Every year, Martin Luther King Day seems to correspond with the reading in synagogues around the world of the story of Moses standing before Pharaoh demanding “Let My People Go.” As a person of faith, I do not believe that to be a coincidence, nor will I allow it to be.
The welfare of Blacks and Jews in America have long been bound together through our common dependence on civil and equal rights, and protections from the discrimination and bigotry to which both peoples have fallen victim. The siege of the Capitol on January 6, and the surge of nativism (and apparent acceptability of nativist rhetoric by our elected officials) that led to it, demonstrate just how fragile our security may be. While the Black and Jewish communities in America have sometimes shared a complicated relationship, our interests and commitments are certainly more alike than not. (The number of Black Jews in America alone may bear this out.)
Still, this past year has made clear a distinction in the predominant Jewish and Black experiences of America. The awareness of undeniable differences in how the world operates for each community can be a gateway to deep, meaningful partnership and the path to progress.
White Jews often think we understand the challenges facing Blacks. We view their hardships and the wrongs done them through the lens of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is real and dangerous and alive in America today, as the domestic terrorists who stormed the Capitol proclaimed with their “Camp Auschwitz” and “6MWE” gear. But it’s time to recognize that anti-Semitism and racism are two wholly different hate-based phenomena. Jews in America do not experience what Black people do on a daily basis. Jewish lives do matter here. Black lives have yet to.
Acknowledging that anti-Semitism and racism are different does not (and is not supposed to) make one less painful. Surely, the tropes and dog whistles we hear as Jews cut deeply every time and acts of hatred against our community shake us to our core (as they should). However, we do not fear for our lives when we encounter law enforcement. We do not hesitate to call the police in a moment of need. We do not encounter random strangers in parks and stores who are threatened by our mere presence. And while more and more members of the Jewish community have access to America’s great ladder of upward mobility, too many Black Americans remain trapped, forced to live within a system built to keep them down.
We must learn to see these differences clearly, because when we do, our communities can once again stand together in earnest, the way Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel did crossing Edmund Pettus Bridge arm in arm in March 1965, and over and over again during the Civil Rights movement fighting for a better, more equal world for both communities, and all those beyond.
All of us must use this occasion – this Martin Luther King Day – to recognize that this nation will not heal itself without our conscious and enthusiastic action. All of us must evaluate the ethics and practices of the businesses we support and the politicians we vote for; and Whites especially must consider the unfair advantage we may have been born into. There are consequences to our privilege, and while the way forward is one of some personal and shared sacrifice, the reward will be a nation more reflective of Dr. King’s great dream.
And how better to begin a new era of awareness and progress than this year’s historic election in Georgia, where for the first time a Black man and a Jewish son of immigrants will represent the “Empire State of the South.” What better pair to symbolize the partnership of our two vibrant communities today?
In March 1968, 10 days before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. joined his friend Abraham Joshua Heschel in the Catskills to address the Rabbinical Assembly of America. On introducing King to the audience, Heschel said: “Where in America today do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us. His presence is the hope of America. His mission is sacred….”
Today we sanctify Dr. King’s memory, and recognize that while he no longer marches alongside us, his sacred mission of equality, opportunity and justice for all continues, and that it is our sacred duty to move it forward.