WASHINGTON – Leading Jewish organizations in the United States are mourning the death of Congressman John Lewis, the civil rights leader who for decades had been an ally of the Jewish community in the United States.
Lewis passed away on Friday night at the age of 80 after a months-long battle with cancer. He was the youngest and last survivor of the Big Six civil rights activists, a group led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that had the greatest impact on the movement. He was best known for leading some 600 protesters in the Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965.
For decades, he has been a symbol of cooperation between U.S. Jews and the African-American community in their battle for equality and justice.
Expressing its condolences, the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement it is mourning “The loss of a civil rights giant and an American hero”, calling Lewis “the conscience of Congress.” The organization’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, has called Lewis in the past “our nation’s moral compass.”
“Lewis was a fearless leader whose courage and heroism was on display each and every day fighting for a more just world,” ADL wrote on its Twitter account. “May his memory be a blessing.” Earlier this year, the ADL’s southeastern branch chose to give Lewis a lifetime achievement award for his activism and leadership.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote on Twitter: “John Lewis, a pillar of conscience and courage, has died. This past October I had a chance to tell him how much our Reform Jewish Movement loved him. We will carry forward his holy work. His memory will never stop inspiring us.”
The National Council of Jewish Women said in a statement that it was “devastated” to learn of Lewis’ death. “He spent his entire life fighting for justice,” the organization said, describing him as “an incredible friend and partner to us at NCJW. We will continue our work towards equity and justice in Rep. Lewis’ memory.”
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The Jewish Federations of North America tweeted: “We are heartbroken to learn of the passing of our longtime friend. He reminded us everyday of the power of gentleness, humility and optimism. May his memory be for a blessing.”
J Street, whose political action committee has endorsed Lewis, wrote in a statement: “We are deeply saddened by the passing of our friend Congressman John Lewis. History will rightly record his tireless pursuit of justice, his bravery, his statesmanship and his unending selflessness and kindness.
"We are grateful for the wisdom he shared, the inspiration he provided and the example he set. Our country has yet to fully comprehend the wrongs that Lewis set out to neither right— nor the magnitude of the gift he gave us by doing so.”
In his memoir “Walking with the Wind”, published in the early 2000s, Lewis wrote about the Jewish American leaders' ties with the civil rights movement in the 1960’s. He particularly described the cooperation with Rabbi Abraham Heschel, one of the most famous rabbis in the history of the United States and an early supporter of the movement.
The book depicts Heschel standing alongside leaders of the movement during the Selma march. “A biblical-looking man with a long, flowing white beard. There goes God!” one civil rights activist shouted with excitement when he saw Heschel.
“I’ve always felt an affinity with the Jewish community, ever since I was a boy growing up. As long as I could remember, I heard many white people in the South pronounce the word ‘Jew’ in the same way they used the term ‘nigger,’ they would spit the word out, like a bad piece of food.
"There was a small department store in downtown Troy (the town where Lewis grew up) operated by a Jewish merchant, I remember how it stung me when I heard people say things about him – the same kind of things they said about us,” Lewis wrote in his book.
“I grew up studying Bible stories about the Jewish people, I identified with those stories. I felt a kinship with the children of Israel. I could see that their struggle was very similar to ours."
After first being elected to Congress in the 1980’s, Lewis developed a close relationship with the Jewish community in Atlanta, the center of his congressional district.
During his time in Congress, Lewis won praise from prominent Jewish American organizations. In early 2017, when he had a public feud with U.S. President Donald Trump who described him as “all talk, no action,” several leading Jewish groups stood by Lewis, slamming Trump for going after the legendary civil rights leader.
While his relationship with the Jewish community remained strong throughout his years in Congress, Lewis did not shy away from criticizing the current right-wing government in Israel.
In 2015, he boycotted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress, as did most members of the Congressional Black Caucus, in protest of what they described as an undiplomatic and disrespectful attack on former President Barack Obama.
Lewis has also stated that although he opposed the BDS, the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions movement against Israel, he also rejected attempts to make such boycotts illegal, and emphasized that boycotts for political reasons were a protected form of speech.
After Lewis announced last year that he had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer – “I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now,” he said – Jewish organizations praised him for his life-long commitment to civil rights, and equality. The Anti-Defamation League described him as “our nation’s moral compass” and the American Jewish Committee called him “a fighter for his entire life.”