Michael D. Cohen
Michael D. Cohen

The Jewish Community’s Responsibility During Black History Month

It happened more than 16 years ago, yet I doubt we in the Jewish community forget our emotional response as Senator Joseph Lieberman became the first of our heritage to be placed on a national presidential ticket.

A conversation was started amongst our co-religionists at the time; some saw the moment with the elation of acceptance in a world filled with anti-Semitism, while others met it with great agitation, fearing that we’d be blamed for everything if Mr. Lieberman was successful in his endeavor.

What many of us did not realize was how other demographic groups would react. They wait for their time to come; in hindsight, now we know that the African-American community would have to wait only eight years for the presidency of Barak Obama, but in 2000, that aspirational reality — for a people who have been out-hated only by us Jews — seemed light years away.

At the time, I was a young Orthodox Jewish staff member for Ed Towns, who was a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Possibly I was one of very few if any such staffers in the entire caucus. I remember clearly how I felt the morning after Al Gore’s announcement of Sen. Lieberman’s nomination. I felt a sense of jubilation; I hadn’t gotten much sleep that night, when I arrived at my office early the following morning.

Apparently I was not the only one losing sleep over the previous day’s events. As I entered the office, the congressman was on the couch in the reception area, looking at the wall at a picture that was a quarter century old. It was of himself and his congressional boss at the time, Shirley Chisholm. He had served under the first African American female presidential contender in the nation’s history.

So then he turned to me, asking not as a staffer, but as a Jew, how it felt to realize what he referred to as a dream. I was young and sarcastic, so I gave him a sly, arrogant response. I said that just as Al Smith, as the first Catholic nominee, had opened the door for JFK, I knew that eventually somebody had to open the door for me.

He roared with laughter, thankful to me for lightening the mood. But since then I have realized that Mr. Lieberman’s achievement had implications for everyone whose people historically had faced bigotry and oppression. It gave them hope. I saw in that the congressman did not feel jealousy, but instead a newfound belief in a system that had wronged his people.

As Black History Month approaches, I look at the many areas of commonality that our community shares with its mainstream African American counterpart. I understand that there is a need to recreate our historic partnership in the fight against bigotry.

Sadly, neither of our communities has paid enough attention to ensuring that we will understand each other’s history and each other’s need for allies in the struggles that surely lie ahead.

The key is education.

In 2017, Congressman John Lewis is in the news because of controversial remarks he made about President Trump, comments that many of us perhaps do not agree with. But how many in our community ever learned about a young John Lewis — who helped transform our society, who formed the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Commission, who led the freedom rides — was clubbed at the front line of the march over the Edmund Pettis Bridge, who was one of the speakers just before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech? How many of us knew that he left the organization he created, very publicly, when his successor kicked the Jews off its board?

Last year, on Martin Luther King Day, the Simon Wiesenthal Center joined with New York State Assembly member Walter Mosley to screen a film about Julius Rosenwald. At a panel after the showing, many in the audience admitted that they had never known anything about the Jewish Sears and Roebuck founder, who dedicated his life and wealth to ensuring educational opportunities for southern African American children living under the clutches of Jim Crow.

There are many such forgotten heroes in this struggle who we need to learn about and teach our children about. They will inspire activism from our community, to encourage us to stand up against anti-Semitism, to stand for Israel, and to act in solidarity when other minority communities need our help.

When we honor African Americans by participating in Black History Month, we honor their struggle and we invite members of their community to understand our struggles better as well.

About the Author
Michael Cohen currently serves as Eastern Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Mr. Cohen additionally serves on the Englewood, NJ City Council where he was recently elected to his third term. Mr. Cohen has previously held senior staff positions on Capitol Hill and in NYC and NYS governments for over 15 years. Mr. Cohen has also served as Director of Political and Strategic Affairs for a top NY lobbying firm.