The Jewish Crusade Against Racial Injustice
This Thursday night, the World Values Network will be hosting our annual gala dedicated to Black-Jewish friendship. Unfortunately, the gala is being attacked by people on the left, who say that Jews don’t care enough about racial injustice, and those on the right, who are saying that Black Lives Matter unfairly attacks Israel.
But Black-Jewish relations is not something new to me. It’s something I’ve been passionate about my whole life. By now, nearly everyone knows that I have been close friends with Senator Cory Booker for nearly a quarter century and that our disagreement over the Iran nuclear agreement harmed our relationship. It was only something as serious as the threat of genocide that could come between us.
My friendship with Cory, going back to when he served as my student president in Oxford in 1993, was distinguished by our efforts to rise above our respective identities and experience the other’s community. For Cory, that meant learning thousands of hours of Torah with me and visiting synagogues throughout the United States. For me, it meant immersing myself in the history of the civil rights movement and speaking at African American churches, culminating in my becoming the first white radio personality to serve as morning host on America’s legacy African American radio station, WWRL 1600AM. Peter Noel, my co-host, became and remains a brother to me.
There are those who say that Blacks and Jews never really had a deep and abiding kinship. Battling against the mutual enemy of prejudice and working toward the shared goals of equality and integration, they say, was a relationship of convenience that was further augmented by Jews’ need to feel better about themselves in relation to other whites, and by Blacks’ need for allies of any stripe in their struggle for civil rights.
I disagree. Black-Jewish brotherhood was built historically on shared faith rather than shared oppression, a common destiny rather than a common history, shared values rather than shared interests and a mutual commitment to social justice rather than being mutually alienated from the mainstream.
BLACK-JEWISH BROTHERHOOD WAS BUILT HISTORICALLY ON SHARED FAITH RATHER THAN SHARED OPPRESSION.
The central pillar of the Black community has always been its faith. The civil rights movement, far from simply being a political response to injustice and oppression, was a religious movement, conceived in churches, led by ministers and marched to the sounds of spirituals.
The soldiers of the civil rights movement were fueled by faith and sustained by sacrifice. That is the secret of why they succeeded. Other liberation movements either succumbed to the battling egos of their leaders or simply replaced one form of oppression with another: Czar Nicholas with Lenin and Stalin, Batista with Fidel Castro, white-ruled Rhodesia for Mugabe-controlled Zimbabwe.
But the leaders of the civil rights movement, being men of deep faith and spiritual conviction, put the interest of the people before their own lust for power. Walter Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth could easily have begrudged Martin Luther King Jr. his high profile; King could have wanted more for himself than to die on a lonely balcony in Memphis. But since their objective was to lead God’s children into a promised land of equal rights and human dignity, they put their people before their egos and placed reconciliation ahead of divisiveness.
The chains of slavery that bound Jews in ancient Egypt and Blacks in the New World may have imprisoned our bodies but liberated our spirits. Those chains taught Jews and Blacks, above all else, to rely on God for their salvation rather than on any professed human liberator, be he as righteous as Moses or as sacrificial as Lincoln. Both became nations to whom faith was endemic and sustaining.
For most people, religion teaches them how to gain entry into the afterlife, how to avoid hell. For Blacks and Jews, religion taught them to find hope and comfort in this life so that their earthly existence could transcend hell. Other religions kept the faithful oppressed by instructing them in the divine right of kings. But Jews and Blacks taught that no man was born subject to another, for all men were princes.
Other people’s religion taught them to accept their suffering in this world because the comforts of paradise would more than compensate. But the faith of Jews and Blacks inspired them to challenge existing prejudice because man was not born to suffer. Man dare not await the paradise of Eden. His highest obligation is to create heaven on earth.
Almost a millennium ago, the foremost Jewish scholar of the age, Maimonides, wrote that “the Jewish people are believers, the children of believers.” The same idea was given expression by Elie Wiesel, who said: “A Jew can love God. A Jew can hate God. But a Jew can never ignore God.” In modern times the only other nation that fits that criteria is the African American community.
As a Jew, my attachment to King’s speeches is not only connected to the injustice of segregation, to which I was thankfully never subject, and largely to do with a modern preacher who brought the ancient Hebrew prophets to life. While studying at yeshiva, I related to Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah as characters in a book. But through King, I related to them as living figures who emboldened and animated the opponents of injustice. Like Moses, King never reached the promised land but found redemption in a life of service over adventure, righteousness over recognition.
Blacks and Jews have imparted to the world the idea of being free on the inside even if chained on the outside, the belief that light will always triumph over darkness, the need for humans to dedicate themselves toward the eradication of all suffering and the centrality of God to the dignity of the human person. Both Blacks and Jews have taught the world that with liberty comes responsibility, and with freedom comes obligations.
This is a legacy that this coming Thursday night we will celebrate, however much we are attacked for it from the left and the right.