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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Jewish Voices in Black History

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We’ve all seen photos of Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lewis at Selma, marching beside reverends and rabbis alike for civil rights. But the portrait of Jewish activism during the civil rights movement is far more complex than this image suggests.

Jewish Americans did ally themselves with the Civil Rights Movement, risking arrest, abuse and even their lives. But there was a geographic distinction in Black-Jewish relations. Broadly speaking, Jewish Americans from northern cities were more liberal because they had public support, while Southern Jews in more rural areas — who had to contend with white supremacist backlash without any networks of support — were less willing to make themselves targets by publicly supporting the movement.

Southern Jews who did speak up were often shouted down for endangering the broader Jewish community. During the infamous trial of the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s, Rabbi Joseph Gumbiner of Mishkan Israel in Selma spoke out against the case and was promptly shouted down by his congregation and reprimanded during an emergency board meeting. He eventually moved west to Nevada and then California. Similarly, Rabbi Benjamin Goldstein of Temple Beth Or in Montgomery attended a rally in Birmingham for the Scottsboro Boys and was told in no uncertain terms by his board of trustees to either back down or leave. He chose the latter, moving to New York after numerous threats.

The Scottsboro Boys with chief defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz

For some Jewish Americans, their marginal status in white society was conditional on their compliance with the status quo. Whatever their private feelings on Jim Crow laws were, they strove not to rock the boat for fear of retaliation. And that fear was not unfounded; historian Leonard Dinnerstein traces a surge of anti-Semitism in the American South in the 1950s and 60s to propaganda that “Communist Jews” were masterminding desegregation efforts. It is not surprising that many kept their heads down and tried their best to avoid scrutiny.

Conversely, for other Jewish Americans, it was precisely their marginalization that made them more aware of and sympathetic toward the Civil Rights Movement. One such case was Bella Abzug, who from 1948 to 1951 worked to overturn the death penalty for Willie McGee, a Black man from Mississippi accused of rape for having a white girlfriend. The night before her final appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court, Abzug — heavily pregnant — was refused lodging and spent the night at a public bus station, all because she was Jewish. She would go on to become the first Jewish woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, constantly centering her experiences with anti-Semitism and her work in anti-racism throughout her career.

Bella Abzug (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

It’s been half a century since the fight for civil rights. Yet Black Americans and Jewish Americans both continue to face structural prejudice — and this time, allyship is not so clear-cut. Headlines abound with instances of Black leaders accused of anti-Semitism and Jewish leaders accused of racism, but when it comes down to it, we can hold those individuals accountable without withdrawing support for human rights.

This is precisely why Black History Month is so important: if we do not know history, we are vulnerable to fractionalization and attempts to divide us. In addition to Black-Jewish history, we must pay attention to Black Jewish history. In other words, Black Americans and Jewish Americans are not two factions that alternately ally and clash, they are also identities that can overlap. Rabbi Shais Rishon has highlighted the lack of intersectionality in both Black and Jewish spaces, explaining that “James McBride is considered an African-American author, not a Jewish author. Daveed Diggs, when he talks about his experiences, [people say,] ‘Oh, this is an African-American experience.’”

If we do not know history, we are vulnerable to fractionalization and attempts to divide us.

It’s time to embrace our history, our intersectionality. In 1968, I joined the Poor People’s March in Washington, D.C., alongside my mom and brother. We were a suburban Jewish family from New England, but our congregation felt that support for civil rights was our prerogative — my mother doubly so, as her family were Holocaust survivors. Today, as with 50 years ago, I am heartened to see Jewish Americans among the coalition joining together to support the current movement towards greater equity and inclusion. What’s more, I am also seeing members of the Black community, from the vice president to local organizers in small cities, call out the increase in anti-Semitic rhetoric.

So this month, as we honor and celebrate Black History, we can also remind ourselves of the unique and powerful historic relationship between Jews and the Black community. Dive into the Jewish pirates of Jamaica, listen to Black Yiddish artists, read about the influence of Black power on Jewish nationalism. No matter what you know, I guarantee that there is more to learn.


Seth Jacobson is the founder and principal of JCI Worldwide, a Los Angeles-based communications and research firm. He spent several years in the Carter and Clinton administrations in positions focused on economic development, foreign policy, and media relations. He is a frequent lecturer on policy and public affairs at Pepperdine University and UCLA.

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