About a month ago, as I sat aboard an El Al plane bound for Israel, I opened an Israeli newspaper. The front-page story made me pause and check to make sure the newspaper was current. It was the story of Tanya Rosenblit, and how she refused to sit in the back of the bus despite pressure from two Ultra-Orthodox men. While this story was shocking for many Israelis, I think it struck a unique cord for Americans. The parallel story of Rosa Parks’ refusal to do the same thing during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s symbolizes a more primitive time in American history. A time that has been largely overcome in American society today.
One of the people most responsible for this progress was Martin Luther King, whose memory and legacy we just finished marking on Monday. King was a powerful preacher and advocate for civil rights. Perhaps one of the most powerful pieces he produced was his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which he wrote on April 16, 1963. It had been a number of years since I encountered this powerful piece. And, as I reread it this year, I was struck by how deeply its message applied not only to me as an American, but also to me as a Jew. Here’s an excerpt:
“…I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns: and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom far beyond my own hometown… Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
Could we apply the same message to Jews of the Diaspora and Jews in Israel? We too are caught in “an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Yes we have different responsibilities and live in different places, but what Jews do in Israel impacts Jews in the Diaspora – and visa versa. As Dr. King wrote, like it or not, our destinies are inextricably linked.
And I think we should like it – there is much that Jews inside and outside of Israel have to gain from one another. I was on that plane to Israel to lead a group of students from my community. For most of them, it was their first trip to Israel. While we exposed them to the complexities of the land, we also watched as they each developed their own sense of Ahavat Yisrael – their love of Israel. It’s this love that we hope will compel them to return, whether on aliya or for a longer visit, and will also cause them to support Israel from abroad.
But this love is tarnished when women are needlessly discriminated against. Especially when it is by those who claim to be living Torah while they are actually subverting it.
Almost fifty years after Martin Luther King wrote those words in a Birmingham jail, they stand as a lesson and a warning for us today. We know that in America we have made much progress since the 1960s. How much progress will Israel make today?
Rabbi Micah Peltz is a conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
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