I watched the incredible film Selma through a near-constant film of tears. Many of these tears were a function of the brutality depicted on screen that so many people of color faced fifty years ago in their struggle to gain the rights ostensibly bestowed upon them as American citizens. However, most of those tears were shed because I knew, deep down, that we still have so much further to go, and it seems that there are too many factions in our society today who are perfectly content in taking us backwards, rather than forwards. I cried copious tears because I know that I have an obligation to do right for those who have been dispossessed, for those who have been beaten and broken, not in spite of but because of my Jewishness. And so as we proceed on together to honor the great stentorian leader that was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., here are a just some ways that we as leaders in the Jewish community can stand up, so that fifty years hence, our children’s children, and the children’s children of all people can one day stand together, truly free.
1. Acknowledge the deep, systemic nature of racism within our country.
The truth is, it is the imperative of every single citizen of our great nation to sincerely reckon with the state of race and racism within it. By sweeping it under the carpet as no longer a pressing issue in our communities, we run the risk of only exacerbating it. The history of predatory lending in the housing market; the recent deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Gardner in New York at the hands of law enforcement; weakening gun control legislation; a rise in “Stand Your Ground” legislation in states nationwide; the Supreme Court’s recent gutting of LBJ’s historic Voting Rights Act. All of these are examples of the almost permanent state of racial bias built into the basic makeup of our country. And all of them are only fixable if and when we as a nation take a good, long look at ourselves, our history, and how we relate to each other, and pledge to try harder and do better in the years to come.
About fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson stood at the Main Quadrangle of the library at Howard University in Washington, DC, and in his commencement address laid out his administration’s accomplishments in the realm of Civil Rights: the prohibition of discrimination based on race and skin color, integration of schools, and soon to be signed, the crowning achievement of LBJ’s civil rights legislation: the Voting Rights Act. LBJ ticked off these accomplishments with great pride, as he should have, but his pride was tempered with the reality of the state of the black person in mid-century America. “Negro poverty is not white poverty,” President Johnson proclaimed, “Many of its causes and many of its cures are the same. But there are differences—deep, corrosive, obstinate differences—radiating painful roots into the community, and into the family, and the nature of the individual.” In 1965, the President realized that structurally, life in America was objectively different and often markedly worse for people of color than it was for their white countrymen. Hundreds of years of forced enslavement, followed by almost as many years of unabashed discrimination primarily sanctioned by governmental authority has led to the implementation and perpetuation of two discrete states in which white people and people of color live. Fifty years later, that diagnosis has not changed, but sadly, far fewer people are willing to admit it.
2. Advocate for societal acknowledgement.
The concept of reparations is incredibly fraught and has often been met with major resistance because people misunderstand it to mean paying a large financial sum to members of the black community and squaring the issue. In reality, reparations is less about the monetary compensation than it is about the current generation of non-African Americans acknowledging the almost innumerable wrongdoings done to people of color in this country since its inception, if not earlier, making the connection between those wrongdoings and the current state of people of color today, and vowing to make it right for generations to come; a sort of national t’shuvah. This is an overwhelming difficult process, one that will take a significant amount of reflection and reckoning, but as we as Jews also know, t’shuvah is not supposed to come easy. As Maimonides, the twelfth-century Jewish philosopher and scholar notes, “One accomplishes full t’shuvah only when, while he is yet able to sin, he is faced again with a situation in which he had previously sinned, and he nonetheless does not [commit that sin]—but only as a consequence of t’shuvah, rather than out of fear, or because of physical inability [to carry that sin out].” A vow to change our ways is meaningless unless we are presented with an opportunity to continue the status quo, and we choose to alter it. We have a real opportunity—if not an obligation—to confront our country’s racial history, and figure out what can be wrought from it for every single American to come. This is no small task, but it starts with small actions. Root out your own prejudices and stereotypes, own them, and try to fix them as best as possible. But know that this is only a start; it must be paired with national, collective action as well.
3. Organize within and outside of your congregations and communities.
We within the Jewish community have a special prerogative for this kind of reflection, as we are not very far removed from generations of societal alienation here or in the many nations from which our families emigrated not too long ago. The specter of the Holocaust still hangs low, even as the generation of those who lived to tell about it slowly passes. For many, this specter inspired swift action during the heated battles of the Civil Rights era in the 1960s. Professor Atina Grossman, writing in Tablet magazine describes Bob Ross “[who] recalled about his student days at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, he had originally joined the picket line boycotting a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter because ‘It was the Jewish thing. If you’re silent, you’re complicit.’” The larger-than-life figures of Rabbis Joachim Prinz and Abraham Joshua Heschel, and the great scholar Michael Walzer, themselves all survivors of the Shoah, were integral figures in the fight for racial egalitarianism. Prinz stated at the time “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.” Some, like Mickey Shwerner and Andrew Goodman laid down their lives alongside their black brothers to ensure that no man of any color would ever suffer such a fate ever again.
All of these incredible figures took to heart the call to action Moses implored the Israelite people to understand as they stood at the banks of the Jordan River, about to cross into the Promised Land: “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Eternal your God redeemed you from there, therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.” (Deuteronomy 24:18) Our status as “others,” as previously discriminated, reviled and exiled, in times ancient and modern obligates us to do better by the generations of all peoples to come. We fail every single time we excuse the racism inherent in our system; we lose every single time we fail to see the “other” as an equal and do nothing about injustice. But we cannot act, nor can we lead in a bubble; this work can only be done with people of all faiths, colors, and creeds.
4. Speak up to the government.
We as faith leaders have a particular and unique opportunity to effect change not just on the communal level, but on the governmental level. Our voices are heard because political leaders know who we represent, and more importantly, the Book we have behind us. As such, it is our moral imperative to use that voice for good. We must demand a reenactment of LBJ’s Voters’ Rights Act, a structural shift of community policing nationwide, a welfare system that takes into account poverty stricken communities of color, serious and effective gun control, and so many other important pieces of legislation that will effect change and affect all who seek it.
When Abraham Joshua Heschel stated that he was praying with his feet marching with Dr. King, this is what he meant. As we honor all of the valiant men and women on whose shoulders we stand in order to do this good, we too must heed that call and pray with our feet, our mouths, our hands, and our congregations. Let’s get to work.
Ariel Naveh is a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow working at the Jewish Community Relations Council. For the past two years, he created educational materials at the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education.