10: Conclusion: John Lewis and the Hope of a Black-Jewish Reconciliation

Support Black Lives Matter but do not ignore the long history of Black antisemitism

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

(Source: The Times of Israel)

Sociologist and historian Jerome Chanes finds that Black antisemitism is most upsetting for American Jews because they fear it could lead to antisemitism being mainstreamed. Chanes explains, “Among the most difficult questions regarding American antisemitism is that of black antisemitism, which some years ago was arguably the main source of anxiety among Jews.” However, “What American Jews most feared in these cases — the “mainstreaming” of antisemitism, something that has not taken place in this country, whatever problems American Jews may have — did not in fact occur. The fear that African American antisemitism might spread from individual racists to infect broad segments of academia, the civil rights movement, and even the political sphere appear to have been unrealistic.” The situation seems to have changed since 2006 when Chanes wrote his article. Now with the rise of antisemitism from both left and right, from African Americans and the Black Lives Matter movement, the mainstreaming of antisemitism is again an issue for American Jews. [1]

Despite the break in the Jewish-Black alliance throughout the years, there were still African American leaders who wanted “improved relations between the two groups.” These leaders see the benefit of alliances to end racism. Michael notes that some African Leaders believe, “Antisemitism is racist prejudice. How can we oppose racism against blacks only to become racist ourselves? How can we build a broader movement that permits the black community to work with whites and Jews for civil rights and other political and economic objectives on the basis of equality, mutual respect, and mutual cooperation?”[2]

Former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, who served during the Crown Heights Riots and is often blamed for the aftermath, has opposed Black antisemitism and its destructiveness. Dinkins expressed:

“Black antisemitism hurts blacks, first and foremost, because it compromises the moral credibility of our struggle against racism. But equally as important, because it leads to the politics of distraction and distortion. . . .

There is a relationship to explore . . . between racism and antisemitism, and the ways that such ideologies have traditionally been enlisted to divide and conquer, separating disadvantaged groups from their real shared interests. . . . As a black intellectual, one thing is clear to me, antisemitism is not going to help our people in our struggle against injustice, against poverty, against AIDS, against violence in our own neighborhoods.”[3]

Professor Cornell West has long believed in collaborating with American Jewry and has spoken out against Black antisemitism. West has written about the problem of Black antisemitism, including his 1991 article “Black Antisemitism and the Rhetoric of Resentment.” West has co-authored and edited a book on the African American-Jewish relationship in 1996 “Jews and Blacks: A Dialog on Race, Religion, and Culture in America” with Michael Lerner. In his 1994 book, Race Matters West condemned Black antisemitism:

The very ethical character of the Black freedom struggle largely depends on its spokespersons to condemn openly any racist attitudes or action….

We black folk have been at the forefront of the struggle against American racism. If these efforts fall prey to antisemitism, then the principled attempt to combat racism forfeits much of its moral credibility — and we all lose…

Black people have searched desperately for allies in the struggle against racism — have found Jews to be disproportionately represented in the ranks of that struggle. The desperation that sometimes informs the antiracist struggle arises out of two conflicting historical forces: America’s historically weak will to racial justice and the all inclusive-moral vision of freedom and justice for all. Escalating black antisemitism is a symptom of this desperation gone sour; it is the bitter fruit of a profound self-destructive impulse, nurtured on the vines of hopelessness and concealed by empty gestures of black unity. The images of black activists yelling “Where is Hitler when we need him?” and “Heil Hitler” juxtaposed with David Duke celebrating Hitler’s birthday, seem to feed a single fire of intolerance burning on both ends of the American candle, that threatens to consume us all. …

In the rhetoric of a Louis Farrakhan or a Leonard Jeffries, whose audiences rightfully hunger for Black self-help, respect, and oppose degradation, these critiques misdirect progressive Black energies arrayed against unaccountable corporate power and anti-Black racism, steering them instead toward Jewish elites and anti-Black racism in Jewish America. This displacement is disturbing, not only because it is analytically and morally wrong, it also discourages any effective alliances across racial lines.” [4]

West is not without criticism of Jews and is a vocal anti-Zionist, who sides with the Palestinians and supports the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement. Recently he attacked Israel’s military responses to the Palestinians and going as far calling Israelis Palestinians baby killers. [5]

The situation is all the more troubling now that the one light that kept the Black-Jewish alliance alive died.[6] One of the original civil rights leaders of the movement in the 1960s and then a longtime member of Congress, Representative John Lewis of Atlanta, Georgia died on July 17, 2020. Lewis believed in working with American Jewry towards justice and spoke out loudly against the increasing hate and militantism coming from some areas of the African American community. In 2016 Lewis accepted the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Elie Wiesel Award. Lewis expressed, “There are forces in America today, forces of hate. And we must never hate. For hate is too heavy a burden to bear.”[7]

Lewis worked his whole life with American Jewry by his side supporting both the civil rights movement and the liberal reforms and policies in the Democratic Party. Lewis continued King’s legacy in the fight against all hate, discrimination, racism, and antisemitism. Lewis fought to “redeem the soul of America.”[8] Lewis marched with American Jews leaders for civil rights in the South and the Jewish college students who came down from the north risking their life and liberty for civil rights. Lewis acknowledged, “Yes I knew and marched with Rabbi Heschel. Yes, I knew and marched with Rabbi Prinz. But there were hundreds and thousands of young Jewish students and adults who marched on Washington. Many came to Selma.”

Lewis became involved in the civil rights movement as a teenager. He was born in Alabama on his family’s sharecropping farm. He felt the sting of segregation early on when he denied a library card and had to attend segregated schools. Lewis heard King on the radio and wanted to become involved in the movement by desegregating Alabama’s Troy State University and becoming the university’s first African American student. Then Lewis met King, but he would not make the landmark move for desegregation. Lewis ultimately went to African American colleges the “American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.” [9]

Instead, Lewis worked to desegregate the South like other college students through activism. Lewis organized “sit-in demonstrations at whites-only lunch counters” and volunteered as a Freedom Rider. Both involved beatings and arrests a long line in the name of civil rights. Lewis, however, wanted to lead and make a difference and help found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1963, he would be named its chairman; he became the youngest of the “Big Six civil rights activists” “a group led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that had the greatest impact on the movement.” In addition to King, they included, “Whitney Young of the National Urban League; A. Philip Randolph of the Negro American Labor Council; James L. Farmer Jr., of the Congress of Racial Equality; and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP.” [10]

That same year Lewis helped organize and spoke at the March on Washington right before King, who delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Lewis would have had an equally memorable speech for opposite reasons; he wanted a “scorched earth” speech critical of President John F. Kennedy. Other organizers convinced Lewis to keep in line with King’s conciliatory tone. Lewis expressed, “By the forces of our demands, our determination and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in an image of God and democracy.” In 1964, he coordinated SNCC’s efforts to register African American voters in “Mississippi’s Freedom Summer.”[11]

Lewis became a civil rights star for the “Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.” On March 7, 1965, Lewis led 600 protesters, “walking at the head of the march with his hands tucked in the pockets of his tan overcoat”, when police attacked him and the other peaceful protesters. The police knocked Lewis down and beat him, and he suffered a fractured skull. National television showed the film of his beating. The brutality helped garner support for voting rights legislation from the American public. On March 21, King finished the march across Edmund Pettus Bridge arm-in-arm with Lewis and Rabbi Heschel. President Lyndon Johnson felt the time was right to ask Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act that passed later in the year.

Lewis revisited the March on Selma, Alabama in 2015, this time he shared the bus ride to the Edmund Pettus Bridge with Rabbi Abraham Cooper, who has taken over the mantle from Rabbi Heschel in believing in better relations between the two groups. In 2009, Lewis and Rabbi David Saperstein protested against “the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan” outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, D.C. When Lewis and Saperstein crossed police lines, the police arrested them together. [12] Lewis later said he had been arrested 40 times during the civil rights movement and five times in Congress.

In the late 1970s, Lewis turned to politics; he served in Jimmy Carter’s administration as associate director of ACTION, the volunteer agency. After failed attempts for City Council and Congress, in 1981, Lewis was elected to the Atlanta City Council and in 1986 as a member of Congress. In 2006, when the Democrats gained control of the House of Representatives, Lewis was voted to be the party’s senior deputy whip.

Throughout his career, even as an alliance with American Jewry grew out of fashion with the African American community, and hatred grew, Lewis fought back against the hate. In the past decade, as the Black Lives Matters formed and grew; Lewis still spoke out and fought the other racist scourge antisemitism. Lewis was upset at the break between American Jews and African Americans primarily over Israel, affirmative action, and increased antisemitism. In 2012, at an AJC event at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, Lewis said, “If we know each other and understand each other, there would not be a schism.”[13]

In 1982, Lewis, in conjunction with the American Jewish Committee founded the Atlanta Black-Jewish Coalition. And in 2019, Lewis helped found the Congressional Black-Jewish Caucus.[14] In 1987, Lewis participated in the Washington rally calling for the liberation of Soviet Jewry. Lewis delivered a speech:

“I stand here not so much as a member of Congress but I stand here as a human being. Almost 25 years ago I participated in a march here for jobs and freedom. Hundreds and thousands of members of the Jewish community marched with us then. I think it’s fitting for me to be with you today.

Our message, the message of the Black community, is one that is very simple. We are saying to President Reagan, Mr. President, tell Mr. Gorbachev to open the doors, open the gates and let the people out. I said that as long as one Jew is denied the right to emigrate, as long as one Jew is denied the right to be Jewish in the Soviet Union, we all are Jews in the Soviet Union.”[15]

Throughout Lewis stood by American Jewry and refused to give Farrakhan credibility. In 1995, Lewis refused to attend Farrakhan’s the Million Man March on Washington, which many f the civil rights leaders and activists attended. In Newsweek, Lewis specifically called out Farrakhan’s racism and discrimination as his reason for not participating.

“I cannot overlook past statements by Louis Farrakhan — and others associated with the Nation of Islam — which are divisive and bigoted. Although its general goal of encouraging African American men to be

Responsible is sound, the march is fatally undermined by its chief sponsor.”

Only two moments in Lewis’s entire career made the Jewish community question him. In 2015 Lewis boycotted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a Joint Session of Congress. Lewis and other Democrats opposed Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner’s invitation without consulting the Democrats. Lewis expressed his regret, saying, “I am saddened that the speaker would threaten this historic position, bipartisan support of our Israeli brothers and sisters, by this action.”

In 2019, Lewis co-sponsored a resolution supporting the right to boycott Israel the American Jewish community viewed that bill as support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement against Israel. Lewis clarified he supported the right to boycott from his time in the civil rights movement but not the BDS movement against Israel. Lewis tried to explain his support for the bill was “a simple demonstration of my ongoing commitment to the ability of every American to exercise the fundamental First Amendment right to protest through nonviolent actions. I want to make it very clear that I disagree strongly with the BDS movement.”[16]

Lewis most loudly spoke out against antisemitism in 2017, when vandals “desecrated” a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia Lewis fought for more federal action against rising antisemitism. In speaking of antisemitism, Lewis invoked King, saying:

“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. compared the spread of hatred to an ‘unchecked cancer’ that corrodes the very fabric of our society. If we truly believe in the equality of every human being and the inherent right to individual liberty, then there is not any room in our society for these acts of hate. To allow antisemitism, violence and other campaigns of hate and fear to continue unconstrained threatens the safety and security of every American.”[17]

This position epitomized Lewis’s views on hate, antisemitism, and his continued support for a Jewish and African American community relationship.

In supporting the Black Livers Matter movement, the Jewish community is supporting a movement that opposes Israel and is anti-Zionist in part of their purpose. While we agree on the importance in the purpose of the movement we cannot forget although we coming to the party, we are not necessarily invited, just as over 50 years ago the black power movement no longer felt the need of American Jewish participation in the civil rights movement as almost all American Jews embraced Israel. Suissa concluded his op-ed, “There are myriad, effective ways we can combat the evil of antisemitism without taking away from the cause of the moment. The cause of fighting racism is dominating the national consciousness right now and many Jews have joined the fight. Both of those fights are good for the Jews.” [18]

There is only one way to end racism, to stop being racist to all minorities. American Jews do not have to belittle the antisemitism and down-right Jew-hatred experienced in supporting a group that combats racist for select groups while still espousing racist against others, primarily Jews and has a policy against Israel, we are foolish to do so. We have to learn from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who believes, “The lesson never changes, so why is it so hard for some people to learn: No one is free until everyone is free. As Martin Luther King Jr. explained: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” So, let’s act like it. If we’re going to be outraged by injustice, let’s be outraged by injustice against anyone.” [19] And Alan Dershowitz who echoes that same sentiment, “Today more than ever we should recognize that there must be zero tolerance for any form of bigotry, including antisemitism, even if it is engaged in by organizations and people who otherwise do much good.” [20] Ending racism has to be an equal opportunity, and with respect for all races, religions, peoples, and sexual orientations, everyone has the right to live their lives without violence, however, mutual respect has to be established for that utopian dream to become a reality.

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[1] Chanes. “Blacks and Jews in America: History, Myths, and Realities.” #https://www.bjpa.org/search-results/publication/2181

[2] Michael, A Concise History of American Antisemitism, 205.

[3] https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1993-05-07-me-32319-story.html

[4] Michael, A Concise History of American Antisemitism, 205; West, Cornel. Race Matters, 75–76.

[5] https://www.camera.org/article/cornel-west-attacks-israel-in-c-spans-martin-luther-king-commemoration/

[6] https://forward.com/news/national/451091/john-lewis-was-the-model-of-black-jewish-relations-we-need-right-now/

[7] https://forward.com/culture/363772/john-lewis-turns-77-heres-how-he-honored-elie-wiesel/

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JEXnIhwc8K0

[9] https://www.timesofisrael.com/john-lewis-us-civil-rights-and-congress-icon-who-built-jewish-ties-dies-at-80/

[10] https://www.timesofisrael.com/john-lewis-us-civil-rights-and-congress-icon-who-built-jewish-ties-dies-at-80/

[11] https://www.timesofisrael.com/john-lewis-us-civil-rights-and-congress-icon-who-built-jewish-ties-dies-at-80/

[12] https://forward.com/bintel-blog/105190/rabbi-saperstein-arrested-at-sudanese-embassy-prot/

[13] https://jewishjournal.com/news/united-states/319292/local-jewish-community-responds-to-the-death-of-rep-john-lewis/

[14] https://www.jta.org/2020/07/20/politics/john-lewis-and-the-jews-6-moments-that-showcase-an-enduring-alliance

[15] https://www.jta.org/2020/07/20/politics/john-lewis-and-the-jews-6-moments-that-showcase-an-enduring-alliance

[16] https://www.jta.org/2020/07/20/politics/john-lewis-and-the-jews-6-moments-that-showcase-an-enduring-alliance

[17] https://johnlewis.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/rep-john-lewis-says-inaction-jewish-center-attacks-breeds-violence

[18] https://www.algemeiner.com/2020/06/15/dear-jews-the-summer-of-2020-is-not-about-us/

[19] https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/kareem-abdul-jabbar-is-outrage-antiSemitism-sports-hollywood-1303210

[20] https://www.algemeiner.com/2020/07/09/dershowitz-is-the-black-lives-matter-platform-antisemitic/

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.

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