Realistic inspiration from the Jews of the Civil Rights Movement
By Rabbi Aaron Gol...
January 21, 2013
Brandon this morning has raised issues for us about making a sacrifice in order to achieve a goal. In considering what a perfect sacrifice might be, he suggests that we should think about what we can do towards repairing or perfecting our world, a concept that is mystically termed tikkun olam. Coupled with a conversation with his sister, Saskia on Thursday concerning history and specifically that of American History, I had a few hours to consider the disproportionate involvement of American Jewry in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
I expected and found articles recounting the active participation of Jews marching alongside African Americans in their fight against discrimination. The depth of involvement was incredible. Thousands of Jewish students involved in sit-ins and marches. Over a third of the Freedom Riders were Jewish, those who challenged the ‘Jim Crow’ segregation laws on public transportation in the southern United States, a method today employed in Israel to confront the mehadrim bus routes in Charedi areas that segregate by gender. These rides were often met by mobs, often organised by Ku Klux Klansmen. Many were hospitalized and most infamously, there were the murders in Mississippi of Goodman, Scherner and Chaney, in 1964.
Many Rabbis took a lead in the Civil Rights Movement. Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a refugee from Nazi Germany and president of the American Jewish Congress was one of the speakers on the platform when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his ‘I have a dream’ speech. Rabbi Eugene Borowitz who I had the privilege to study with as a Student Rabbi in New York, was imprisoned in Florida with other rabbis seeking to end segregation. And most famously, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the generations leading thinkers, influenced by the ancient Hebrew Prophets and his own experience as a German refugee many of whose family members were murdered by the Nazis, walked arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, James Forman and other leading civil rights workers on the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, March 1964.
I was surprised though at the length of Jewish involvement. For example, there was a certain Julian Rosenwald who personally underwrote the building and development of more than 2,000 schools and colleges for African American children between 1920 and 1940. In the 1940s Arnold Aronson partnered with others to found the Leadership Conference of Civil Rights whose advocacy work saw progressive Civil Rights Acts and Emancipation laws enacted over a 3 decade struggle. In the 1950s the American Jewish Committee commissioned black psychologist Kenneth Clark to do a study on the impact of segregation on African American children. This study was cited in the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling, Brown .v. Topeka Board of Education that led to the desegregation of America’s schools.
The legacy of American Jewish involvement in social justice issues has become a mainstream feature or American Jewish life. For over 50 years, The Religious Action Centre of Reform Judaism, our sister Movement, has been the hub of social justice and legislative action in Washington D.C. However, in my research, I had a reality check. Whilst most Jews in the northern United States were deeply sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement it was still a minority who were active participants. The picture was also very different in the South. Although Jewish – African American relationships were unusually respectful, few Jews spoke out in support of desegregation and, living in their white neighbourhoods, the Jews sought a low profile. Whilst a handful of their Rabbis were bold and opened the doors to their Synagogues to desegregated lectures and the like, one Mississippi congregation pleaded with their national religious movements to not make pronouncements that might invite unwanted attention on the southern Jews and their community centres.
None of this protected them from the Klan groups who, exploiting the situation, launched acts of anti-Semitic violence. “In one year, from November 1957 through October 1958, temples and other Jewish communal edifices were bombed in Atlanta, Nashville, Jacksonville, and Miami, and undetonated dynamite was found under synagogues in Birmingham, Charlotte, and Gastonia, North Carolina. Some rabbis received telephone death threats.”
Today, as Americans celebrate Martin Luther King Day this Monday, The Religious Action Centre and Rabbis across the States will continue their work to better society. In particular this year, there is a focus on firearms legislation and Jews are once more involved in leading groups advocating a ban on the carrying of assault weapons. Jews are also prominent amongst those demanding that the American President use his second term to buck the trend and make the politically unpopular but globally vital commitments towards caring for our planet, its climate and environment.
We can be justifiably proud of the rich legacy of social justice and advocacy work performed by many in generations of American Jewry. If it were not for this focus on American Jewry, I could point to the disproportionate number of social action and social justice organizations in the Anglo Jewish Community, the vital work of Global Jewry in the campaigns to free Soviet Jewry and in the anti-apartheid movement focused on South Africa.
Yet we do ourselves a disservice to be overly nostalgic. Jews have engaged in such work outside their own community when they have felt safe to do so, when they have been privileged to be in a position to make a difference. It is in those times that we should heed the calls of our ancient Prophets to be God’s partners in tikkun olam, in repairing the world towards its perfection. In a position of confidence we can engage with those who we do not necessarily agree with on all issues but with whom we can engage to improve the society we all live in.
As Jonathan Freedland writes in the context of the Board of Deputies’ proposed joint project with Oxfam and the prospect of Israel electing this coming week an even more right-wing government: “If we decide that we can only have contact with those who support the Israeli government – as some are, in effect, demanding – we are about to become very lonely. For we will find that we have no one to talk to but ourselves (Jewish Chronicle 18.01.13).”
I do believe that we British Jews do live in times that are privileged, that are safe. These times are a real gift. Our challenge is to use our traditions, our heritage and our particular narrative, of those who have known slavery, who have know oppression and have gained their emancipation, in turn to free others from the chains of slavery, of poverty and oppression. Let us free ourselves from the siege mentality that our Jewish press often portray and when our children study history in the future, may our generation be one in which they our justifiably proud, a source of inspiration for their own work towards tikkun olam, repairing the world towards its perfection.
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