There is a story going on in this country that is not getting as much play as it should, since everyone is paying close attention to COVID. However, it is a story that not only deserves the attention of the country, but the Jewish world specifically.
Prior to the pandemic, we were focused on the many acts of anti-Semitism that were perpetrated in previous years, culminating in two horrific attacks at the end of 2019 in Jersey City and Monsey. In fact (and this may be hard to remember), 2020 started with a mass rally wherein tens of thousands marched over the Brooklyn Bridge in solidarity with the Jewish community. The ongoing story of the vast amount of anti-Semitism in the New York metropolitan area (which unfortunately shows no sign of going away) is obviously a situation that we monitor very closely here, as we are all potential victims of anti-Semitic attacks.
Regular readers of this column might notice that I rarely comment on individual acts of racism. We all know that there are racists in the world, and they act on their own. I don’t believe there are large swaths of people who are emboldened or even given excuses to commit further acts because one person did so. It is more egregious when the perpetrator of the anti-Semitism or other forms of racism is someone with a public platform. When I call someone out, it’s always going to be someone in power who uses his or her platform to promote racist ideas, and because I’m Jewish, I am always going to be more sensitive to people in power saying things that are anti-Semitic or anti-Israel.
For instance, I have no problem calling out Rashida Tlaib deleting Israel on a world map in her office, or Ilhan Omar suggesting that Jews are controlling Congress with their Jew money and passing it off as legitimate criticism of Israel, or Bill de Blasio saying that only right-wingers can be anti-Semitic, or Bill de Blasio saying that anti-Semitism has come to the doorstep of New York in 2019 when it has been on the rise in his city for his entire tenure, or Bill de Blasio conflating the acts of a group of people with the entire Jewish population of his city.
It is with this background that we need to discuss the case of Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old black man who was shot and killed by two vigilantes in Glynn County, Georgia. The facts of this case are still coming out, but at the time of writing, here’s what we know. At the very worst - and there isn’t really sufficient evidence to back this up - Arbery may have been guilty of trespassing on a construction site. According to the landowner, nothing was stolen, broken, or vandalized. Nobody was hurt. Nothing Arbery may have done warranted his death.
Having heard that there was a man who had been entering private property without permission, a father-son duo claims to have attempted to make a citizen’s arrest, which they said turned violent when Arbury tried to grab one of their guns. If you watch the video, the first thing you would notice is that a truck is blocking Arbury’s path. Arbury, trying to avoid confrontation, runs around it - the opposite way of the men – but they try to block his way while brandishing a weapon. At this point, Arbery is now in self-defense mode. He is absolutely well within his right to protect himself. These aren’t police officers; they are random people with guns. For all he knows, his life is in danger. And he would be right. So in an attempt at self-preservation, Arbery’s fight-or-flight instinct kicks in, and he grabs the gun - an act that eventually costs him his life.
Now, while I do believe that this is probably manslaughter, there is no question that this is definitely not an open-and-shut case where the vigilantes are not guilty. At the very least, an investigation should have been opened immediately to look further into this case. My gripe here isn’t with the guys who killed Arbery, and that’s because while they almost certainly are in the wrong here, they don’t matter. They are nobodies. Their actions aren’t going to convince others that killing someone is a good idea. You know whose actions are the problem here? It’s the DA’s office who decided to not prosecute. It’s the police, who were too friendly with the father in this case because he was a former police officer. It’s those in power, whom we are supposed to trust with the law and justice, but instead acted in a way that could promote individuals to act with no fear of repercussions. When we can no longer trust those who we are supposed to trust, the rule of law is all but abandoned. Those sworn to do no harm can no longer be trusted to do so. And until video of the Arbery shooting (which I am struggling to not call murder at this point) surfaced, no action was taken.
Now, was anyone in this case acting out of racism? I don’t see any evidence to support that. I haven’t seen any reported history of racism among the police and DA office in this district, so we can’t even establish a pattern. Instead, it seems to be a case of cronyism in the police department, one that turned a blind eye until they were no longer able. But the facts in this case are that two white guys shot a black guy in a mostly white neighborhood, and if these officials were unable to see how this was going to be spun into a race issue, then they haven’t been paying enough attention to where we are in society, and that in and of itself is a problem for a police force.
This case is vastly different from the previous cases to which it’s being compared. George Zimmerman was investigated and stood trial for the death of Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown’s death was investigated. The cop responsible for Eric Garner’s death was eventually stripped of his badge. All three were taken seriously from the start. Even if you didn’t like the outcome of those cases, you have to know that the people involved weren’t just let go because they were friends with the police, or that they were the police. In this case, it would have been one thing if the perpetrators were arrested and tried, and only then found not-guilty, but nothing happened until the public backlash forced their hand.
This is where we need to look within ourselves to see if we have our own double-standard as a community. I have to believe that if you substitute Ahmad Arbery in Georgia with Yankel Goldstein in Brooklyn, every Jew would be calling for the evisceration of not only the guys who killed him, but the police department, the prosecutors, the mayor, and anyone else who had a hand in this case. We would see it as a pattern of violence against Jews in the city, and a coverup like this would only strengthen our distrust in a mayor who has been less-than-kind to our community since taking office. So I have to conclude that if you are angered at the thought of a random Jewish person being gunned down for at worst trespassing, and his killers allowed to get away with it, but feel nothing for Ahmed Arbery, you are in the wrong.
We have our enemies; there’s no question about it. But we have to be realistic. Jews are not the only ones with enemies. Jews are not the only ones who feel discriminated against. When acts are taken by randos, unfortunately, there isn’t much we can do about it. We can organize a rally. We can make our voices heard. But unless those in charge take action, they are silently granting permission for this to happen again. And this is the problem with the officials in Glynn County: They forfeited the public trust. When acts and stances are taken by those with a platform (or in this case, decidedly not taken), that’s when we need to start talking.
I am not here to argue which one of our communities face more discrimination, and it doesn’t help when people with platforms far greater than mine make asinine statements. No, LeBron, black people are not being hunted. No, President Obama, Trayvon Martin was never going to be your son. These are talking points with the exclusive goal to illicit a reaction. But racism isn’t exclusive to the Jewish community, and if you want people outside our community to take us seriously when we complain, take them seriously when they do it as well.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.