We should resist reading ourselves into the historic image of Jews and blacks marching together for civil rights and instead focus on the major work left to be done, urges Rabbi Seth Goren. Rabbi Joel Seltzer agrees, quoting Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel from his first encouter with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
By Rabbi Seth Goren
Of the many memorializations of the civil rights movement, among the most familiar to Jews is a photograph of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching in 1965 in Selma, Ala. In addition to its own innate power, it is referenced as evidence of our community’s support for black rights and the strength of African-American/Jewish relationships.
I like to envision myself in the background of this tableau, just out of view, behind Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel. I want to think that had I been alive then, I’d have been among the Jews who joined the Freedom Riders and served as unflinching advocates for civil rights, often at risk to themselves.
It’s tempting to imagine ourselves as part of that groundswell of Jewish activism and advocacy, to retroactively inject ourselves into our understanding of the period’s Jewish mainstream, and to envision how we would have, naturally, done the same.
We should resist this impulse. Invoking the merit of our ancestors is a millennia-old component of Jewish prayer, but ascribing their deeds to ourselves is not.
Regardless of how we understand ancestral merit religiously, it’s a leap to attribute the bold achievement of parents and grandparents during the civil rights era to those of us who have come after them.
Our inheritance of Jewish bravery and engagement from those generations should inspire us to be empathetic and audacious in dismantling oppression; there’s no basis for it to substitute for our own actions, or for their accomplishments to be considered as ours today.
Even in 1965, the photo of Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel presented challenges. Its implicit narrative of unwavering solidarity papered over existing tensions between Jews and African-Americans, and eclipsed the susceptibility of many Jews to “blockbusting,” in which real estate agents raised the “threat” of blacks moving into a neighborhood to induce sales at below-market prices.
Moreover, focusing on King and Heschel’s camaraderie obscured how Jews of diverse backgrounds fit into racial categories, creating a “black or Jewish” dichotomy that negated the existence of Jews of color, and disregarding how white Jews (along with Italian- and Irish-Americans) had been classified as not-exactly-white not so long before. Our past is far more complex than this distinct moment.
The more timeless and general difficulty centers on gaps between self-perception and others’ perspectives. Reading ourselves into the photo from Selma, even if it accurately reflects our “What if?” responses, may clash with the impressions of people with far more mixed experiences with the Jewish community. Intentions, however good and whether collective or individual, don’t always match outcomes, and there’s no inherent reason our positive intent should trump negative impact in the minds of those bearing its brunt. We can reflexively dismiss their “truth” in favor of our own “truth,” and wrap ourselves in counterfactual scenarios, but ignoring this friction allows misimpressions and divisiveness to fester, pushing us further from the shared ideal of societal fairness.
Frankly, I’ll never know what I would have done in the 1960s; ahistorical fantasies of myself in Selma will remain just that. Instead of speculating during next week’s holiday, we can look beyond snapshots from which we are absent, consider the massive remaining work toward equal rights, and dive into challenging modern conversations that push us to examine our communal memory and our connection to it more carefully.
Just as our Jewish social justice heritage is obvious, we don't have to look far to uncover the legacies of prejudice that have been bequeathed to us: résumés with African-American-sounding names receive fewer responses than identical ones with white-sounding names; Pennsylvania public school funding comes with strong race-based discrepancies; blacks are far more likely to be arrested for drug-related crimes; and the median white family’s wealth is 13 times larger than that of the median African-American family. These lowlights might not be as visually dramatic as scenes of police officers beating unarmed marchers in Selma, but they’re no less real, and provide a mere sample of contemporary discrimination and its effects.
There are enough injustices here in 2015. By setting aside conjectures based on one 50-year-old image and remaining grounded in the present, we’re better able to confront them.
Rabbi Seth Goren is the director of Repair the World: Philadelphia.
Rabbi Joel Selter responds:
Rabbi Seth Goren, who like myself, was not of age — or even born — during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, does a fabulous job of wondering if he himself, or indeed our Jewish community of today would be active and willing participants in the cause of civil rights, just as many of our ancestors were. Ultimately however, and with great wisdom, Rabbi Goren cautions us not to ascribe their bravery as our own, but rather to celebrate their actions as part of our rich religious and historical inheritance.
Rabbi Goren’s reference to the famous picture of Dr. Martin Luther King marching hand and hand with Jewish philosopher Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel as the quintessential image of the Jewish people’s sense of partnership in the moral imperative of the civil rights movement, reminded me of a little-known speech that Dr. Heschel once made, which served as his first introduction to Dr. King.
At the 1963 National Conference on Race and Religion held in Chicago, Drs. King and Heschel shared the dais. Heschel opened his remarks with the following words:
“At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’ words were: 'Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me.' While Pharaoh retorted: 'Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.' The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.”
Dr. Heschel, like Rabbi Goren, are reminding us that the exodus continues! The moral imperatives of our time are just that – imperatives; and we would be wise to adhere to the precious inheritances bequeathed to us by the generation of Jews who answered the clarion call of civil rights.
Rabbi Joel Seltzer is the executive director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos.