1964 was a significant year in the relationship between Blacks and Jews in America. Black and Jewish lawyers meeting in the conference room of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism helped shape The Civil Rights Act. That Freedom Summer witnessed the arrest of Martin Luther King Jr. and leading American rabbis in St. Augustine, Florida, and days later the brutal murder of three Civil Rights coworkers outside Meridian, Mississippi — James Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner — the first African-American and the others Jewish. Their martyrdom became another tragic symbol of the racism ingrained in much of America’s Deep South. But their deaths also sent a message that Blacks and Jews — two peoples with historical narratives of persecution and oppression — could make the ultimate sacrifice for one another and their shared ideals.
The last fifty years have not always been kind to our relationship. Polarizing figures occasionally grabbed the spotlight in the African-American and Jewish communities. And the Jewish community, achieving a measure of acceptance, comfort and influence, never fully committed itself to addressing Black poverty, lingering racism and exclusion. Rebuilding the relationship requires deeper sensitivity to one another’s ongoing struggles.
Jews in America need to understand that the ladder of upward mobility, which many of them were able to climb successfully generations ago, has seen its rungs all but collapse. The percentage of Blacks represented among the poor and uninsured in this country is far greater than it has ever been for Jews. The effects of slavery linger, and institutionalized racism and de facto segregation still exist. And the Supreme Court’s recent evisceration of the Voting Rights Act may set progress back decades. Jewish moral outrage, while vocal in some quarters, has been largely missing in action.
Blacks in America need to understand what Israel means to Jews. That having been victims of ethnic hatred for centuries, Jews look at Israel not only as a place of historical and spiritual significance, but as a secure refuge and a living symbol of their survival. When revisionists rewrite the history of the Middle East to deny Jews their right to their own nation in their historic homeland, African Americans need to answer as Dr. King did when he called anti-Zionism “the denial to the Jewish people of a fundamental right that we justly claim for the people of Africa and freely accord all other nations of the Globe.”
Our two communities must do more to speak out for one another. And we must speak out together for our common concerns: poverty, education, gun violence, religious liberty and the environment to name but a few. And we need to lift our voices together in support of those who cannot speak for themselves. Who better than African Americans and Jews in coalition to demand immigration reform? For whether we came here on immigrant ships or slave ships as The Reverend Jesse Jackson said so famously, our peoples have known the obstacles to making it in America.
Fifty years later, a faith-based partnership of Blacks and Jews laboring side by side as Dr. King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched, and as Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner died, could go a long way toward leading America closer to making Dr. King’s dream real for all Americans.