How John Lewis Became a Hero for American Jews

Prof. Susannah Heschel, the daughter of a rabbi who marched with Martin Luther King, tells how the Hebrew Bible inspired civil rights activists in the ‘60s. The message lives on.

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Martin Luther King Jr. marching in Selma, Alabama, alongside Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and other civil rights activists.
Martin Luther King Jr. marching in Selma, Alabama, alongside John Lewis, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and other civil rights activists.Credit: AP

Late Sunday, Donald Trump canceled his trip to the new Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, worsening his ill-timed feud with a civil rights hero on Martin Luther King weekend. Two days earlier, Representative John Lewis of Georgia had called Trump an “illegitimate president,” referring to the Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election. That set off a flurry of tweets from the president-elect, who wrote of Lewis: “All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!”

Susannah Heschel had a front-row seat to Lewis’ activism starting back in the '60s. In 1965 her father, the Polish-born Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, marched alongside Lewis and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma, Alabama. Though she was just a teenager, Heschel, now a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth, recalls Lewis’ dedication to human rights and dignity.

Lewis was beaten bloody on the Edmund Pettus Bridge by Alabama state troopers; he was asserting his freedom to demonstrate.

“So how do you react to something like that? You can be angry or depressed or resentful or take vengeance and instead, look at him,” Heschel says.

“He’s an advocate of nonviolence .... That’s the lesson we want to teach everybody, starting with our children we can we bring warring sides together. It’s easy to take vengeance, but in the Torah, God says: ‘Vengeance is mine.’ God can take it, but not us.”

A few days after the election, Heschel had a chance to honor the civil rights icon at a Jewish Federation of North America event at the new African-American museum. “We were despondent and shocked,” she recalls. “Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer was there and he wasn’t aware of the connection between Jewish leaders and the civil rights movement.”

Last spring, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum asked Heschel to give the tribute speech when Lewisreceived the institution’s highest honor, the Elie Wiesel Award.

She has also taken her children and husband on two of Lewis’ pilgrimage trips to Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham, further cementing her connection to a man she even credits with saving the soul of American Jewry.

More Amos and Isaiah than Jesus

“My father was studying in Germany. He was 20 in 1927 and saw Hitler come to power in Berlin. He recalled when German Christian theologians declared the Old Testament was a Jewish book and threw it out of the Bible, and claimed Jesus was not Jewish, but an Aryan,” Heschel says.

“Then my father came to America, and he witnesses the birth of a civil rights movement that made Moses and the prophets and the story of Exodus essential. All the major speeches didn’t even mention Jesus. Here’s a Christian message that’s open to Judaism and even quotes from Amos and Isaiah. It was so incredible to him, this inclusivity,” she adds.

“So my father felt a kind of passion about civil rights. When he was invited to speak out for the first time in 1963, it was so emotional. He said: ‘Racism is Satanism, unmitigated evil.’ ... When he spoke at the first summit of religion and race, he prepared another speech, ‘The white man and pharaoh.’ He told his fellow Jews, ‘You’re pharaoh in this story.’”

Cornell West, the outspoken member of the Democratic Socialists of America, calls it the strongest speech against racism by a white person since William Lloyd Garrison, an abolitionist and social reformer from the early 19th century. It was a far more nuanced rebuke than, say, equating Zionism with apartheid.

“I reject the idea that Zionism is a dirty word. Just as I reject that feminism is a dirty word, “ Heschel says. “Zionism is very much about issues that other groups that aren’t Jewish also value, such as revival of culture and a restructuring of society, a search for authenticity, respect and equality for all.”

Though her outlook isn’t shared by the likes of Black Lives Matter and even Bernie Sanders, it is by Lewis, who in his speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum last spring spoke of how story of the Exodus and the song “Go Down Moses” were the catalysts that turned him into an activist. Many Jews were upset when the film “Selma” omitted Rabbi Heschel from the narrative.

At the time, Dr. Heschel bemoaned the missed opportunity to build a coalition among African-Americans and Jews. For him, it wasn’t just a “political protest,” it was a “profoundly religious moment: an extraordinary gathering of nuns, priests, rabbis, black and white, a range of political views, from all over the United States.”

“Whenever I meet people from the civil rights era, they hug me with so much warmth and affection,” his daughter says. “Andrew Young told me they used to carry a copy of ‘Prophets’ in their back pockets and read it in prison. That’s how inspiring Judaism was to them,” she adds, referring to how it affected them.

Misunderstanding Zionism

Heschel says America can return to better relations between African-Americans and Jews if the word is spread that “Zionism isn’t just right wing Republicans and the Orthodox.”

“That’s hard to do when the prime minister of Israel insults the president of the U.S. and hostilities grow to the point where people say that Obama is an anti-Semite. That’s just outrageous,” she says.

“If Israel is equated with Trump, then what is it?” asks Heschel, who spent last weekend at the Modern Language Association conference, working against an anti-BDS resolution that was rejected.

“I don’t believe in boycotting. When Black Lives Matter drafted a platform that was like 40,000 pages long, but included one graph about Israel that was horrible, many Jewish groups said, ‘I’m not going to talk to them any more,’” she adds.

“But that’s wrong. If anything, you need to talk to them. The problem is we’re not talking to people. Trump’s appointed ambassador to Israel says, ‘I don’t talk to J Street.’ Why? Those are the people to talk to, not just the ones you agree with.”

This photo combo provided by the Nashville Police Department shows a recently discovered never-before-seen photos and records of civil rights icon John Lewis' arrest while leading an effort to desegreCredit: /AP

Still, even Lewis hit his limit of tolerance, declaring Friday that he wouldn’t invite Trump on one of his bipartisan trips to Selma. So how would her father have fared?

“I would have been afraid for his health and life,” she says, adding that Trump’s lack of shame is the opposite of what the Torah is about.

“Shame runs through the whole Torah, the shame of David and the Prophets who don’t come in with swords they shame them with words. That’s the foundation of the Bible, of Judaism, of civilization. Trump behaves in opposition to human values and dignity.”

Rabbi Heschel, who died in 1972, returned from Selma a changed man, his daughter recalls. “The Hebrew Bible was at the heart of the civil rights movement .... In Congressman Lewis’ memoir ‘Walking with the Wind,’ he quotes an African proverb, ‘When you pray, move your feet.’ My father embodied that African proverb when he returned from Selma and said, ‘I felt my legs were praying,’” Heschel says.

“I truly believe civil rights was the greatest gift for American Jews, inspiring us to take part in sit-ins and freedom rides that allowed us to rediscover with pride the Jewish prophetic tradition, to never to be indifferent to other people’s suffering. That march was a moment in holiness. It did something to the Jewish people. It saved our souls.”

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