No ethnic group has stood stronger with the black community in America than the Jews have. From the early days of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, Jews supported black civil-rights organizations before the civil-rights movement crystallized and beyond. Jewish civil-rights attorneys numbered prominently among lawyers who opposed the Ku Klux Klan in Arkansas and throughout the South. They also battled Jim Crow laws in Mississippi in 1964.
Everyone who dismissed or minimized their roles might appreciate some glimpses of how Jews have interfaced with just a few legendary black Americans who themselves have made an indelible mark on not only the United States, but the world.
Albert Einstein, soon after he arrived at Princeton University from Germany in 1933, ahead of the Holocaust, immediately related the Jewish experience of the seething hate in Germany to the hate and discrimination against blacks in the United States. The famous professor quickly became friends with actor Paul Robeson. He opened his home to Marian Anderson when the famed opera singer was denied hospitality at a Princeton hotel. Einstein was close friends with W.E.B. DuBois, a co-founder of the NAACP. It was even rumored that Einstein became a member of the NAACP in 1933.
In 1946, before the civil-rights movement, Einstein was invited to Lincoln University to offer a commencement speech. He took advantage of his visit to give a presentation in a classroom to a dozen or so black students. Einstein wanted to inspire young minds of his brilliant world of relativity and, in general, his scientific world of physics. Many colleagues reportedly criticized the gathering and the mainstream press chose not to cover the event.
In the arts, Louis Armstrong, who arguably blasted a trumpet with the strength and passion unlike any other jazzist, lovingly wrote about a Jewish family in New Orleans that adopted him as a youth in 1907. The immigrant parents sang to him, recognized and nurtured his love for music, and supplied his first instrument. The young and eager Armstrong even learned Yiddish from his family from Lithuania, people who escaped pogroms. Armstrong found refuge from his own broken family—and that’s putting it kindly. To honor his adoptive parents, Armstrong wore a Star of David around his neck and proclaimed that the Karnofsky family taught him “how to live real life and (with) determination.” By the way, Armstrong’s famous nickname “Satchmo” is Yiddish for “Big Cheeks.”
In August 1963, B’nai B’rith headquarters served as one of the staging grounds for the historic March on Washington. Standing before hundreds of thousands of people at the March, prior to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Rabbi Joachim Prinz made remarks; Rabbi Uri Miller gave the opening prayer. Sixteen prominent rabbis from around the country accepted Dr. King’s invitation to join him in St. Augustine, Fla., in 1964 for a peaceful demonstration. All were arrested for engaging in civil disobedience.
In June 1964, three civil-rights workers, James Chaney (a black man) and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner (both white Jewish men) were brutally murdered by white supremacists in Neshoba County, Miss. The crime later became known as the “Mississippi Burning” murders.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with civil-rights leaders from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., on March 21, 1965, joining King, John Lewis, Ralph Abernathy, Ralph Bunche and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. Beyond this seminal moment in civil-rights history, rabbis also participated in lunch counter sit-ins and “Freedom Rides.”
While there’s no denying that some Southern rabbis were reluctant to take as high a posture with civil rights in the 1950s and early 1960s—and some Southern Jews were part of the South’s practice of slavery—Southern rabbis did participate in the movement, as noted in “The Quiet Voices: Southern Rabbis and Black Civil Rights 1880s to 1990s.” For their support of the movement, many Southern synagogues were bombed, notably Atlanta’s Hebrew Benevolent Congregation.
Over the years, B’nai B’rith International has saluted and honored civil-rights leaders, including the establishment of a Heschel-King Award—in memory of two giants of the struggle for civil and human rights—for those who have contributed to join black-Jewish efforts in the fight for equal justice and racial comity.
Fast-forward to 2020: B’nai B’rith International’s executive committee, speaking for Jews throughout the world, issued a strong resolution on June 7 expressing outrage in the brutal killing of a 46-year-old George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. B’nai B’rith pledged to use its extensive contacts in the civil-rights community, as well as the intercommunal and interreligious fields, “to strengthen relations between Jews, black people, and other minorities and increase mutual understanding about issues of shared concern.”
The resolution cherished the right to assembly and peaceful protest and also condemned “senseless destruction of businesses,” particularly noting those owned by people of color and immigrants. It also expressed appreciation and the importance of having committed police personnel to protect communities and other individuals, human and civil rights.
In 2016, a coalition of more than 50 organizations known as the Movement for Black Lives released a policy platform, titled “Vision 4 Black Lives,” drew sharp criticism from the Jewish community. The platform condemned the U.S.-Israel relationship; referenced the “genocide taking place against the Palestinian people”; branded Israel an “apartheid state”; and endorsed the anti-Israel BDS movement.
Hate groups, from white supremacists on the right and leftist extremist organizations, generally operate from a foundation of bigoted ignorance. While the extent to which those in the Black Lives Matter movement and some of its followers have embraced the “Vision 4 Black Lives” platform is unclear, it’s disheartening to observe some Americans ignore the long history of successful cooperation between blacks and Jews on civil rights and turn instead to vitriol. History is laced with endless examples of Jewish ties and empathy with the black community. Identifying with the Jewish people, Robeson richly sang “Go Down Moses” to acknowledge Jewish bondage in Egypt and those who suffered from excommunication, racism, pogroms and extermination attempts. Certainly, Jews and blacks are undeserving of hatred, even if it emanates from within marginal movements in this country.
Today, again, blacks and Jews should embrace the current social atmosphere of openness and change and rekindle the spirit of black-Jewish cooperation that animated the civil-rights movement in the 1960s … and can once again.
Charles O. Kaufman is president of B’nai B’rith International.