‘Ferguson’ is Yiddish for ‘Forget’

By David Benkof

Judaism frequently demands that we remember. The Torah tells us to remember the Sabbath Day; that we were slaves in Egypt; and that the Amalekites attacked us. Once a year, those who have lost a close relative say Yizkor, the prayer of remembrance. Remembering is one of the three themes of the main New Year’s prayer on Rosh Hashanah. And, of course, those murdered by the Nazis constantly call upon us to remember them.

But must everything be remembered? Interestingly, the word Ferguson is quite close to the sound of the Yiddish word for “forget” (פאַרגעסן — pronounced far-GUESS-en). Unlike many people, I don’t think recent events are a good “teaching moment” for much of anything; by contrast, L’affaire Ferguson is best put behind us, even as we continue to discuss race in other contexts.

Americans will never agree on the factual details of the confrontation between police officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown. While it’s well established that Wilson shot and killed Brown on Aug. 9, the details of who did what and when, and whose actions were are or were not justified, may forever be in dispute. When we can’t agree on what happened — at all — we can hardly use the episode as an object lesson on race or police conduct or both in American society.

Further, neither side is really interested in actual dialogue. Dialogue means conversation on an equal basis between people with different perspectives who really listen to each other with the possibility of changing their own minds. Would Wilson’s defenders be open to understanding what’s so legitimately hurtful about American racism that people actually feel they have to say “Black lives matter?” And does anyone seriously believe Brown’s defenders could ever assign blame for most African-American communal problems to beliefs and actions of blacks themselves?

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

I do think such discourse is necessary, or else we’ll have Fergusons every few years ad nauseam. But let’s not have that conversation during an emotionally charged news event when, for example, many of Wilson’s defenders have been cowed into keeping their opinions quiet — either because they don’t want to be called a racist; or worse because they fear for their physical safety. And Brown’s defenders are in the uncomfortable position of having “allies” who have expressed precisely the same opinions and feelings in unconscionable ways: demanding police disarmament, burning down buildings and more.

So sure, let’s talk about race relations in America. But Ferguson? That’s something best פאַרגעסן.

St. Louisan David Benkof is a freelance writer. He edits the Jerusalem Post Crossword Puzzle, which appears weekly in the St. Louis Jewish Light. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter (@DavidBenkof); or E-mail him at David [email protected].