As a common Jewish household value, “Tikkun Olam,” or the act of repairing the world, has brought the black and Jewish communities together.
Sixty years after the March on Washington, the rich bond between the black and Jewish communities working together has become so frequent that we often forget about the bigger picture: the people who fought to make it happen. After fleeing Nazi Germany in 1937, Rabbi Joachim Prinz was the first rabbi to connect with Martin Luther King, Jr. and made it his mission to tackle injustice in America. He ultimately became an organizer for the March on Washington in 1963, echoing these words:
“As Americans, we share the profound concern of millions of people about the shame and disgrace of inequality and injustice.
As Jews we bring to this great demonstration, in which thousands of us proudly participate, a two-fold experience — one of the spirit and one of our history.”
For Jews, much of this alignment to what African-Americans were facing were echoed by domestic terrorist attacks on Jewish structures in the late 1950s, such as the bombing of The Temple in Atlanta, and Temple Beth El in Birmingham, Alabama, both of which occurred in 1958. On June 21, 1964, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, who were Jewish, and James Cheney, who was black were murdered in the Mississippi Burning Murders. In 1965, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma. King had a good relationship with Jews and planned to visit Israel but had to cancel in the immediate aftermath of the Six-Day War. King also responded to a student who had attacked Zionism at a dinner event in 1968 saying: “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism.”
To this day, several setbacks and challenges between Blacks and Jews still arise. Jews still outperform blacks socioeconomically. In 1991, violence in the Afro-Caribbean and Orthodox neighborhoods in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn arose after a member of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s entourage accidentally hit and killed a black child. Black youths attacked Jewish passersby, and one Jewish youth was stabbed to death in what became known as the Crown Heights Riot.
Politically, Jews and Blacks are staunchly Democratic voters. Plus, Sen. Jon Ossoff, who is Jewish, and Sen. Raphael Warnock, who is black, are the only black and Jewish senators who hail from the deep South (both are from Georgia).
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter Movement, many Jews have supported and, in some cases, participated in BLM protests, although some leaders of the movement created antagonism with their anti-Israel and anti-Semitic positions. Although many leaders in the Jewish community have spoken out against such incidents. The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) has noted “Black Lives Matter Is a Jewish Value,” and the Orthodox Jewish Union said, “Racism is not a thing of the past or simply a political issue. It is a real and present danger that must be met head-on.”
Sixty years on, civil rights coalitions remain. There have been hundreds of local economic and political initiatives around the country: books, articles, and documentaries about blacks and Jews that have been published, congregational exchanges, public discussions, etc. In Congress, the Black Caucus has established routine and productive cooperation with the more informal “Jewish caucus.”
All this sustained, even increasing, mutual engagement suggests that many overlapping concerns do remain, not least of which is the rightward movement of the country itself, opposed by a majority of both communities. Problems of discrimination, unequal access to opportunity, voting, and education still top both Black and Jewish political agendas, as do commitments to civic community, tolerance, and diversity.
Some of my best friends are black and Jewish, and I love them simply for who they are.