Standing outside the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse yesterday morning, I shivered with folks on both sides of the aisle who were there to voice their support and disgust with Eli and Avi Werdesheim. The Werdesheims are the Jewish brothers (one of whom at the time was on a call for the Shomrim patrol group) accused of assaulting an African-American teenager on Fallstaff Road last November.
Despite the presence of lots of cops and TV cameras, there was a weird, inexplicable tension in the air. About 200 Jews, mostly Orthodox, were stationed on the north side of the block, singing Jewish (“Hava Nagila”?) and American tunes and praying in support of the Werdesheims, while eating Dunkin Donuts (no, this is not a product placement) and drinking coffee from their Boxes O’ Joe.
On the other side were about 20 people, mostly African-American, who seemed to be genuinely fuming – at the Werdesheims, at City State’s Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein (for reducing the charges from felony to misdemeanor), at what they perceive as the Jewish community’s seemingly blind support for the brothers, even that our side had doughnuts and theirs didn’t.
But things stayed cool for the most part. The only time I was concerned about a possible confrontation was when one anti-Werdesheim protester, Leo Burroughs Jr., a self-described former “’60s activist,” showed up with a sign reading, “Bernstein Promotes Black Holocaust.” (Ouch. I feared some hothead might pass by and clock him for invoking the Shoah.)
“Our numbers will grow,” he told me about his side’s smaller showing yesterday. “We can’t tolerate brutality against the people of this city – black, white, Jewish or otherwise.”
But the person who really got to me was Renee Washington, an East Baltimore resident, who told me—without any hesitation or concern for political correctness—that the case “all comes down to one thing – money. Most Jewish people have money, and they all stick together.” (Hmmm, a double-whammy.)
Ms. Washington, who appeared to be a very pleasant, cordial and peaceful woman, clarified that she knows Jews and has worked with them in the catering business for years. She seemed to be making sure I recognized that she’s no anti-Semite.
“I’m not saying all Jewish people are racist, but this incident should never have happened,” she said. “Just because you have money doesn’t mean your child is any different than mine. People shouldn’t be afraid to walk where they want. If [the Werdesheims] were African-American, they’d be in prison right now, serving time.”
And to make sure I understood she was no radical or militant, she added, “We may disagree with those people over there, but there’s no need for confrontation. We’re not out to fight. In fact, we’re here because of violence. Violence solves nothing.”
The whole conversation, though, reminded me of the days when I used to occasionally cover speeches delivered by controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. When I would approach African-Americans before, during or after these gatherings, they let me know what they thought of Jews, no holds barred. They didn’t care if I was Jewish, half-Jewish, a quarter-Jewish, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Ashkenazi, Sephardic or even a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov (which, of course, I’m not).
One time in the early ‘90s, I chatted on a Pratt Street sidewalk with a young African-American gentleman outside of a Farrakhan speech at the World Trade Center in Baltimore. While alluding to the travesties of the Holocaust and slavery, he stopped me dead in my tracks. He didn’t want any part of it.
“Please, stop there,” he said gruffly. “I don’t want to hear it. I’ve heard enough. We’ve all heard enough. Look, all I know is what my people have been through and are still going through. And my pain is more than your pain when you now are up there and I’m still down here. So just move on and don’t talk to me about your pain anymore.”
Obviously, the tendency of trying to outdo each other in the misery game is a ridiculous one. It’s not a competition. However you feel about the Werdesheim case, what’s important to remember is that there is a lot of anger out there in the African-American community toward Jews. It’s been there a long, long time.
I understand that it swings both ways, but we still have to recognize that hurt, frustration and anger. We can talk about Heschel and King, about the Jewish martyrs for the civil rights movement, etc. We can even sing “Ebony And Ivory” in Yiddish and Ladino. But we have to remember there is a lot of fury and pain there, some of it possibly warranted (even though we don’t want to hear that) and maybe some that’s not. But it’s still there.
And maybe one of these days, instead of just blowing it off, we should really address it, if for no other reason than to prevent situations like the Werdesheim case from unraveling and turning into flare-ups ripe for exploitation by leaders on both sides of the fence.