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What Four Questions must we ask about Mass Incarceration?
1. Why does the U.S. have the highest incarceration rate in the world?
The U.S. comprises less than 5% of world inhabitants, and yet holds 25% of incarcerated inhabitants (Coates, The Atlantic). America’s incarceration rate skyrocketed post-1965 as result of the Law Enforcement Administration Act and Crime Control & Safe Streets Act, making up the “War on Crime.” Crime rates were actually on the decrease when the War on Crime was instilled- and the Broken Windows policy encouraged officers to make arrests for all petty crime. The War on Crime also increased militarization by giving state authorities federal funding for weapons- including tanks and arms.
2. Why are people of color incarcerated at extraordinarily high rates?
African Americans are jailed 4x the rate of white Americans (in New York City, this figure is 12x the rate). African Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population and yet 36% of the jail population. Nixon asserted himself as a creator of prison policy, and wrote a “Long Rang Master Plan” to dramatically increase incarceration. A California chart was found in his cabinet predicted a 1975 crossover of more non-white people incarcerated than white.
3. What is the relationship between mass incarceration and mass deportation?
To address this question, first we must define neoliberalism. Neoliberal reforms are economic changes that focus on opening up the economy to global markets and reduce state spending on social welfare (Golash-Boza, Deported). The U.S. government profits from mass deportation among undocumented people by keeping their wages low and their work ethic submissive. Once undocumented people have lived long enough in the U.S. to become bilingual, their deportation benefits their home country because they can work for transnational corporations- which are absolutely necessary to sustain a liberal economy. From 2008-2013 over 2 million people were deported, more than the sum of all deported people pre-1997 (Golash-Boza, Deported). Amnesty International and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights have denounced immigration detention conditions as draconian.
4. Why should we as Jews care about mass incarceration?
Because it is one of the greatest issues plaguing our nation today. Because on Seder we remember that we were once slaves in Egypt, and the U.S. now perpetuates a new kind of slavery. Because our purpose as Jews is to bring spirituality to the physical world and mass incarceration is a grave violation of morality.
“Why on this night when we remember the oppression and resistance of Jews should we also think about the lives of people of color?” Because many Jews are people of color. Because racism is a Jewish issue. Because our liberation is connected.
White Ashkenazi Jews have a rich history but are only a part of the Jewish story. Mizrahi & Sephardi Jews; Yemeni Jews; Ethiopian Jews; Jews who trace their heritage to the Dominican Republic, to Cuba & Mexico; to Guyana & Trinidad; descendants of enslaved Africans whose ancestors converted or whose parents intermarried.
Jews of color are diverse, multihued and proud of it — proud of our Jewishness and proud of our Blackness. But though our lives are joyous and full, racism forces us down a narrow, treacherous path. On the one hand we experience the same oppression that afflicts all people of color in America — racism targets us, our family members, and our friends. On the other hand, the very community that we would turn to for belonging and solidarity — our Jewish community — often doesn’t acknowledge our experience.
Jews of color cannot choose to ignore the experiences of people of color everywhere, anymore than we would ignore our Jewishness. We must fully inhabit both communities and we need all Jews to stand with us, forcefully and actively opposing racism and police violence.
But in order to do so, we must pare our past trauma from our present truth: our history of oppression leaves many of us hyper-vigilant and overly preoccupied with safety. As Jews we share a history that is overburdened with tales of violent oppression. Though different Jewish communities have varying experiences, none of us have escaped painful legacies of persecution, including genocide. This past is real, and part of why we gather today is to remember it. But the past is past. However seductive harsh policing, surveillance and incarceration may be in the short term, it will never serve us in the end. Not when those tactics brutalize other communities, humiliating and incarcerating our neighbors and perpetuate a status quo that leaves low-income communities of color on the other side of a sea of fear — still trapped; still stranded. The only real way out of the Mitzrayim (Egypt) of our fears is solidarity. Only by forging deep connections and sharing struggle with other communities will we creating the lasting allies who will walk with us into the promised land of our collective liberation. That is true Jewish freedom — true and lasting safety.
They cried to Moses, “What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt ... it is better to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness” (14:11-12).
When Moses led the Jews out of Egypt, it was a moment of great risk and great change. As the passage above shows us, though life under Pharaoh was cruel and crushing, it was also familiar — a known fear. After a century of servitude, freedom. What changed? It was the Jewish people daring to imagine for themselves something greater. Daring to take great risks and face great fears to find liberation. This willingness to stand up for justice is a strength we have found again and again. When the oppression of economic exploitation demanded it, our grandparents found it in the labor movement; when the civil rights movement demanded it, our parents travelled to the South to register voters. Now this moment demands again that we take risks for justice.
What our neighbors in communities of color are asking — what the Jews of color in our own communities need from their fellow Jews — is that we push past the comfortable and move to action. In the streets, in our synagogues and homes, with our voices, our bodies, our money and resources, with our imaginations. In doing so we must center the voices and the leadership of Jews of color and other communities of color, while forming deep partnerships and long-term commitments to fight for lasting change.
Passover is a time of remembrance but also one of renewal — of looking ahead toward the spring and new growth that will sustain us through the seasons to come. Once we spent spring in the desert. It was harsh and difficult but from that journey grew a people who have endured for centuries. What would happen if we took that journey again, not alone in the wilderness but surrounded by friends and allies, leaving no one behind?