Growing up in the Deep South, I was keenly aware of the Civil Rights Movement. I recall my father’s business trucks being vandalized because of his willingness to hire people of color for jobs typically occupied only by whites. I remember vividly Nashville bracing itself for civil unrest following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Guard vehicles lined major streets and surrounded the largest municipal park.
While many people are able to recall the connection of Jews to the civil rights movements, many fail to recognize the reciprocal support Dr. King and others lent to “Jewish causes.” From virtually the very beginning of the movement to free Soviet Jews in the 1960s, King was a major advocate on their behalf. In 1965 the New York Times published a letter to the editor by Dr. King. He publicly sought support for the re-establishment of the “religious and cultural freedom” of Soviet Jews. He also urged the Soviet government to “end all discriminatory measures against the Jewish community.”
In a 1967 telephone hook-up, King addressed dozens of Soviet Jewry human rights rallies across America. In his compelling remarks, he stated that the Soviet government deprived Jewish communities of basic items required to sustain even a modest existence. He admonished his fellow Americans not to sit “complacently by the wayside” while their Jewish brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union faced the possible dissolution of their spiritual and cultural life.
King’s commitment to a secure and independent Israel was also clear. A few months after the Six-Day War, he wrote to Jewish community leaders that “Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state in security is incontestable.” In addressing a conversation of rabbis just 10 days before his tragic death in 1968, the Nobel Prize laureate referred to Israel as “one of the great outposts of democracy in the world.” He went on to say that “we must stand with all our might to protect [Israel’s] right to exist, its territorial integrity.”
King also frequently denounced anti-Semitism. According to him, “the segregationists and racists make no fine distinction between the Negro and the Jew.” In a letter to Jewish leaders, he attacked anti-Semitism “within the Negro community, because it was wrong. I will continue to oppose it, because it is immoral and self-destructive.”
For King – and for the Jews actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement – there were no “Negro issues” and “Jewish issues.” Freedom and equality for one was inextricably tied to the universal right of all groups to live in peace, free from discrimination and oppression. This belief, exemplified by King’s extraordinary leadership, was instrumental in shaping the close relationship between Blacks and Jews that developed during the King years, a closeness that included cooperation in campaigns to end discrimination in housing and to improve educational opportunities.
I write this the day after participating with Lehigh Valley interfaith leaders, led by the Interfaith Action Committee of Lehigh Conference of Churches, in a denouncement of bigotry and division. The joint statement recognizes the awkward and discomforting “climate of tension and anxiety in our community and nation.”
One need not look beyond the Lehigh Valley to sense a rise in hate speech, bullying, anti-Semitism and other expressions of intolerance. We are experiencing a dramatic increase – just in the past couple of months – of public schools connecting with our Federation’s Holocaust Resource Center for curricular assistance and programming related to combatting intolerance. For instance, at Southern Lehigh High School, the HRC’s Holocaust Legacy Exhibit was installed on short notice. The school created a three-day schedule exposing over 700 students to the lessons of the Holocaust.
Our Holocaust Resource Center program, along with the IJCU’s Youth and Prejudice Workshop, exposes thousands of students in the Lehigh Valley to history lessons from the Holocaust and other examples of genocide and hatred. More importantly, values clarification activities enable the students to explore how to avoid being a bystander. The students learn that fear and apathy consume the bystanders to no good. They learn the meaning of Elie Wiesel’s words: “Neutrality and apathy helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented” and that “the opposite of life is not death, it is indifference.”
Dr. King worked his entire life for a dream … a dream of equality for all mankind. Let us rise up and call out hatred and bigotry. While we must battle the anti-Semite, equally we must join with others against apathy and indifference, hate speech and intolerance. Whether anti-Semitism or Islamophobia. Whether racism or sexism. Whether impugning the equality and rights of immigrants, the LGBT community, those with disabilities, or members of other faith communities.
Allowing hatred against one provides license for hatred against many.