A famous photograph of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on March 21, 1965, shows a conspicuously white-maned, bespectacled, white man walking arm-in-arm with the great Black Civil Rights leaders Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and Ralph Bunche, on the other side of whom marched Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (It’s worth noting that a young John Lewis also made up part of that row of heroes.)
Many don’t remember that white man today, but they should. He was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the foremost American Jewish Leaders to put their faith—and indeed their lives—on the line for the cause of racial justice at King’s side.
In describing his support for the movement to foster complete equality for Black Americans, Heschel once said that when he marched with King, he was “praying with my feet.”
Jewish moral passion lit up the Civil Rights movement
It’s well-documented that Jews were overrepresented among Civil Rights workers who marched, signed up Black voters, and fought for justice throughout the segregated South, all based on their community’s deeply held ethical and cultural values. Among all the groups of white Americans who became involved, the percentage of Jews in the movement soared far above their small percentage in the overall population.
Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a refugee from Nazi Germany, was among the prominent speakers at the 1963 March on Washington. Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, young Freedom Summer workers murdered by white supremacists in Mississippi in 1964, alongside their African American colleague James Chaney, were Jewish. The list goes on and on.
Martin Luther King, Jr., said of anti-Semitism: “It’s wrong, it’s unjust, and it’s evil.” King’s insights drawn from his deep study of history and human nature gave him the ability to easily see through the lies told about Jews through the centuries, even into his own time. And his unsurpassed empathy enabled him to relate to people outwardly unlike himself with whom he nevertheless found moral common ground.
The same was true for Abraham Heschel. In a speech delivered at the 1963 event where he first met King, Heschel said, “Let us yield no inch to bigotry…Racism is worse than idolatry.” It is, the rabbi said, “unmitigated evil.”
Evolution and divergence
So what ever happened to that great Black-Jewish Civil Rights era alliance, based on common histories of persecution, and anchored in common moral values?
Conventional wisdom often tells us that Black and Jewish Americans grew apart as Black nationalism took center stage in the late 1960s and Jews felt marginalized from the movement. In truth, the reasons are complex.
Historian Marc Dollinger, in his book Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s, points out new angles to the relationship. He shows how, as a more outspoken Black leadership came to the fore of the host of civil rights groups in the late ‘60s, many Jewish activists turned to activism on behalf of Jewish causes, including the emergent State of Israel. And indeed Jews learned from the Black Power movement to reinvigorate the Jewish community as one willing to more vocally champion its own civil rights and freedom. In this view, we might look at the eventual divergence as not so much alienation as mutual education toward self-advocacy and empowerment.
Today, though, what with a few ill-informed African American celebrities throwing their weight around spreading anti-Semitic garbage in the community, we could sorely use some of that Heschel-King energy.
Blind spots and bigotry
As Black sports columnist Mike Freeman pointed out in a thoughtful November 2 USA Today editorial, the Black community does have a “terrible blind spot” toward Jews. Freeman recounts talking to Black Americans who have told him they’re sure Jews control the media, are out to oppress Black people, are conspiring in some way or another against someone, and worse.
And yes, some white Jews—especially among older folks, or those in tight-knit traditional religious communities—harbor personal feelings of disdain or animus toward African Americans. Even though the best estimates point to about 15 percent of today’s American Jews being Jews of Color, with their numbers growing.
The irony of stereotyping an entire fellow group of wronged and oppressed people apparently hasn’t impressed itself enough on some in our country.
Bringing out the best in one another
But the legendary Black-Jewish moral partnership is still around. You just have to know where to look.
In 2020, a coalition of 600 American Jewish organizations—representing more than half the Jews in the country—took out a full-page New York Times ad saying: “Unequivocally: Black Lives Matter.”
Sherilynn Ifill, former president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, is among numerous Black Americans to publicly repudiate anti-Semitism and call ill-informed Black influencers to account. Incoming House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York issued a statement against anti-Semitism with fellow Democratic leaders, calling it “unacceptable and unconscionable.”
Synagogue and Jewish community groups across the nation continue to work for racial and social justice, often in partnership with Black churches.
One example: In Boca Raton, Florida, Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church and Congregation B’nai Israel jointly host an annual Thanksgiving season Feed the Community initiative. In January, the congregations come together to observe Martin Luther King, Jr., Day with Shabbat services on Friday night and church services Sunday morning.
Are there fair numbers of both Jews and African Americans who, either through ignorance or lack of empathy, view the other group with hostility? Of course. Orneriness, clannishness, and fear of “the other” are unfortunately universal human traits. Keep in mind that members of both groups have been on the receiving end of centuries of some of the worst hatred and violence the world has ever produced. It can be so easy to submerge yourself in individual and generational trauma that it’s hard to see when you’re safe enough to come back up for air.
But for every racist white Jewish person, for every African American addicted to anti-Semitic stereotypes, for every well-publicized incident involving Black-Jewish tensions in Crown Heights or other cultural flashpoints, there are numerous Black and Jewish people with open minds and open hearts working together to heal our broken world. And there are many more who may just need to learn a little more about each other to see how much we have in common—and how overcoming our own prejudices can make both communities safer and stronger.