Of Mind Trash and Human Prejudice

A year or two ago I wrote a blog about ‘whitespeak’–the coded language that white Americans use concerning peoples of colour when they want to see if you (should you happen to be white) are ‘on their side.’ Today I want to reflect on a similar language of prejudice, but in England. In the above picture–of a photo on my study wall–you’ll see a much younger me receiving my PhD at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (hereafter HUC). It was a defining moment in more ways than one. Yes, the degree marked the successful end of years of study and research, and my thesis was published as a book; yet little did I know at the time that it would be one of the most detrimental aspects of my academic career. Let me explain.

I had applied and been accepted at several prestigious universities to do my doctoral work. All had offered partial scholarships, but HUC offered me ‘the full ride.’ That was important for a poor prison chaplain. It was also the case that HUC’s school of graduate studies had a “Christian Fellows Program” which admitted 5-6 Christian doctoral students each year on fellowships. The graduate program was conceived after the Second World War as a way to foster Jewish-Christian dialogue. That interested me. So it was not your average PhD program. All well and good…but then came my job search in England…and my introduction to Gentile-speak, for I had been tainted by Jews!

Forget that I had attended an institution with the largest Judaica collection outside of Israel, and could sight-read Hebrew, Aramaic, Akkadian and a fist-full of other languages. Although that in itself was a threat to many English academics, the clincher was I had studies with Jews. And so followed a number of unsuccessful interviews in which the sticking point was always, and I quote, “Hebrew…Union…College…bit esoteric that.” That exact phrase was used at different universities; often by a member of staff who was also an Anglican clergyman. Being something of an idealist I wasn’t prepared for such outright prejudice. Although no one, of course, resorted to calling Jews ‘kikes’ or ‘yids,’ the whole tone of the interviews changed. There I was thinking that universities wanted teachers well-versed in the languages and cultures they were meant to teach, but I had, as it were, ‘gone native.’

Let’s consider Cambridge. After the code-phrase “bit esoteric that” had been spoken–and I knew the interview was a lost cause–I noticed at eye-level, on the shelf behind me, The New English Bible (NEB), Oxford Study Edition. (In this instance, “English” is not a reference to language per se, but ethnicity.) As all prejudice is born of ignorance, I embarked on a suicidal bit of education for my interlocutors. To their surprise I pulled the NEB off the shelf and in the same ponderous monotone as “bit esoteric that” I said “New…English…Bible.” Then I turned to the editorial page and read out: “Samuel Sandmel, general editor of the New English Bible, Hebrew Union College, Sheldon Blank, HUC, David Weisberg (my PhD advisor), HUC, etc. In sum, there were more scholars from HUC on the editorial and contributors list of the NEB than from any other university in the world. For some reason, my efforts to enlighten the interview panel failed miserably, and I went away jobless, hurt and very angry.

Why do I share this experience? (It is not sour grapes, as one might be tempted to think. Read on.) Two reasons: First, despite the Second World War and the Holocaust, anti-Jewish prejudice is alive and well–across Europe and the USA. In my experience, Gentile Hebrew Bible scholars are amongst the most rabid opponents of the state of Israel, and by extension, of Jews in general. Before my wife and I left England in 2016, anti-Jewish hate crimes had increased by over 2000% since the year 2000. Just like racial prejudice in the US, these ‘pet hates’ have only simmered in the background until the social/political climate was right to express them once more. That’s scary–and it must be exposed and confronted. Second: As I prepare myself for the inevitable, death, I am doing my best to leave old baggage behind (see my blog of a similar title from a few weeks ago). Some of this I do by writing, some through meditation, some by blessed forgetfulness(!) and some by simply ‘letting go’ as I focus on my newfound profession as goatherd. With hindsight (the blessing of longevity!), I am glad I was not appointed to several of the posts I sought so fervently years ago. In fact, I find it funny now. But what I don’t find funny is deeply engrained prejudice against our fellow human beings–of whatever colour or persuasion; for that is the Covid of the human spirit. We need to be putting as much effort into the fight against prejudice as we do in our fight against viruses.

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