On March 25, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, speaking to the 68th annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, proclaimed:
“I see Israel as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy.”
This sentiment, acknowledging Israel’s right to exist and emphasizing the still-young country’s achievements, is emblematic of the spirit of cooperation between the Jewish and African-American communities during the Golden Age of relations that flourished in the 1950s and 60s, itself an outgrowth of the Jewish immigrant experience and internal migration of African Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
It makes sense that the two peoples would find common ground during the burgeoning civil rights movement. While their origins in the United States are very different, they shared a history defined by the struggle to overcome oppression and defy stereotypes in the quest to become fully integrated into American society. It is exactly this bond that can help both communities navigate increasingly turbulent times.
The history of immigration in America often was marked by change and periodic conflict as new waves of immigrants fused with settled populations. When Jewish immigrants arrived at the beginning of the 20th century, they often competed for jobs and housing in cities like New York and Chicago with fellow newcomers from Ireland, Germany, and Italy, and with African Americans still reeling from the aftereffects of slavery and the degradations of the Jim Crow South. It was not a painless transition, but the process of integration is incremental and ongoing. Those early immigrants taught us an important lesson — that it was possible to live together. And now, more than ever, we need to reexamine the struggles of our ancestors in order to ensure the health and happiness of our descendants.
As the mayor of Englewood, a city that is home to a thriving African American community, I’m sensitive to the challenges my neighbors face. One topic that my constituents have raised in the past relates to reparations, the idea that the government should make some kind of payment or institute a program to atone for the national sin of slavery. It is a complicated and important topic, and there is not nearly enough space in one editorial to propose a suitable response.
What I can say is that I understand. Because what are reparations other than a way of enfranchising people who have been harmed? People who have been denied access to the most basic aspects of daily life that many take for granted. This is something that Jews are keenly aware of, and we know that some wounds cannot be healed with time alone. Ultimately, all of us want to be seen. All of us want to be respected.
While the relationship between the Jewish and African-American communities is an important element of U.S. history, the experiences of both groups — for better or worse — can help us understand broader global issues. From my perspective as an immigration attorney, for example, it is impossible for me to ignore the evils of genocide as the major indelible stain on history. It continues to play out on a global stage, and America remains one of the few refuges for those wishing to escape violence and deprivation. It is here where Jews and African-Americans can teach us, as a nation, how to honor the past as we strive to move forward — to rise above the corrupting forces of hate.
We do not have to look back very far to understand why it is so vitally important for outsider communities of all colors, faiths, and persuasions to come together. As recently as 2017, when the disaffected and bigoted took to the streets of Charlottesville with torches, the malevolence that threatens the very foundation of democracy in the United States reasserted itself on the national stage. White nationalism, fueled by dishonest rhetoric from certain politicians and amplified to a deafening roar in the echo chamber of social media, has reemerged with a streamlined, ready-for-TV vigor that is nothing short of terrifying.
While we live in challenging times, the future is not written. By revisiting the old alliances borne out of the immigrant and post-slavery experiences and empathizing with those who have felt and continue to feel the plight of the other, Jews and African-Americans are uniquely positioned to strengthen the collation that forms the impenetrable bulwark against the forces of hate that seek only to divide.
More than protection, our continued existence as one united community promises to add depth to the American experience. It will take time and understanding, but if we can look beyond our differences and learn from the past, we can ensure that every city and every town in the United States remains an oasis of democracy.