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Racial Equality: A Jewish Legacy

September 2, 2020

by: Cheryl Hauer, International Vice President

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A Black Lives Matter protest in New York featuring the Palestinian flag

Racism is an issue that has long been a matter of critical importance to the Jewish people. Since their origins in the ancient world of the Middle East, they have been persecuted, hunted, dispersed and murdered—often erroneously in the name of righteousness. It has created in them an awareness of discrimination that few others have. And as believers in the God of Israel, it has entrenched in their national psyche a conviction to protect and defend the “minority among you,” recognizing the  likeness of God in all creation.

Today, the subject of racism is on everyone’s lips. The United States, Great Britain, Europe and Australia, to name just a few, are countries that have recently been overwhelmed with demonstrations on behalf of minorities. At the center of much of the global unrest has been an organization called Black Lives Matter (BLM). Originating in the US, BLM finds its beginnings in the history between the black community and the Jewish people of America. Today, however, its impact is global, and the history that undergirds it has been lost, replaced instead with the very racism it claims to repudiate.

The Jewish Role

Though very few people might immediately recognize it as such, 3:53 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on July 2, 1964, was a seminal moment in global history. It was then that US President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the American Civil Rights Act. Joined at the White House by congressional leaders and others, including civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., the president signed the most sweeping American civil rights legislation in over a century. It created a legal foundation for the long and arduous journey toward equality for minorities in the United States.

Few at the time would have realized the impact this landmark legislation would have, not just in America but beyond her shores as well. Even fewer were aware that such legislation would not have come into being at all but for the efforts of America’s Jews. And certainly no one would have imagined that the day would come when virulent anti-Semitism would find a home in the very pro-minority organizations that the Jewish community had so staunchly supported.

Tracing the Legacy

Jewish activists march with Martin Luther King – March on Washington, 1963

As early as the 19th century, Jews were America’s fiercest proponents of equality for black Americans and ending slavery. In the racist south of the 1800s, Jewish storekeepers were virtually the only Southern merchants who addressed black customers as “Mr.” and “Mrs.” and permitted them to try on clothing. Though they often put themselves at risk, these Jewish people did all they could to acknowledge the dignity of each individual, regardless of color, and to care for a black population that suffered in poverty. The result, however, was often additional persecution for an already marginalized Jewish community, with synagogues being dynamited, cemeteries desecrated and individuals murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.

In the 20th century, the Jewish community was at the forefront in the fight for civil rights. They were the earliest supporters of organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and their participation in the civil rights actions of the 1950s and 1960s was overwhelming. The 1954 Supreme Court decision that called for the integration of America’s schools was strongly influenced by briefs submitted to the court by the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League. It is estimated that 90% of the civil rights lawyers in the south in the 1960s were Jewish and 30% of the white volunteers who rode freedom buses to the South and registered black people to vote were also Jews. The murder of two such Jewish volunteers, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, in Meridian, Mississippi, is credited as being the impetus for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

From Lynchpin to Antagonist

Fast forward 55 years and the fight for racial equality is still raging. Today, a new generation of activists is calling for change, but this time, the movement is sweeping the globe—not just America. Under the banner of BLM, demonstrators have filled the streets in London, Melbourne, Toronto, Brussels, Berlin and Paris with the message that the injustices minorities have faced in their nations—both past and present—must be addressed.

However, BLM is impacting the international community with something other than just its fight for racial equality. At demonstrations held across the world, signs declaring “Black Lives Matter” and “Racism Must End” are intermingled with those that say “Freedom for Palestine” and “Israel is an Apartheid State.” Among their other demands is a call to end all US military support for Israel. According to the Australian Jewish News, the activists claim that in a series of secret training sessions, Israeli security forces taught US and UK police to use the deadly stranglehold that killed George Floyd. BLM UK has endorsed Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) and is calling for targeted sanctions against Israel in line with “international law against Israel’s colonial genocidal regime.”

Perhaps even worse is the resurrection of age-old anti-Semitic canards by BLM leaders and their partner organizations. Using Instagram as a platform, the Jews are again accused of controlling global wealth, owning the banks and making sure the rich (Jews) get richer at the expense of the poor (minorities). It was Zionist money, we are told, that financed the international slave trade, which they call the biggest holocaust and crime against humanity.

What a tragedy it is that a movement whose aims might otherwise be embraced by millions around the world have tainted their message with hypocritical, vile, hate-filled, anti-Semitic rhetoric. How very sad that BLM leadership has forgotten that there was a time when Jews supported the black community with their time, resources and money, even at the pain of death because they believed when no one else seemed to that black lives do in fact matter. What an indictment that the same respect for human dignity is not reciprocated.

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