Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walked with Dr. Martin Luther King in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery on March 21, 1963. Soon after, Rabbi Heschel would say, “For many of us, the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips, and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”
With these words, the renowned intellectual rabbi embodies worship in the action of defending the dignity of another. “A religious man,” said Heschel, “is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.”
It would be fair to say Rabbi Heschel’s defiance of indifference to human suffering led him to be a leader in the Civil Rights movement. Yet, he was not the only Jewish activist who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama. There were many—including dozens of other rabbis. Moreover, two Jewish advocates, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were murdered by the KKK a little over a year after the march in Philadelphia, Mississippi, because of their support of civil rights for blacks.
It has been 60 years since Rabbi Heschel marched with Rev. King in 1963. And yet Jewish advocacy for black civil rights is still urgent—perhaps now more than ever. In a day when identity politics is dividing the black community, expressing the empathy and understanding of Rabbi Heschel seems almost counter-intuitive. It is always easier to build barriers than bridges. But Jews cannot risk indifference to black pain because there are malevolent voices shouting about the myth of the hierarchy of suffering—that blacks have suffered more than others. One of the underlying messages in the proclamation of this narrative is that Jews are the culprits of black pain.
The virulent antisemitism of the Nation of Islam, the radical Black Hebrew Israelite (BHI) movement, and other black extremist hate groups are finding sanctuary in the black community. The Black Hebrew Israelites teach that they are the true Israelites and descendants of the original twelve tribes of Israel. Based on their extreme ideology of race, they are the world’s superior and chosen people, and Jews are nothing more than deceptive imposters who created the slave trade to eviscerate the Black Hebrew Israelites by stealing their identity.
The perpetrators of the December 10, 2019 attack on a kosher market in Jersey City, New Jersey— David Anderson and Francine Graham—were disciples of the BHI movement. Links to BHI antisemitic propaganda were posted on their Website before the attack and included hateful content. One contributor stated, “Are the so-called Negros in America Africans? No! They are the real Hebrew Israelites [Jews].” Another proclaimed that “Jewish people are imposters.”
Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam is no stranger to antisemitic hate speech. In his Saviors’ Day conference that took place on February 24-26, 2023, he seemed to call for another Holocaust when he stated, “A Jewish man said to me, ‘You know, we say never again. Never again will we be in the oven. Never again.’ I said, ‘hold it.’ You can say that to me, but you can’t say that to God. Because the Bible says, behold the day cometh that shall burn—as a what?—as an oven. And those who do wickedly, He will slay them and leave them neither root nor branch.” This occasion was not the first time Farrakhan engaged in antisemitic speech. Three years earlier in his Criterion speech on July 4, 2020, he announced, “Those of you that say that you are Jews, I will not even give you the honor of calling you a Jew. You’re not a Jew. You’re so-called. You’re Satan. And it’s my job now to pull the cover off of Satan.” Furthermore, just one year before that in his 2019 Saviours’ Day speech, Farrakhan said, “Pedophilia and sexual perversion institutionalized in Hollywood and the entertainment industries can be traced to Talmudic principles and Jewish influence.”
Other leaders in the Nation of Islam movement have echoed these antisemitic remarks. Like Farrakhan, in a 2018 sermon entitled “Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy the Black Family,” Nation of Islam minister Nuri Muhammad stated, “These same Jews that are attacking the Minister [Farrakhan] are the blood relatives of the slave ship owners.”
Now must be a time for Jews to form intentional alliances with the black community—to feel our legs praying, to cross bridges—like the Edmund Pettus in Alabama—and to defy indifference to the suffering of African Americans even when some in that community seek to erase the very memory of our own pain. Because of that suffering, we as a people can identify with the pain of the other. If there were one people on the face of the Earth who could collectively say with assurance to the black community, “We feel your pain,” it would be Jews.
We must listen for the voices of reason in the black community—and there are many—and when we hear them, seek to create relational bonds—the kind of authentic relationship shared between Heschel and King. When we do, we will discover we have more in common than we realize. Though different, our journeys through the valley of the shadow of death can be mutually shared. We need to listen to each other’s stories.
We must not be so naive as to think if we turn the other way and settle for indifference to the enduring suffering of the other—in this case, black Americans—that somehow the wound will heal on its own without the empathy and compassion of those of us who can identify with agony. If not, someone—an extremist group, a hate-filled antisemite manipulating black history and black suffering—will capitalize on this moment and fill the wound with hate. They have already started.
There is so much more work to be done in the arena of black civil rights. Walking across bridges is required. Embodied deep within advocacy is worship. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel did, we must hold God and man in one thought, at one time, at all times. May we feel our legs praying.