Dr. King and Jewish-Christian Alliances

Next Monday, January 20, the US will observe Martin Luther King, Jr.  Day. Dr. King, civil rights icon and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, was actually  born on January 15. However, Congress chose the third Monday in January as the King holiday. Congregations, including Orthodox, will honor his memory, e.g., .https://www.ostns.org/event/mlk-lecture-by-daniel-schwartz-from-jewish-to-black-the-ghetto-in-postwar-america.html

Commemorations will include retelling the story of Dr. King’s partnership with prominent Jewish activists, one of whom famously marched in the historic 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights. Dr. King considered his closest Jewish ally, a Conservative theologian from the Jewish Theological Seminary, a “great prophet” ”https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/heschel-abraham-joshua.  In return, the theologian thought of Dr. King as a “mensch.”  https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-01-16/one-jewish-professor-martin-luther-king-jr-was-mensch

Today, Jewish-Christian cooperation has become more extensive.  For example, the Orthodox have joined the fray. An alliance exists between Jewish organizations such as the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America, and Christian Evangelical and Catholic groups in litigation on religious issues. Most notably, these cases involve access to public funds or exemption from regulations. Dr. King’s example should lead Jewish groups to take the opposite side in the more controversial contemporary battles concerning exemptions from general regulations. At a minimum, Jews should remain neutral.

The website of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Educational Institute at Stanford.University describes inclusivity and selflessness as the driving forces behind KIng’s friendship with the Jews.  In particular, universal human rights formed the intellectual underpinning of the collaboration. The site says that, in 1963, King spoke out, on humanitarian grounds, against the oppression of Soviet Jews.  Their plight lay outside King’s direct concerns.

Later that year, a Jewish Theological Seminary theologian spoke about the moral duty of Jews to ensure the civil rights of oppressed African Americans in the South.  Similarly, from the Jewish side, an expert told National Public Radio, ““If you look at Dr. King’s major speeches, he doesn’t talk about [saviors], he doesn’t make this an exclusively Christian event, . . . That openness, that embrace of Jews meant so much to [his Jewish partners].”

It was not a matter of personal benefit  nor did it involve negating the human rights of anyone else. In contrast, modern-day activism has elements of both. Two recent examples prove the point.

Stemming from a complaint by yeshiva graduates, a controversy arose in New York State last summer over the lack of an adequate secular education in yeshivot and parochial schools. Israel faces a similar issue. Unlike Israel, New York law mandates “substantial[] equivalen[ce]” between religious and public schools. Along with Catholic educators, Agudath Israel took the Education Department to court. https://agudah.org/jewish-community-unites-to-protect-yeshiva-independence/

Agudath Israel claimed it did not object to a good secular education, but yeshivot, not the state, should determine the content of the curriculum, supposedly to avoid mental distress  to students. https://agudah.org/nearly-250-prominent-mental-health-professionals-oppose-the-proposed-regulations/

However, the Orthodox Union may have articulated the real problem. The OU objected only to music and art education. https://advocacy.ou.org/ou-letter-to-ny-education-dept-re-substantial-equivalent-instruction-for-nonpublic-school-students/  Since Judaism embraces both, religion had nothing to do with it.  One might suspect the issue concerned sparing schools from spending money for music and art programs, even at the expense of developing students’ skills.

In November, a federal court in New York overturned the Conscience Exemption Rule. The rule would have allowed “health workers” — broadly defined — to refuse to help, even indirectly, the sick in need of care, if the activity would violate the provider’s conscience.

Several states sued. The federal government, with an Evangelical Christian group intervening on its side, defended the exemption.  Judge Paul A. Engelmayer held that the rule had procedural and substantive flaws.. https://www.nysd.uscourts.gov/sites/default/files/2019-11/19-cv-4676.pdf     Most important,  implementation would have caused serious harm. As in an actual case, an emergency room professional could have declined to induce labor, likening it to an abortion. Doctors  would not have had to inform affected patients that they could receive treatment elsewhere. Logically, the rule would have permitted a doctor who thought Jews guilty of deicide to leave our coreligionists in the lurch. The government attorney at the argument admitted that an ambulance driver could evict someone from the vehicle mid-route for seeking a procedure the driver objected to as a matter of “conscience.”  The judge ruled as well that the rule violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other laws.

Tellingly, Judge Engelmayer also uncovered that the government lied about the reason for issuing the rule in the first place.  Yet in an op ed, the president of the Orthodox Union (a lawyer) and the Executive Director of OU Advocacy argued that the US Constitution mandated the exemptions the court rightfully struck down. https://advocacy.ou.org/preserving-religious-conscience-protection-federal-laws-should-protect-religious-conscience-not-denigrate-it/

Jews should know better.


About the Author
Joshua Z. Rokach is a retired appellate lawyer and a graduate of Yale Law School.
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