Vayigash: Prejudice and Projection

Vayigash: Prejudice and Projection
Cartoon of tiny mouse giving a flower to a big elephant.

NOTE: I wrote this in 2009; I would write it quite differently today!

Judah approaches the Viceroy in charge of Human Survival. He pleads for the freedom of his youngest brother Benjamin. Judah takes a huge risk, revealing himself to a man he believes far exceeds him in power and privilege. Judah gambles on a hope that that the Viceroy is capable of empathy. So Judah tells a story that he hopes any human being can relate to. It’s the story of a heartbroken father, still grieving decades after the death of his favorite son Joseph. The telling is complicated. Judah has to come off as honest. But, at the same time, he cannot tell the whole truth. He has to leave out the guilt and shame he feels for kidnapping and selling this favorite son.

Still, Judah steps forward. He hopes that a ruthless Egyptian politician, probably from one of Egypt’s most powerful old, will glimpse a kinship with a starving Canaanite nomad of Mesopotamian descent. Imagine Judah’s shock when the Viceroy sees Judah’s story as his own story. So much so that he bursts into tears and blurts out, “I am Joseph. My father is still alive??!!”

In one second, the Viceroy blows to pieces all of Judah’s prejudices about the Viceroy’s power and privilege. The Viceroy isn’t Egyptian. He isn’t from a first family of Egypt. He’s Joseph. A phoenix, risen from the ashes of slavery—exactly where Judah sent him years ago. Judah is terrified that Joseph will seek revenge. But Joseph blows Judah’s mind a second time. Even though the powerful Viceroy has good reason to punish Judah, he acts with kindness and nobility instead. The Viceroy says, “Look, God brought us here. Let’s put aside the past and make a fresh start.”

The past he proposes they reach across is a difficult one. Neither man is blameless, and neither had an easy life. Both are victim, both are perpetrator. Joseph was arrogant and self-centered. His brothers sold him into slavery. Then, he spent years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He learned about humility, hard work, and living by his wits. Judah, in fact, sold Joseph into slavery in a misguided attempt to save Joseph’s life. Then, Judah lived with their father’s grief. Finally, Judah lost his wife and two of his three sons. Thus he learned about a father’s grief, firsthand. 

Both brothers suffered, at each other’s hands and at the hands of life. But at the moment of mutual recognition, the moment at which each sees the humanity of the other, they reach out. Neither one says a word of blame to the other.

This could be seen an inspirational allegory about reaching across constructions of race, class, and power. I’d like to speak about three aspects of the allegory. (1) The importance of empathy, of hearing and responding to another person’s story. (2) The fact that a powerful belief about someone else’s privilege can be inaccurate. (3) Responding to being seen as “privileged” when the seeing is inaccurate.

And I’d like to talk about these specifically from my experience as an academic. I’d like to talk about some aspects of academic anti-Semitism.

In 1998, I gave a talk at the University of New Hampshire English Department colloquium as a visiting scholar. The talk was about compassionate listening but I think the buzzwords I used were “narrative,” “phenomenology,” “sociology of knowledge.” I said that you enlarge your experience and develop your empathy by listening to another person’s story, and then walking around in the landscape of that story. One person attending the colloquium raised her hand over and over again to disagree with me. To her, walking around in someone else’s story meant trampling on the story. All we can do, she said, is listen.

But I thought that listening is only a first step. You listen and then let the words soak into you. After some time, one of your own experiences reminds you of what the other person told you. Then you reframe your own experience and your own reactions in terms of that person’s perspective. You continue the conversation, and find out if what you heard is what the other person meant. That is learning. And that is a way to let the Other be Other, and still be able to have a conversation.

It’s like what happens in person-centered counseling. It begins with the counselor reflecting back what she or he thinks the client said. The client either corrects or elaborates. But reflecting is not an end in itself. When the counselor starts forming words and sentences that reflect the client’s experience, the counselor begins to share the categories of the client’s experience. Only then can they begin to have a meaningful conversation, in the client’s terms, about the client’s story.

The day after my talk, I attended a party hosted by someone in the department. The woman who had disagreed with me so vehemently was there. We chatted, and I learned that she was raised ethnically Jewish. When she learned that I was a religious Jew, she seemed dismayed and disdainful. She soon walked away.

Gradually, I understood that I was in the presence of academic anti-Semitism. This person had stereotyped me, an obvious Ashkenazi Jew, as a person of privilege. By this she meant a person who unconsciously gobbles and colonizes everyone she meets – and who cannot change. There was nothing I could possibly have said that she would approve of as a description of empathy. And I felt sorry for this person. The only way she could find to distance herself from negative stereotypes of Jews was to echo them loudly and insist that she, by choice, wasn’t one of us.

I don’t like negative stereotypes of Jews either. But I’m not going to express my dismay by echoing them. I think stereotyping Jews at all is a distortion, because we are diverse by race, class, nationality, sexual orientation, religious practice—all the official markers of what academics call “social location.” Once I even had to say this in response to a member of a multicultural awareness panel who said, “Jews would ski, if there were diamonds in the snow.”

Thus, I believe it’s inaccurate to describe all Jews as “privileged.” In academic use, being privileged means that you take for granted opportunities you have. You fail even to notice that not everyone has them. To let go of your privilege means that you raise your awareness. You put energy into working for justice and equality. If you believe that no Jews do this, then you don’t know much about Jews. And if you believe that Jews don’t need some energy sent in their direction, then you also don’t know much about Jews.

But I wouldn’t say that in an academic setting, because it would not be heard. However, I would, as an academic, join with others. I would write about human rights and champion common campus causes. Also, I would study with others, beginning with neutral topics we could agree on. Finally, I would learn, learn, learn about Jewish spirituality and philosophy, so that I could speak of Jewish values. And I would join others from that perspective.

This, I think, is what Joseph and Judah did. They didn’t argue over who suffered more or who is to blame. Instead, they just came together.

Will emulating them make anti-Semitism go away? No, but it will create friendships. And that is a start.


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