AJC Philadelphia: We Will Not Sit Idly By

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By David Smith

AJC’s founders understood the fundamental truth that the American Jewish community’s fate was inextricably tied to the fates of other minority communities. Both historically and today, AJC leaders have always had deep and meaningful relationships with the Black community, and we take considerable pride in our organization’s historic involvement in the civil rights movement. I take pride in the fact that AJC recently formalized its presence in two more U.S. cities, and will bring more than a century of experience in our commitment to the civil rights struggle to the Twin Cities and Louisville, Kentucky.

As president of AJC Philadelphia/Southern NJ — and as an individual who cares deeply about civil rights, justice, and equality — I cannot sit idly by as injustices against the Black community are happening in our city and across our country at frightening speeds. I, and AJC, are moved to action. 


When Martin Luther King Jr. was honored by AJC in 1965, his acceptance speech emphasized shared values. He said, “I particularly cherish the opportunity to address … the American Jewish Committee, whose founding statement declared many years ago what is a fundamental truth, that ‘Jews cannot ensure equality for themselves unless it is assured for all.’”  

Dr. King recalled in particular the research sponsored by AJC of Dr. Kenneth Clark on the harmful impact of school segregation on minority children. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren cited the Clark study in the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision Earlier, AJC advocated successfully for the passage of a 1913 law in New York prohibiting the advertisement of discrimination in public accommodations, recreational resorts and amusement parks. This is AJC’s civil rights legacy.  

Most recently, AJC, together with the ADL, the JCRC, the Barrister’s Association of Philadelphia, the Louis D. Brandeis Law Society and the Urban League sponsored a community-wide town hall-style conversation with a panel of Philadelphia-area Black elected officials. U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, state Sen. Sharif Street, state Rep. Joanna McClinton and Philadelphia City Council member Cherelle Parker gave generously of their time and thoughts, and collectively offered well-founded advice on how we might sustain and build on today’s activism.

One of my biggest takeaways from this vital conversation is that our current challenge is to maintain the momentum of today’s activism over the long term to achieve and preserve lasting progress. Building upon our shared outrage has inspired not only a month of demonstrations in cities across the nation, but also, for the moment, galvanized businesses and nonprofits to speak out. 

In that vein, AJC recently presented six policy recommendations to the Congressional Caucus on Black-Jewish Relations, which was launched at the 2019 AJC Global Forum in Washington, D.C. And a few weeks ago, the AJC Philadelphia board met with Evans — a member of that Caucus — to review the policy recommendations, which are as follows:

Support the Floyd family’s call for a national task force to examine systemic inequities. Such a model should be implemented nationally and in local communities.

Close the vast gaps in reporting on hate crimes across America. AJC urges final passage of legislation to make lynching a federal crime — at last.

The difficult task of police reform must be tackled. Many of the reforms outlined in the Justice in Policing Act are a good start and hopefully will receive bipartisan endorsement. 

A comprehensive effort to finally close the wound of historic racism is long overdue. Education funded on the basis of local property taxes cannot meet the needs of struggling neighborhoods. Enhance education on slavery and racism. 

The basic right to vote can never be debated. The only debate should be over how best to ensure the enfranchisement of all Americans while safeguarding honest elections.

A comprehensive examination of the violence motivated by white supremacist ideology is necessary. White supremacist violence must be condemned, and law enforcement agencies should receive enhanced, specialized training about this deadly and dangerous threat to the United States. 

Activism is easy in the aftermath of murders and protests. The challenge for us, right now, is how to live that activism and safeguard changes. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1963, King wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”  

I encourage everyone to figure out how they can have the greatest impact. But for me, my activism and impact is through AJC — through its sustained work in the halls of Congress and on the ground in our cities. AJC builds the relationships and trust needed to enact the changes that are needed most urgently: eradicating racism and ensuring justice and equality for all.

David Smith is the president of AJC Philadelphia/SNJ.

1 COMMENT

  1. The brutal killing of Mr. Floyd was a horrific act performed by one police officer. It did not and does not represent the acts of hundreds of thousands of officers who put their lives on the line every day to protect the rest of us. You can’t generalize this act of extreme brutality to every cop who puts on the uniform, just as you can’t generalize from the behavior of some blacks to the black community as a whole. Doing so further divides the country into left and right, black and white, pro and anti American. The officer who killed Mr. Floyd is in jail and will receive justice for what he did. lets not conflate this into system racism.

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