Black History Month: We must renew black-Jewish brotherhood - opinion

We have known and felt more than the cold chill of chains and the searing crucible of bondage.

RABBI ABRAHAM Joshua Heschel with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
RABBI ABRAHAM Joshua Heschel with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Back in 1993 when I was rabbi at Oxford and appointed Cory Booker to be our student president of the Oxford University L’Chaim Society – at the time the second-largest student group in Oxford’s history – Cory and I understood the importance of building black-Jewish brotherhood.
The two communities were rocked by the 1991 riots in Crown Heights and other points of friction.
With frictions between the black and Jewish communities rising again – with pro-Israel activists feeling that Black Lives Matter unfairly targets the Jewish state, the only country in history to bring black citizens into freedom from bondage, and BLM activists feeling that Israel is part of a global problem of racial injustice – it’s time to renew African-American and Jewish bonds of brotherhood.
Now that we’re in 2021, the horrific and historic 2020 at last begins to fade. While our problems remain unsolved, forward steps are being made. The rollout of the vaccine bodes well for restoring public health, while the peaceful transfer of power to President Joe Biden implies we might finally snap out of our partisan political tailspin.
For the Jewish and African-American communities – whose special relationship was put under its own 2020 strain – the coming year already seems to indicate a renewal of brotherhood and friendship which must forever continue to unite our people.
This month, The World Values Network, on 18 February 2021, will host its Ninth Annual Champions of Jewish Values International Awards gala, a virtual event in honor of Black History Month and celebrating African-American and Jewish brotherhood.
Considering some of the celebrity-sparked tensions of 2020, I knew we needed something to deepen our communal alliance. Yet I did not predict the outpouring of goodwill and love that came forth from both communities, each eager to fortify the bridges by which we’re bound.
Robert F. Smith, the renowned business visionary and foremost black philanthropist in America, is serving as gala cochairman, joining key Jewish philanthropists – the Sterling and Falic families – along with the chairman of Carnegie Hall, Sir Clive Gillinson.
Last year, we honored Robert with the Champion of Education award for his historic act of paying off the college debts of an entire graduating class at Morehouse College in the summer of 2019. This year, we’re working together not only to expand the scope and reach of our event but to discuss and explore the shared values and the spiritual sensibilities of black Americans and Jews.
Learned and earned through our bitter histories, our values preserved our forebears through the greatest trials humanity has ever known. But they bear meaning for the future as well. Our principles can unite our communities as we push further on toward a more just and perfect world, the kind of world envisioned by our prophets and dreamed of by our leaders, where our descendants would never again know the pain of our ancestors.
One by one, allies, guests and honorees began streaming in to join the movement, with television legend Steve Harvey and global entertainer and actor Dionne Warwick tapped as the night’s honorees. Speaking alongside them is world-renowned surgeon and TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz and Robert Greene, CEO of the National Association of Investment Companies, the largest network of diverse-owned private equity firms and hedge funds in the United States.
Evgeny Kissin, considered one of the greatest classical pianists of our time, will join five-time Emmy nominee Tituss Burgess in providing a heartfelt musical contribution to the evening program. And the co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza, will be recognized for her work in fighting racial injustice and prejudice.
We are honoring Alicia because we are committed to the principles articulated in Genesis 1, that every human being is created equally in the image of God. Judaism insists that we confront injustice and fight every form of bigotry and prejudice. While there are significant areas of disagreement on issues pertaining to Israel, there is so much that binds us. Our kinship with the African-American community is forged through shared faith-based teachings and experiences on the receiving end of barbaric treatment. The struggle for equality and human dignity is never-ending and, at times, requires that we all work together – setting aside our differences so that we can bring forth lasting change for a more godly world.
AS A candle expels roomfuls of darkness, I now see that the pains and strains of 2020 say less about black-Jewish relations than the brilliant rays of warmth and kinship that I’ve felt from the moment the gala ball began to roll.
Often, the realest things are the hardest things to see. They’re usually too vast to be squeezed inside a headline, too gorgeously complex to fit inside a tweet or meme. Some things are so large they can be seen only from a distance, where only a wide-angle lens can capture their breadth and context.
The true bond between African-Americans and Jews is precisely thus. It is so vastly profound as to be cosmic in nature, etched by centuries of suffering into the stone of our existence.
We have known and felt more than the cold chill of chains and the searing crucible of bondage. We have both endured second-class status and wholesale slaughter; each of us still struggles to protect the value of life. Moreover, each of us has been guided by our God and his prophets, and drawn from our faith the hope and the strength to prevail.
Each of us has earned a fluency in sacrifice. We’ve worked hard and lost much for our freedom. But we spoke truth to power and were never afraid. The third Rebbe of Chabad, the Tzemach Tzedek, was arrested 22 times protesting the Russian government’s passing of antisemitic laws in 1843. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the greatest American of the 20th century, who restored our nation to its founding principles, was arrested 39 times by the time his life was cut short at the age of 39.
Together, sacrifices such as these gave mankind a model by which to live up to “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” As Russians rise to protest against tyrant Putin, they do so because Alexei Navalny walked fearlessly into his arrest the way our leaders did before him. It was we who defined tyranny and taught shackled people everywhere the plans for their escape.
Indeed, it was black leaders who gave our God, our prophets, and our message of liberation a most far-reaching and eloquent voice. It was Dr. King who took the Hebrew Bible and made it a modern liberation manifesto, thereby demonstrating to the Jewish community, who often look at their own texts and traditions as ossified, the contemporary power of Jewish prophecy and values.
It is almost eerie to behold the bond between the sacred words and struggle of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whom our nation commemorated last month, and those of the Jews laid out in the essential texts of our nationhood. “Go and tell Pharaoh!”
On April 2, 1968, at Mason Temple, he would prophecy as he waged war against the modern slavery that plagued his people. God, he explained, had taken him to the mountaintop. “I have seen the Promised Land!... I may not get there with you. But we as a people will get to the Promised Land.”
He was murdered the very next day. He had brought the Bible earthward, and made it what God meant it to be: a justice-agent for society, the formula for a more perfect world.
2020 will forever be remembered as a year of tension, loss and isolation. But perhaps one day we’ll behold it from afar and see it as the year of darkness that just precedes the dawn – the birth pangs of redemption. Jews and their African-American brothers must come together, to show the whole world how it’s done. After all, 2020 comes down to what we make of 2021.
The writer is founder of the World Values Network and the international best-selling author of 30 books, including Judaism for Everyone. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook @RabbiShmuley. The Champions of Jewish Values gala can be attended or watched at