of our parents and grandparents and once again march alongside our African American neighbors in their struggle for civil rights.

Let us speak up.

Please, never forget.