Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Jews to blacks: Thank you

Pastors, priests and rabbis joined the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., (center) in the 1965 march on Selma. Religion News Service file photo by Robie Ray

Classic Jewish joke. Two Jewish men are walking late at night in a dangerous neighborhood. They hear footsteps behind them. One says to the other: “We’d better be careful. There are two of them, and we’re alone.”

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter pronouncements on Israel, many Jews have felt alone.

How redemptive, therefore, to learn that an association of hundreds of predominantly African-American churches in St. Louis condemned that recent platform.

Bishop Lawrence Wooten said that while Black Lives Matter plays a “vital role” in addressing racial violence by police, its language on Israel was misplaced.

The Ecumenical Leadership Council of Missouri, representing hundreds of predominantly African-American churches throughout the state, rejects without hesitation any notion or assertion that Israel operates as an apartheid country. We embrace our Jewish brethren in America and respect Israel as a Jewish state. Jewish-Americans have worked with African-Americans during the civil rights era when others refused us service at the counter — and worse.

Wooten also referred to two American Jews — Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman — who along with James Chaney, a young black man, were murdered in 1964 while doing civil rights work in Mississippi.

It is no accident that this statement of support came from black religious leaders in St. Louis — in the shadow of Ferguson, Missouri.

In 2014, Jewish leaders and black leaders marched together in Ferguson to protest the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old who was shot to death by a police officer.

From this, we learn a powerful lesson.

Yes, there is anti-Israel feeling among some black groups.

But, while such hateful ideology exists, it doesn’t have to surface.

Sometimes, all it takes to strengthen the immune system against hate is something as simple as relationships.

I would like to think that this is what happened in St. Louis. The Jews were there for the blacks, and they reciprocated.

So, thank you.

All of which gets me thinking: what else have American blacks given American Jews?

Their renewed sense of Jewish identity.

Go back in time, to the 1960s, when the civil rights movement was just getting started.

Yes, Jewish leaders helped the civil rights movement (those stories are etched into Jewish minds and souls like a catechism).

But, in fact, it was the civil rights movement that gave American Jews the courage — to be themselves as American Jews.

American blacks were the first ethnic group to actually question and protest the dominant WASP identity of America.

Ethnicity in America only became “fashionable” once American blacks showed that it was both possible and desirable to stand apart from the “Leave it To Beaver” world of bland, generic middle class life.

Or, to put it this way: American Jews became “tribal” (with all of the good and not-so-good connotations of that term) only after black Americans showed that it was “acceptable” to be a tribe.

Consider: Jerry Kirschen, a Jewish cartoonist of the late 1960s. His cartoons, which often appeared in radical newspapers, often bewailed the fact that, compared to black radicals, young American Jews were so lukewarm on their own identity.

Jerry wasn’t kidding around; in the early 1970s, he made aliyah, changed his name to Yaakov — and created the popular “Dry Bones” political cartoon, which has appeared in the Jerusalem Post since 1973.

Or, consider: today, any Jewish student, at almost any university, can take a Jewish studies course — and, in many places, can even major in Jewish studies.

Back into the time machine, please.

Before the mid 1960s, there were very few Jewish studies courses at American secular universities. Those courses emerged at approximately the same time as African-American studies became a reality.

In fact, Julius Lester is perhaps the only academic to have taught in both the African-American studies program and the Jewish studies program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

You will retort that Jews are still white (except for those who aren’t) (and you need to read Eric Goldstein’s book on how Jews, in fact, actually came to be considered as white in America).

You will retort that Jews never, ever, suffered anywhere near as much as African-Americans have suffered.

And you would be right. You can count on the fingers of both hands the number of American Jews who were murdered for being Jewish.

But, both blacks and Jews worked together on an important project — that might have had even more lasting value than civil rights marches.

Blacks and Jews, together, challenged the ethnic and cultural status quo in America. The cross-pollination between black culture and Jewish culture is a deep, powerful, complex, and nuanced story.

And we need to tell that story, because it is a quintessentially American story.

Meanwhile, to all of the African-American churches in St. Louis that stood up to the anti-Israel forces in the Black Lives Matter movement — thank you.

May we always have the holy privilege of marching together.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

12 Comments

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  • Good article Rabbi Salkin. I had not considered how the advances by American blacks encouraged others outside the dominant WASP identity to do the same. I might add that those of us whose heritage fit the definition were enabled to be true to ourselves when our hearts and minds did not fit. You have opened my eyes to even greater benefits by the courage of blacks and their allies.

    “Sometimes, all it takes to strengthen the immune system against hate is something as simple as relationships.”
    I believe relationships are the single most valuable tool in that effort.

  • Sorry to be contrarian, but one person’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens. The promotion of ethnic identity, which started up in the 1960s with the Black Power movement and subsequent with a range of other ethnic ‘power’ and ‘pride’ movements, has perpetuated racial and ethnic stereotypes (while, giving them a positive spin), imposed oppressive expectations and role obligations on individuals identified as ‘ethnic’, and imposed ‘identities’ on people which do not reflect who they are in virtue of race and blood.

    The US is far from colorblind, which is why race-conscious affirmative action is important and why Black Lives Matter matters. But the ultimate aim of these policies is to trivialize race and obliterate ethnic identity. Assimilation is what we should be after—the end of racial and ethnic identities to liberate individuals from the constraints of group identity based on unchosen characteristics—on race, appearance, and genealogy.

    I don’t see what the alternative is supposed to be. Ethnicity forever? Anti-miscegenegation policies so that groups can maintain their ‘identities’? 4th, 5th, and nth generations told that they have to learn ancestral languages and identify with remote ancestors who lived lives they can’t even imagine?

  • The notion of celebrating one’s distinctive cultural, racial, and ethnic heritage is a reasonable aspiration, and worthy of being sustained, but I think it should be at least partially subsumed within our identity as Americans (read: a common people) Some homogeneity is required for a nation state or common culture to thrive and sustain itself, with room for self correction when necessary, otherwise we risk the balkanization of this republic into semi-autonomous tribes (read: Interest Groups) vying with and against one another, which is not a recipe for a healthy well ordered society, diverse in it’s makeup, but blessed in it’s “bland, generic Middle Class life,” (read: safe, secure, neighborly).

  • Kudos to the Ecumenical Leadership Council of Missouri, the only Black leaders to have publicly denounced the BLM platform of lies and incitement against Israel.

  • I strongly feel that we need to celebrate our varied heritages and colors and honor them. Colorblind is just plain blind.

  • Rabbi Salkin justifiably celebrates the Missouri clergy of Black
    churches who criticized the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) for labeling
    Israeli government policy as “genocide.”

    But his analysis falls short of noticing why they did. There was a strong history of direct engagement
    by some Jews with the BLM movement in Ferguson, MO — esp. led by Rabbi
    Susan Talve , who refused to back away from BLM when some Palestinians
    connected with it and some Jws urged her to, and who made clear her own connection to Israel.
    Indeed, when some activists tried to bar her from speaking,the Black
    clergy said — if not her, not us either.

    The interesting point now is that the Jewish organization Rabbi Talve is most connected to, T’ruah —
    the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights — has criticized the “genocide”
    label and at the same time has affirmed Black Lives Matter as a crucial
    wave of anti-racist organizing. Some other Jews, unfortunately and
    unwisely, have called for refusing to work with BLM. Some have even
    refused to continue in relationship with Jewish organizations that urge
    continuing in relationship with Black Lives Matter.

    Compare that with the willingness of these same Jewish groups to keep working with
    the Catholic Church on economic-justice issues even though the Church
    has taken oppressive stands toward women, including Jewish women, and
    GLBTQ people, including gay Jews — even though these stands of the
    Church have actually done far more damage to women and gay people than
    BLM has done to Israel. Why this difference in response?

    Shalom, Rabbi Arthur Waskow

  • There is a second aspect of Rabbi Salkin;s article in which my experience s profoundly different from his. (I am writing 3 hours later because I had to leave for a meeting to plan a major multiracial, multireligious Moral Monday at the PA state capital in Harrisburg in September. I hope that Black Lives Matter activists will take part.)
    Rabbi Salkin talks about how the civil rights movement sparked a “tribal” renaissance in the Jewish community. What I saw happening was exactly a transformation of Jewish identity beyond tribalism into a powerful God/ justice/ [peace understanding of the meaning of Judaism. Certainly when I wrote the Freedom Seder in 1969, weaving the struggle of Black America against slavery & racism into the Passover Seder alongsde the story of ancient Israelites struggling against Pharaoh, it was precisely to elevate the Prophets (beginning with Moses) as multireligious, multiracial, multi-tribal visionaries. I was not alone: tens of thousands of Jews welcomed, celebrated, used, and then transformed the Freedom Seder. We “occupied” rather than abandoning “tribal” Judaism, saw the deeper meaning of the tribal celebrations, and elevated them beyond the tribal.

    It was because of that new way of being Deeply Jewish — refusing to assimilate into one-dimensional leftism as well as refusing to assimilate into corporate America — that then made it also possible & necessary for thousands of Jews to challenge the oppressive triballsm of the Government of Israel. Not to call its actions “genocide,” which they weren’t & aren’t, but to name its actions and oppose them as oppression.

    It was the tribalism Rabbi Salkin celebrates that swayed many establishmentarian Jews into opposing the wise and persistent diplomatic effort by the Obama Administration to prevent Iran from making itself nuclear weapons without using the only other alternative — war. The Israeli Prime Minister (not even its government, big chunks of which opposed Mr. Netanyahu;s frantic efforts to derail the Iran agreement) sought to insist on a policy that could only have led to a war disastrous to Iran, Israel, and the US. Mr ‘yahoo said Jump, and the tribal Jews jumped. Those Jews who thought Judaism pointed beyond tribalism pursued shalom as the tradition insists They were right in practice because they were right in theology.
    — Rabbi Arthur Waskow

  • it is also important to note that the Arab-Israeli conflict is very complex, steeped in a matrix of political, cultural, and religious intersections. I find it very naive for the BLM to take such a simplistic position.

    If one truly wants to understand the dynamic, visit the country. Get on the ground. Speak to the people. These days, I find that people only seek to voice their opinions for their own narcissistic purposes. Instead, we should be creating “safe spaces” for thoughtful dialogue where all narratives are represented.

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