We Must Renew Black-Jewish Brotherhood

Our bond is so vastly profound as to be cosmic in nature.
February 5, 2021
Photo by Jon Feingersh Photography Inc/Getty Images

Back in 1993, when I was Rabbi at Oxford and appointed Cory Booker to be the student president of the L’Chaim Society, our two communities had been rocked by the 1991 riots in Crown Heights and other points of friction. But Cory and I understood the importance of building Black-Jewish brotherhood.

The same rings true today. With frictions between the Black and Jewish communities rising again — with pro-Israel activists feeling that Black Lives Matter (BLM) unfairly targets the Jewish state, the only country in history to bring Black citizens into freedom from bondage and with BLM activists feeling that Israel is part of a global problem of racial injustice — it’s time to renew African American and Jewish bonds of brotherhood.

Now that we’re in 2021, the horrific and historic 2020 begins to fade at last. Although our problems remain unsolved, we are taking steps forward. The rollout of the vaccine bodes well for restoring public health and the peaceful transfer of power President Joe Biden after the abominable assault on the Capitol implies that we might finally snap out of our partisan political tailspin. For the Jewish and African American communities — whose special relationship was put under its own 2020 strain — the coming year already seems to indicate a renewal of brotherhood and friendship that has historically and must forever continue to unite our people.

On February 18, 2021, The World Values Network will be hosting our ninth Annual Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala, a virtual event in honor of Black History Month that will celebrate African American and Jewish brotherhood. Black and Jewish philanthropists will join together not only to expand the scope and reach of our event but also to discuss and explore the shared values and the spiritual sensibilities of Black Americans and Jews.

Learned and earned through our bitter histories, our values preserved our forebears through the greatest trials humanity has ever known. But they bear meaning for the future, too. Our principles can unite our communities as we push for a more just and perfect world, the kind envisioned by our prophets and dreamed of by our leaders. The promise of a world where our descendants will never again know the pain of our ancestors.

One by one, allies, guests and honorees have joined the movement, with television, performance, and investment legends contributing to the evening as entertainers and guests. And the co-founder of BLM, Alicia Garza, will be recognized for her work in fighting racial injustice and prejudice.

BLM Co-founder Alicia Garza (Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Audible)

We are honoring Alicia because we are committed to the principles articulated in Genesis 1, that every human being is created equally in the image of God. Judaism insists that we confront injustice and fight every form of bigotry and prejudice. Although there are significant areas of disagreement on issues pertaining to Israel, there is so much that binds our two communities. Our kinship with the African American community is forged through shared faith-based teachings and experiences receiving barbaric treatment. The struggle for equality and human dignity is never-ending and, at times, requires that we all work together, setting aside our differences so that we can bring forth lasting change for a more Godly world.

Our kinship is forged through shared faith-based teachings and experiences receiving barbaric treatment.

Just as a candle expels roomfuls of darkness, the pains and strains of 2020 say less about Black-Jewish relations than the brilliant rays of kinship I’ve felt from the moment the gala ball began to roll.

This warmth and kinship always have been real. But, often the most authentic things are the hardest things to see. They’re usually too vast to be squeezed inside a headline, too gorgeously complex to fit inside a tweet or meme. Some things are so large that they can only be seen from a distance. The true bond between African Americans and Jews is precisely this. It is so vastly profound as to be cosmic in nature, etched by centuries of suffering into the stone of our existence.

We have known and felt more than the cold chill of chains and the searing crucible of bondage. We have both endured second-class status and wholesale slaughter; each of us still struggles to protect the value of life. And each of us has been guided by our God and his prophets, and we have drawn the hope and the strength to prevail from our faith.

Each of us has earned fluency in sacrifice. We’ve worked hard and lost much for our freedom. But we spoke truth to power and were never afraid. The third Rebbe of Chabad, the Tzemach Tzedek, was arrested twenty-two times for protesting the Russian government when it passed anti-Semitic laws in 1843. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the greatest American of the twentieth century, who restored our nation to its founding principles, was arrested thirty-nine times by the time his life was cut short at the age of thirty-nine.

African-American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr (1929 – 1968, centre) in the front line of the third march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, with Ralph Abernathy (1926 – 1990, second from left), Ralph Bunche (1903 – 1971, third from right) and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 – 1972, far right). (Photo by William Lovelace/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Together, these sacrifices gave mankind a model by which to make true on “Justice, Justice you shall pursue.” As Russians rise to protest against the tyrant Putin, they do so because Alexei Navalny walked fearlessly into his arrest the way our leaders did before him. It was we who defined tyranny and taught shackled people everywhere the plans for their escape.

Indeed, it was Black leaders who gave our God, our prophets and our message of liberation a most far-reaching and eloquent voice. It was Dr. King who took the Hebrew Bible and made it into a modern liberation manifesto, thereby demonstrating to the Jewish community, who often look at their own texts and traditions as ossified, the contemporary power of Jewish prophecy and values.

It is almost eerie to behold the bond between the sacred words and struggle of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom our nation commemorated last week, and of the Jews, laid out in the essential texts of our nationhood. “Go and tell Pharaoh!” prophesized King, on April 2, 1968, at Mason Temple, as he waged war against the modern slavery that plagued his people. God, he explained, had taken him to the mountaintop. “I have seen the promised land! … I may not get there with you. But we as a people will get to the promised land.” King was murdered the very next day, but in those words, he achieved immortality. He brought the Bible earthward and made it what God meant it to be: an agent of justice for society, the formula for a more perfect world.

2020 will forever be remembered as a year of tension, loss and isolation. But perhaps one day we’ll behold it from afar and see it as the year of darkness that just precedes the dawn, the terrible feint before the storm of goodness — the birth pangs of redemption. Jews and their African American brothers must come together to show the whole world how it’s done.

After all, 2020 comes down to what we make of 2021.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is founder of the World Values Network and the international best-selling author of 30 books, including “Judaism for Everyone.” Follow him on Twitter and Facebook @RabbiShmuley. The Champions of Jewish Values Gala can be attended or watched at www.theworldgala.com.

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