Every January, synagogues across the country hold a special service or ceremony in memory of Martin Luther King Jr. They do this to honor the great man who inspired America to be better, and to honor the special black-Jewish bond so significant to the civil rights era.
Reason No. 1 is more than appropriate; reason No. 2 is a bit complicated.
Many American Jews romanticize what “we” did for “them” during the civil rights era. These Jews resent what they see as a lack of African American support for Jewish causes, including Israel. I have heard such sentiments expressed in my own congregation, as has pretty much every rabbi I know.
In 1999, I became the rabbi of Temple B’nai Abraham, a historic congregation founded in Newark 170 years ago and located today in the nearby suburb of Livingston. If you’ve read Philip Roth, you know Temple B’nai Abraham.
In 1939, Joachim Prinz, recently arrived from Germany, became Temple B’nai Abraham’s rabbi. Of all the rabbis in Berlin, he was the most openly critical — at personal peril — of Hitler and the Nazis. Early on, he saw there was no hope and he urged Jews to leave. He was arrested multiple times and left only when given a deadline before what would have likely been his final detention.
As Prinz took in his new country, the cruelties suffered by its black citizens especially moved him. The moral outrage that fueled his outspokenness in Berlin found its voice here, and he threw himself into the civil rights movement. His involvement culminated in his extraordinary speech, “Silence,” at the 1963 March on Washington, which he gave just before Dr. King delivered his “I have a dream” speech.
Prinz’s civil rights leadership is perhaps the proudest aspect of our congregation’s rich history. Yet as I began to learn more about the congregation, the more I realized that what was being said on the pulpit did not necessarily represent the thoughts of those who sat in the pews.
As Jackie Levine, a protege of Rabbi Prinz and a civil rights leader, now 94, said of her fellow congregants of that time: “If we as a group were more inclined to support King than others were, it was only because we had his friend Prinz as our teacher. But even in our own congregation, many were suspicious of King’s motives. They distrusted him and blacks in general. That was the sad truth.”
This truth is too often ignored or dismissed. In a 2018 Commentary essay, “The Rise of Black Anti-Semitism,” Jamie Kirchick seems to identify the promotion of African American interests as an official mission of the Jewish people. “Almost from the beginning of their mass settlement in the United States,” he wrote, “Jews played an important role in advancing the civil rights of, and furthering opportunities for, African Americans, whose fate Jews considered intertwined with their own as fellow minorities in a WASP-dominated country.” Such an image is falsely nostalgic, self-serving and misleading.
The inner feelings of Southern Jews, for example, are difficult to ascertain, historians tell us. But overall, perhaps out of fear of anti-Semitism, their actions did not reflect much difference from those of their white gentile neighbors. While Atlanta’s Rabbi Jacob Rothschild used his pulpit to preach racial justice, Mark Levy, a Freedom Rider and activist, reported being barred from attending services at a synagogue in Meridian, Miss.
In “Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century,” the historian Cheryl Lynn Greenberg notes that “most Jews were white people, and held white people’s attitudes.” She says “that meant not only a certain amount of Jewish racism, but also an unwillingness to dismantle existing social structures that conferred special benefits on those with white skin, whether they recognized those benefits or not.”
Jewish involvement in the civil rights era does give us much to be proud of. Jews made up perhaps half of white Freedom Riders. They were prominent among the founders and early funders of the NAACP. And a history of the civil rights movement would be incomplete without mentioning Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who were lynched, along with their fellow Freedom Rider, James Chaney, in Mississippi in 1964. They were true heroes, martyrs even.
But as Greenberg points out, “that Goodman and Schwerner were Jewish says nothing about the commitment of the Jewish community writ large to the problems facing African Americans.” Indeed, we should not assume that the nobility of Goodman and Schwerner, and Rabbi Prinz, and so many others, reflected American Jewish attitudes of the time. To do so is not only inaccurate, it endangers the imperative to aspire to a high moral standard because we think we have already achieved it.
This year’s honoring of Dr. King comes as anti-Semitism is on the rise. If we Jews hope others will be there when we need them, we must be as sensitive to their needs as we hope they will be to ours. A key step is to realize that as a people we have not always been who we wish we had been.
Many Jews did many brave things during the civil rights era because they believed they must. We should feel pride in their bold commitment to Jewish values but not prideful in actions we imagine to be undertaken in the name of us all.
Clifford M. Kulwin is rabbi emeritus of Temple B’nai Abraham inLivingston, N.J.