This week marks 50 years since one of the most famous speeches of the 20th
century. On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed a crowd of
hundreds of thousands in Washington in his “I Have a Dream” speech in which he
outlined his view of an America where the black (African American) community was
equal and integrated within society and where anti-black discrimination would no
longer be an accepted norm within society.
It was an evocative speech,
full of rhetoric, designed to arouse the masses. Following a decade of struggle
and increasing political awareness, the civil rights movement was reaching its
peak. A hundred years after the American Civil War which had brought an end to
official slavery, discrimination was still rampant, especially in the Southern
Segregation and discrimination in the workplace, on buses, in
schools and even some universities took place, while the black community were
effectively excluded from political power. In many states, they were effectively
prevented from registering as voters in a political system which was controlled
by the white, and largely racist, political elites.
The struggle for
civil rights in America in this period was tied up with activism on the part of
large sections of the Jewish community. A famous image shows King walking arm in
arm with Abraham Heschel in the march from Selma to Montgomery. Leading liberal
personalities among the Jewish community came out strongly against continued
anti-black discrimination, while young Jewish activists were disproportionately
involved in the attempts to increase voter registration in the southern states.
Two young Jewish activists, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were among
those murdered by the Klu Klux Klan when they participated in the Freedom Summer
It is not hard to understand why this was the case.
Jewish community had suffered discrimination and oppression throughout much of
history and they identified with the struggle of the black community.
their part the leaders of the civil rights struggle, foremost among them King
himself, compared their own struggle with that of the Jewish people freeing
themselves of the yoke of slavery in ancient Egypt.
King was, for many of
them, the modern incarnation of Moses, leading his people from slavery to
freedom, and this was depicted strongly in the imagery and public proclamations
of the struggle, especially in the Baptist and Evangelical churches.
such, the involvement of large parts of the Jewish community in the civil rights
struggle was not just a marriage of political convenience between two groups who
experienced political and racial discrimination. It was based on shared
historical experiences of oppression.
It was based on a common belief in
the right to be free and equal. And it was based on a common belief that the
United States of America, a country in which Jews had become emancipated,
successful in all walks of life, and free to carry on their beliefs and customs
without hindrance, was a model which should be repeated by all other
communities, regardless of racial, ethnic or religious background.
classic Jewish understanding of this struggle is repeated every year at the
Passover Seder when we remind ourselves that the freedom from slavery in Egypt
is a story which has to resonate and be understood in every generation. The
Jewish people were slaves and oppressed and they became a free
The blacks in North America, and in an apartheid South Africa,
were second-class citizens, and they eventually achieved equal rights. And, for
many of us, the same argument should be the basis for understanding why the
Palestinians deserve no less than to be their own masters and to make their own
decisions in life – regardless of whether those decisions are good or bad for
their own future development and whether they want to love or hate us in the
But they too, like all other formerly oppressed
communities, must remember that being free and equal comes with major
responsibilities. No longer will they be able to blame others for their failure
to undergo economic, social and political development. Once free, a people has
to take responsibility for their own development into their own hands, rather
than sit back and bemoan their own shortcomings as the sole result of the
discrimination practiced against them in the past.
NOT ALL in the black
community in North America have taken this lesson on board. King would have been
proud of the fact that President Barack Obama is the first African American
president. Without the civil rights movement this would never have
But he would not have been proud of the direction which has
been taken by some elements within that community who have adopted causes which
would only serve to raise religious and racial tensions and which,
unfortunately, are reflected in many other post-colonial and post-apartheid
In that respect, former South African president Nelson Mandela
is one of the few leaders who has demonstrated an amazing ability to move beyond
freedom, rather than to continually use the past as a convenient excuse for
everything that has failed.
The leaders of the African American community
today are quick to forget the support they received from the Jewish community
and activists back in the 1950s and 1960s. The tensions which exist between
these two communities in the US today are at an alltime low, expressing itself
in enmity, tensions and even hatred.
Contemporary leaders such as Jesse
Jackson or Louis Farrakhan can claim that they constitute the contemporary
versions of the civil rights leaders of the past generation, but their messages
of hatred and anti-Semitism are diametrically opposed to those preached by
The humanistic and liberal values expressed by King in his “I Have
a Dream” speech are essentially Jewish values. The Jewish community should be
proud of its liberal and universal heritage, rather than shun notions of
“liberalism,” which has become increasingly common among some sectors of the
community in recent years.
One can be orthodox in their personal and
community lifestyles, and liberal in their understanding of the world at one and
the same time. One does not require the shedding of the other. These are not
“either/or” sets of beliefs but are intricately linked with each other as part
of the overall Jewish experience.
It is not as though we don’t have
enough religious and philosophical leaders and teachers of our own. But neither
should we forget the dream of King, with which so many in the Jewish community
of that time automatically identified. We have to remember that true freedom can
only ever be fully realized when all around us share the same rights and
privileges that we now enjoy. Whether they choose to love or hate us afterwards
is their problem, not ours. We have to remain true to the basic values of
freedom and equality which are at the root of the Jewish experience.
writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion
University. The views expressed are his alone.