“Go Down, Moses, way down in Egypt land…”
The words of that African American spiritual from the days of enslavement still hold immense power to move anyone who empathizes with oppressed people.
The theme, of course, is anchored in the words of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament to most Christians. There’s a reason so many of the most resonant spirituals are based on those stories—the shared history of oppression experienced by both Jews and African Americans.
While the two peoples’ stories are very different in details, that common thread has bound them together before, during, and after the Civil Rights movement. It continues to inspire people in today’s Black and Jewish communities to try to build a more compassionate world.
As one scholar has put it, the Hebrew Bible—the Old Testament to most Christians – is filled with examples of both “pious submission” and ringingly “defiant protest” at the history of injustices meted out to the Jewish people. It was all too easy for the enslaved people of the United States of America—bent over their enforced labor from before sunrise until after sunset, sold like animals, abused—to see themselves in the experiences of the ancient Israelites: “oppressed so hard they could not stand.”
And around many a Passover Seder table today, Jewish families sing “Go Down, Moses,” while noting its poignant double meaning, honoring and linking the historical experiences of the enslaved Black people who first sang it to their own ancestors’ escape from slavery in Egypt. Ask a rabbi, and you’ll find out that many Jewish holidays, including Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, emerged from the experience of bondage and freedom.
Songs of freedom
The treasure trove of Black spirituals that reference the Hebrew Bible is seemingly inexhaustible: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is laden with such symbolism. This spiritual references a chariot that evokes the chariot of Elijah, ready to transport weary souls to heaven or to freedom. It speaks of looking out over the River Jordan to see a “band of angels” coming to take the singer to a place of peace. There are several theories about the origin of this particular song, one of them maintaining that it is a coded reference to the Underground Railroad, “comin’ for to carry me home” to freedom in the North.
“Go Down, Moses” is also sometimes said to refer to Harriet Tubman, widely spoken of as the “Moses” of her time.
The spiritual “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” references the Biblical patriarch Jacob’s dream in the wilderness that he saw angels ascending and descending a ladder that connected Heaven and Earth.
Traditional Jewish sages found meaning in this theme of connection between worlds, and also interpreted the ladder as a symbol for ascending Mount Sinai. The spiritual uses the framework of the ladder and adds Christian themes. The message of the song includes “Ev’ry round goes higher, higher,” and it closes with, “Rise, shine, give God glory.”
Black Americans called out Nazi hate
As this history of African American spirituals shows, cultural exchange and awareness of shared histories of bondage and oppression have always characterized the Black-Jewish relationship in the U.S., regardless of the clashes that periodically occur between the communities.
If there was any group who didn’t need to have explained to them what laws enforcing segregation, “racial purity,” and state-supported lynching are about, it’s Black Americans. It was, in fact, the Black press and Black organizations that first widely recognized and reported on the anti-Jewish racism in Nazi Germany.
In 1935, Hitler promulgated the Nuremberg Laws, which officially classified Jews as an inferior “race” and stripped them of their civil rights. While mainstream white American newspapers, government agencies, and organizations typically ignored or minimized the danger, the NAACP spoke out early and unequivocally against the Nazi persecution of Jews and the growth of anti-Semitism in the U.S. In a November 1935 declaration, the NAACP called attention to the peril facing Germany’s Jews, helping to launch a campaign to fight anti-Semitism over the turbulent decade from 1935 until 1945.
In the 1930s and ‘40s, the thriving network of Black newspapers did extensive reporting on the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust, and on the Holocaust itself. One cartoon, showing Hitler holding up a swastika next to a shadowy hooded figure with a flaming torch, was captioned, “Another Klansman.”
This same Black press had reported on the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory supervisor wrongly accused of murdering a young woman in 1913, and on other instances of hatred against Jews. Just as was the case with so many African Americans innocent of the crimes of which they stood accused, a white mob broke into the jail holding Frank and murdered him. And according to historical records, Frank wasn’t the only Jew lynched in the segregated South.
Living Jewish values through the Civil Rights struggle
The Civil Rights movement galvanized the American Jewish community, who supported it out of all proportion to their small numbers in the population. An estimated 30 percent of the white volunteers actively marching, registering Black voters, and serving as Freedom Riders were Jewish.
American Jewish support for equality and civil rights goes way back. It’s enshrined in numerous verses in the Hebrew Bible, including the poetic, “Let justice roll down like waters” from the Book of Amos, famously quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Even back in the 19th century, Jewish storekeepers in the South were almost the only white people to address their Black customers as “Mr.” and “Mrs.” and to allow them to try on the clothing for sale. Although speaking out against segregation in the South could be fatal, several prominent Southern Jews spoke publicly against white supremacy. Louis Isaac Jaffe received a Pulitzer Prize for his editorial in the Norfolk Virginia-Pilot in which he called out the evils of lynching.
Sears Roebuck chairman Julius Rosenwald gave more money to causes benefiting Black people in the South than any other American philanthropist in history. His daughter, Edith Stern, continued his dedication to the cause of equality. She donated large sums to support Civil Rights workers in the South.
Even when they felt it was too dangerous to be too public with their support, Southern Jews often quietly gave of their time, and through financial contributions, to the Civil Rights cause.
And, without the activism and determination of the many Northern Jewish Civil Rights workers who poured into the South, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s would probably not have flourished as it did.
These connections between African Americans and American Jews, forged from their respective histories as objects of bigotry and oppression, in many ways have been forgotten. But with enough will and focus, we can bring back that solidarity that, at its best, has given ordinary human beings the strength to move mountains.