Moses was a murderer.
Max Socol is an organizer and educator in North Carolina. This post is the fifth in Jewschool’s series of reflections on Judaism, Jewish identity, race and the events in Ferguson.
Moses was a murderer. How infrequently we speak of him that way. In its enormity, the decision to take the life of another person seems character-defining, yet the episode in Shemot when Moses, acting to defend an Israelite slave, kills an Egyptian slavedriver rarely comes to mind when I think of Israel’s greatest prophet.
As the turmoil over unchecked police brutality in American cities grows, I find myself confronting the raw edge of political nonviolence and political violence. I know I’m not alone. Even within the Jewish community, where so many of us (but not all of us, not by a long shot) are insulated from daily police harassment, those of us who are searching for a meaningful, moral role as allies in the struggle against racist oppression are met with competing demands that feel impossible to reconcile.
Loud voices at the street protests here in Durham call for massive public disturbance: the blocking of roads and highways, damage to property (particularly government and financial institution property), the disruption of public and private events. These same voice cry out: the police are murderers. The police are animals. There can be no dialogue with the police.
In the crowd, I fidget. Can I pretend, as the police here insist, that Chuy Huerta, hands cuffed behind his back, somehow shot himself in the mouth in the back of a police cruiser, after he had been searched for weapons? Do I believe the police when they say that they had to shoot to kill when Derek Walker, in the very spot where I am now standing at this protest, brandished a pistol? That they were “helping” a man who was threatening to kill himself…by killing him first, themselves?
In every community we can find stories like these. Cases where one must equivocate, sometimes beyond any rational standard, in order to justify a fatal encounter with police. And that’s just the deaths. Start picking at the cases of wanton physical and psychological abuse, waged ceaselessly by police in the homes and neighborhoods of the black- and brown-skinned people I am standing with now, and you could read and never stop. In your town, too.
And yet, and yet. Can I stand here and say that breaking the windows of that Wells Fargo is on the menu of tactical options, at this point? When those around me chant “fuck the police,” can I join them? Once upon a time, I never did, going quiet during those moments as if visiting the worship service of a different faith group, reaching for understanding while staying true to myself. Now: I don’t know anymore.
It’s not your place to question, the protest leaders say. You are white, and you fundamentally cannot understand this burden. The time has come to defer to the communities that suffer from police brutality. The time has come to bring a sense of urgency to a majority white country that has checked out of the debate even as it ruins our lives. If that means setting things on fire, so be it. The time to equivocate was before the deaths, not after.
And they’re right.
The violence and dehumanization are wrong no matter who notices, or why, my moderate Jewish friends opine. Bank windows have nothing to do with police violence. Random, passing motorists don’t deserve to be intimidated by strangers, no matter what they look like. Police are human beings, not pigs. We are all b’tzelem elohim, even those of us who are cruel. Even those of us who are murderers.
And they’re right, too, I think.
And why I feel so paralyzed, beyond these competing claims on my moral imagination, is the risk that I’ll sell out any side of this debate, any branch of my extended family, who mean so much to me: radicals, progressives, leftists, Jews, radical Jewish progressive leftists, every gradation and mixture in between. I have to speak, but speaking is choosing, and choosing is closing off, and closing off is killing, and I didn’t come here to kill. Or did I?
I’ve seen enough meetings, protests, and community events hijacked by those who speak without understanding to know that it is right, and good, for white people not to speak in certain situations. But when we are quiet, even for the best reasons, it can be hard to get our questions answered, and I overflow with questions.
When he killed the slavedriver, did Moses commit a crime? Was God angry? Was Moses ashamed? That night, and all the nights after, when he slept, did Moses dream of the man’s bloody, disfigured face as he beat him to death? What were that man’s dying words? Did he know that he was being murdered by our greatest prophet, and did that comfort him? Upset him? Or did it have no meaning?
How could it be that our tradition teaches that Moses was not allowed to enter the land because he cruelly struck a rock, but makes no mention of the person whose life he ended? How can justice emerge from any leader, or any movement, that accepts violence as a means? But how can any country that has sat back contentedly as its citizens are gunned down, with no pretense to justice, lay claim to justice in the first place? Can we be the children of Israel, the followers of Moses, if our firmest moral commitment in these times is to refusing the impassioned call of the great-grandchildren of slaves? Do we dare stake a claim to “morality” on that basis?
Can you read these words without seizing upon an excuse not to hear the outcry of your neighbors?
Can I write these words and still be your ally? And can you read these words and still believe me?
Can we see through the eyes of Moses, and the slavedriver, and the God above who was silent? Then as now?