Borderline Views: US civil rights and the Jewish community

The Jewish community had suffered discrimination, oppression throughout much of history and they identified with the struggle of the black community.

Civil rights sign US 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Civil rights sign US 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 states.
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 of 1964.
It is not hard to understand why this was the case.
The Jewish community had suffered discrimination and oppression throughout much of history and they identified with the struggle of the black community.
For 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.
As 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.
The 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 nation.
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 post-conflict era.
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 happened.
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 societies.
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 King.
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.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.