At the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in 2013, Alan van Capelle, then the head of Bend the Arc, a progressive Jewish social action organization, spoke about the Jewish community’s historical commitment to racial justice. Afterward, an older African-American woman approached him. “Thank you,” she said. “I didn’t think the Jewish community still cared.”
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That story, shared by Bend the Arc’s current director Stosh Cotler at a panel discussion in New York in November, starkly illustrates the American Jewish community’s complicated relationship with race: Though passionately proud of its participation in the fight for civil rights half a century ago, it has been largely invisible in the fight for racial justice today.
“We’re talking about stories of the Civil Rights Movement as if those are the credentials that demonstrate our commitment to racial and economic justice,” Cotler told the event’s approximately 250 attendees. “And those examples are 50 years old. Those examples need to be refreshed.”
The November event was called “Why #BlackLivesMatter is a Jewish Issue,” a title that seemed aimed to convince and, like van Capelle’s encounter, implicitly begged the question: Given its history, why hasn’t the American Jewish community widely embraced the current movement?
Of course, some organizations have. Two days after that event, three founders of Black Lives Matter were honored at the 25th anniversary celebration of the progressive organization Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. And in August, nearly 200 rabbis joined an NAACP march from Selma, Alabama to Washington, D.C., part of a delegation organized by the Reform movement.
These and other smaller Jewish organizations that focus explicitly on social justice have been early and active allies of the Black Lives Matter movement, which grew in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown in St. Louis, Eric Garner in New York and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, all unarmed black men who died under suspicious circumstances at the hands of police officers.
But many mainstream Jewish institutions, synagogues and leaders have been slow to support the movement and take significant action. The hesitation reflects a shift in communal priorities over the past half-century, as well as in collective American-Jewish identity.
The risk of mythologizing
The office where Rabbi Jonah Pesner sits as the head of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center is across the hall from the conference room where the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted, a physical representation of the intimate and integral role Jews and Jewish organizations played in the Civil Rights movement.
Jews accounted for a disproportionate number of the movement’s white supporters. They showed up at marches and freedom rides, contributed significant funds to civil rights organizations, and took leadership roles in advancing the legal fight for civil rights through the courts and in Congress.
That legacy continues to inspire many Jews and, for Pesner, this history certainly informs his organization’s current work. But he is also cautious that it doesn’t define it.
“It’s critical to tell the story so that we know,” he said of the Jewish contribution to civil rights. “But the risk of mythologizing is that we become too self-congratulatory.”
When Jews learn about civil rights, they learn about it through a Jewish lens. They focus on stories where Jews are central, like the 1964 murder of Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two young Jewish civil rights workers who were killed by members of the KKK along with James Chaney, a young black activist. Or through visible figures like Rabbi Israel Dresner and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who then come to represent the entire Jewish community.
But some activists and historians worry that the celebration of the Jewish contribution glosses over the fact that not all Jews were on board with the cause, which then scrubs out opportunities for self-reflection. Though many Jews took action, many did not. Southern Jews, for example, immersed in a deeply segregated culture, were less vocal against injustice and more ambivalent about the movement than their northern counterparts.
“We were there in the past in a way that ought to make us proud,” said Cheryl Greenberg, a history professor at Trinity College and author of “Troubling the Waters,” a look at Black-Jewish relations in the 20th century, “but also in ways that were less forthright that we might now think of.”
And while many look back at the black and Jewish communities as natural allies based on shared experiences of oppression, some historians say that’s not necessarily the case.
“To see this as a major partnership is not what happened,” said Jack Salzman, an adjunct history professor at New York University and the editor of “Bridges and Boundaries” (1992) and “Struggles in the Promised Land” (1997), which analyze the collaboration and subsequent distancing of the black and Jewish communities.
“There was a lot of tension, a lot of private antagonism,” he said, noting differences among Jewish and black leaders in terms of tactics and timing.
In understanding how some in the African-American community thought about its relationship with Jews during this time, consider the scalding 1967 essay by the celebrated black writer James Baldwin called “Negroes are Anti-Semitic because they’re Anti-White,” (despite its harsh title, it is as much an indictment of Christians as of Jews.) It is a sobering reassessment of the narrative that the Jewish community still holds dear.
But instead of seeing challenges to the narrative as problematic or offensive, scholars and activists see them as important tools to understand the Jewish role from the outside, and an invitation for self-examination. For Pesner the complicated reality is a source of motivation rather than disappointment. “The fact that it wasn’t so perfect back then only gives us strength now,” he said. “When some Jewish people don’t get on board, we can say ‘well, that’s not new.’”
Once again, the issue of Israel
Last year, many Jews were surprised and vexed when Heschel wasn’t portrayed in the Academy Award-winning film “Selma” about the pivotal civil rights march. It felt like an erasure of the Jewish contribution. Greenberg thinks that the outcry ““missed the whole point” of the film but that it also reflected a communal solipsism as well as a shift in worldview. Over the years, she said, the Jewish community “became more inward looking.”
“The Civil Rights Movement was the last time that the Jewish community, as a community, has been out visibly as a force on an issue not directly tied to Jewish interest,” said Cotler. And the issue that has replaced domestic social action is, of course, a certain small country in the Middle East.
“Jewish attention both politically and organizationally has shifted toward support of Israel,” said Greenberg. The effect, she said, has been to move the Jewish community to the right politically, which has impacted domestic social action. “We have moved away from alliances and coalitions we might have supported,” she said.
Just as Israel has dominated resources and discourse in the American Jewish community in recent decades, it has also become a wedge issue for some in the current movement. In October, the Washington Post reported on the growing solidarity between Palestinian activists and members of the Black Lives Matter movement. Pro-Palestinian signs showed up at demonstrations in Ferguson last year and, in January, several Black Lives Matter leaders visited the West Bank.
This has led some Jews to steer clear of Black Lives Matter events. Though compelled to participate in the current racial justice movement, they are wary of wading into yet another space where one’s views on Israel become a litmus test of commitment.
Beyond Israel, there’s also institutional discomfort around the tactics and structure of Black Lives Matter. The Jewish community has enjoyed a long relationship with the NAACP, which counts several Jews among its founders and early members, but that organization’s focus on Washington lobbying and non-disruptive change is not what Black Lives Matter is preaching, nor how it operates as a decentralized consortium.
“The NAACP is familiar territory and it’s how the Jewish community has gone about operating in terms of social justice,” observed Evan Traylor, a student member of the Hillel International board and an activist on issues of racial inclusion in the Jewish community.
Organizationally, the Black Lives Matter movement is “messier,” he said. “Black Lives Matter is grassroots so not every tactic or move is carefully planned by an organization, and that’s a little scary for some Jewish institutions.”
The Jewish community’s internal tensions around Israel and the hesitation or delay of major Jewish institutions in supporting Black Lives Matter and affiliated efforts have left many Jews unsure of how to engage with today’s racial justice movement. But they still feel compelled to do so, in part because of the Jewish community’s rich history with civil rights.
The question now for Jewish leaders is how to harness the nostalgia of Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights era to inspire an honest reckoning with the geographic, demographic and political changes that have occurred in the Jewish American community since then.