This is a jubilee year.
It was 50 years ago that Rabbi Heschel walked arm and arm with Martin Luther King. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches.
“And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee year.” (Leviticus 25:10)
That quote is engraved on our Liberty Bell. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act strengthened our democracy, though much work yet remains in engraving the concept into the hearts and souls of our society.
It may be hard for people who did not live in America then to understand the vicious racism and hatred of that time. A part of a broad struggle that occurred in many places over a number of years, the Selma marches were a turning point in the battle for civil rights. They played an important role in the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Selma became a focal point after voter registration activists were beaten severely and a church bombing killed four schoolgirls in September 1963. In the weeks and months that followed, African Americans attempting to register to vote at the local courthouse were beaten and arrested. Alabama issued an injunction prohibiting more than two people from gathering to discuss civil rights or voter registration. Protests increased, leading to large-scale arrests and police assaults. In February 1965, a young deacon was shot and killed during a protest in nearby Marion.
These events led to the decision to march in protest from Selma to Alabama’s capital, Montgomery. A 50-mile march that was intended as a non-violent protest lasted only six blocks. As the marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were viciously assaulted by police using billy clubs and tear gas. Many were injured, some beaten unconscious. The images from what became known as “Bloody Sunday” deeply disturbed the nation. A second march began two days later, but when marchers reached the bridge was turned back peacefully. That evening, however, several white ministers who had come in support of the protests were severely beaten; one, Reverend James Reeb, died.
Twelve days later, and under court and federal protection, protesters began the third march. Some 3,200 marchers set out from Selma, led by Martin Luther King Jr., marching arm and arm with Ralph Abernathy, Ralph Bunch, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. When they finally reached Montgomery four days later, they were 25,000 strong. Dozens of other rabbis participated, including Rabbi Israel Dresner, a dedicated activist still living in our northern New Jersey neighborhood today.
Jews had always been deeply involved as allies of the civil rights movement. Henry Moskowitz had helped in the founding of the NAACP in 1909. As the civil rights movement grew in the 1960s, so too did Jewish involvement. Rabbi Joachim Prinz of Temple B’nai Abraham in Newark spoke at the great 1963 civil rights demonstration in Washington, where Martin Luther King declared “I have a dream.” Hundreds of Jewish activists joined in the Freedom Ride movement. Nearly a year before the Selma marches, two young Jews, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were murdered along with a young black civil rights worker, James Chaney. Their deaths shocked the country and were a factor in the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
What motivated this disproportionate participation by Jews in the civil rights movement, at no small hazard, was a sense of obligation to fight the injustice of racial discrimination. For many, their action was a conscious and living embodiment of values they held as Jews. For Rabbis Heschel and Prinz, the participation was particularly poignant; they had been victims of Nazi racial laws and had barely escaped Europe before the Holocaust. It was unconscionable that the land of the free and the home of the brave, which had found room for Jews as full and equal citizens, continued to suffer from segregationist repression.
This month saw the beginning of a new initiative, the Journey for Justice from Selma to Washington DC, commemorating the Selma marches and dedicated to protecting voting rights, equal opportunity, and reform of discriminatory police procedures and the miscarriage of criminal justice. Local rabbis will be among the almost 200 rabbis carrying Torah scrolls from Selma to Washington. The walk will end on September 15.
Jews always have taken pride in walking the path of moral commitment. Our Jewish values and love of justice drive us to civil rights work, and we should indeed be proud of these values. These efforts also are of great practical self-interest to American Jews. Jews, like every small minority, benefit from building a country that is dedicated to equal rights for all its citizens. Our experience in the United States has been profoundly shaped by the commitment of our country to those principles. At the same time, when minorities struggle for equal rights the entire country benefits.
It was an act of great bravery to march into danger to defend civil rights and communal tolerance where we Jews are a minority. It takes another kind of bravery to create that society for ourselves in a place where Jews are the majority. Last month, Israel was rocked by two violent acts. The first was a knife attack, where six observers were stabbed at a Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem. The stabbing, in the shadow of Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard, took the life of 16-year-old Shira Banki. She was there to celebrate the bravery of her friend, who had just found the strength to come out. The attacker, a charedi Jew, had been released only three weeks earlier, after serving 10 years in prison for a similar hate attack. The second was a firebombing of a home in the Arab village of Durma, East of Ramallah. Eighteen-month-old Ali Dawabsheh was burned to death and his father, Saed, died of his burns a week later. The infant’s mother and 5-year-old brother remain critically wounded.
These attacks occur in the context of rising official pronouncements and actions that serve to build a sense of tribalism that further divides Israeli society. West Bank settlers for whom intercommunal coexistence and democracy are anathema are aggravating intercommunal tension even further.
In contrast to the government’s behavior, a growing number of nonprofit groups have long been working tirelessly to stem this rising tide of intolerance. They have embraced the role of supporting intercommunal communication, cooperation, and coexistence. Some examples include Givat Haviva, a kibbutz educational center, which for many years has promoted educational programs to bring Jews and Arabs together. Bina, a secular yeshiva, combines text study with boots-on-the-ground service in the most challenged communities across Israel. Hand in Hand operates five intercommunal schools that teach Israeli Jews, Arabs and Christians in both Hebrew and Arabic. Dror Israel is a pioneer Zionist movement of educators that work in all sectors of society to strengthen faith in man and action in society and to actualize the values of equality, social alliance, and social responsibility in everyday reality.
Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. But Jewish nationalism does not need to mean Jewish chauvinism. Israel is a multiethnic and multireligious country. Let us strengthen the hands of those who come to build it with the consciousness of democracy, civil rights, intercommunal tolerance, and a desire for peace with its Palestinian neighbors, so that we too can proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof.