This article by Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson and Reverend Paul S. Briggs originally appeared in the Huffington Post Religion Blog on January 19, 2014.
1964 was a significant year in the relationship between Blacks and Jews in America. Black and Jewish lawyers meeting in the conference room of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism helped shape The Civil Rights Act. That Freedom Summer witnessed the arrest of Martin Luther King Jr. and leading American rabbis in St. Augustine, Florida, and days later the brutal murder of three Civil Rights coworkers outside Meridian, Mississippi — James Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner — the first African-American and the others Jewish.
Their martyrdom became another tragic symbol of the racism ingrained in much of America’s Deep South. But their deaths also sent a message that Blacks and Jews — two peoples with historical narratives of persecution and oppression — could make the ultimate sacrifice for one another and their shared ideals.
The last fifty years have not always been kind to our relationship. Polarizing figures occasionally grabbed the spotlight in the African-American and Jewish communities. And the Jewish community, achieving a measure of acceptance, comfort and influence, never fully committed itself to addressing Black poverty, lingering racism and exclusion. Rebuilding the relationship requires deeper sensitivity to one another’s ongoing struggles.
Jews in America need to understand that the ladder of upward mobility, which many of them were able to climb successfully generations ago, has seen its rungs all but collapse. The percentage of Blacks represented among the poor and uninsured in this country is far greater than it has ever been for Jews. The effects of slavery linger, and institutionalized racism and de facto segregation still exist. And the Supreme Court’s recent evisceration of the Voting Rights Act may set progress back decades. Jewish moral outrage, while vocal in some quarters, has been largely missing in action.
Blacks in America need to understand what Israel means to Jews. That having been victims of ethnic hatred for centuries, Jews look at Israel not only as a place of historical and spiritual significance, but as a secure refuge and a living symbol of their survival. When revisionists rewrite the history of the Middle East to deny Jews their right to their own nation in their historic homeland, African Americans need to answer as Dr. King did when he called anti-Zionism “the denial to the Jewish people of a fundamental right that we justly claim for the people of Africa and freely accord all other nations of the Globe.”
Our two communities must do more to speak out for one another. And we must speak out together for our common concerns: poverty, education, gun violence, religious liberty and the environment to name but a few. And we need to lift our voices together in support of those who cannot speak for themselves. Who better than African Americans and Jews in coalition to demand immigration reform? For whether we came here on immigrant ships or slave ships as the Reverend Jesse Jackson said so famously, our peoples have known the obstacles to making it in America.
Fifty years later, a faith-based partnership of Blacks and Jews laboring side by side as Dr. King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched, and as Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner died, could go a long way toward leading America closer to making Dr. King’s dream real for all Americans.
Rabbi Davidson is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in New York City. Reverend Briggs is the Pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Bedford Hills, New York.
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JERUSALEM (JTA) — A Knesset committee voted to approve a bill that would create one chief rabbi position instead of the current two.
The Knesset Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted Sunday to approve the legislation, proposed by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni of the Hatnua Party, and co-sponsored by Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett and lawmaker Eli Ben-Dahan of the Jewish Home Party.
The bill must be approved by the Cabinet and then pass three readings in the Knesset in order to pass. It would take effect after the ten-year terms of the current chief rabbis, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, expire.
“In a state where there is only one president, one Supreme Court president, one prime minister and one chief of general staff, there is no way to justify the doubling of the position of chief rabbi,” she said. “We have to rid ourselves of the old-fashioned division of ancestral congregations and start bringing the country together.”
The new law also would make the rabbinical courts independent of the office of the chief rabbinate, rather than the current situation in which the two chief rabbis alternate serving as the head of the Rabbinate Council and as chief religious court judge, of the Higher Rabbinical Court.
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(JTA) — United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited a New York City synagogue to honor the memory of the victims of the Holocaust in advance of International Holocaust memorial day.
Ban on Saturday spoke at Park East Synagogue at its memorial service in honor of victims of the Holocaust. He also paid tribute to Holocaust survivors and called for collective action to prevent future Holocausts.
“My hope is that our generation, and those to come, will summon that same sense of collective purpose to prevent such horror from happening again anywhere, to anyone or any group,” Ban said.
The International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust is observed annually on January 27, the anniversary of the liberation in 1945 of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. Over one million Jews and other minorities died there during World War II.
He recalled his visit to Auschwitz last November, during which he was “profoundly saddened” by what he saw as he walked around the death camp.
“Even today, the Holocaust is hard to grasp,” Ban said. “The cruelty was so profound; the scale so large; the camps spread so far and wide. The Nazi worldview was so warped and extreme – yet attracted so many followers.”
The featured speaker at the Jan. 27 memorial ceremony at U.N. Headquarters will be filmmaker Steven Spielberg, whose Shoah Institute for Visual History and Education was a landmark in preserving survivor testimony.
“Each of us has a role to play in combating intolerance, incitement and the manipulation of ethnic or religious identity that we see in conflicts and political campaigns,” Ban said. “All those involved in atrocities – whether head of State or head of militia – should be held accountable.”
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(JTA) — The Chief Rabbinate of Israel has reached an agreement with the main American Orthodox rabbinical association to automatically accept letters from council members vouching for the Jewish status of Israeli immigrants.
The agreement, described as “historic” in a news release Thursday from the Rabbinical Council of America, comes after the Chief Rabbinate refused to accept status letters from Rabbi Avi Weiss, an Orthodox rabbi and council member who has sparked controversy for ordaining women clergy and founding the “open Orthodox” rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. The rabbinate’s refusal sparked widespread outrage, ultimately leading it to reverse course.
Under the terms of the agreement, letters vouching for Jewishness will still be prepared by individual rabbis, but the RCA will issue, upon request from the rabbi, a supporting document directly to the Chief Rabbinate. The RCA endorsement will assure the letter is accepted immediately and without question.
Situations in which conversion or divorce are involved will be reviewed by the Beth Din of America, according to the RCA release. Rabbis who are not members of the RCA may also seek similar endorsements.
“Since the earliest days of the RCA we have worked together with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel,” RCA President Rabbi Leonard Matanky said in a statement. “We are proud that we can expand that partnership to better serve our constituents and resolve issues that might appear before the Chief Rabbinate.
BERLIN (JTA) — Documents from the Nuremberg Trials recently found in a flea market in Israel are to go on display at the Chabad Jewish Educational Center in Berlin.
According to an announcement from the Berlin Chabad center, the documents will be on display to the public next week as part of events marking the Jan. 27 International Holocaust Remembrance Day. They will then be sold at auction in Jerusalem.
The documents, which contain incriminating evidence of Nazi crimes, were found last year by a collector in a flea market in Jaffa, the Chabad center said.
In its description of the lot, the Jerusalem-based Kedem auction house said they consist of English translations of Nazi documents; reports, protocols and memorandums distributed among the prosecutors; official documents connected to the trial; and hundreds of copies of documents from the time of the Nazi regime.
The documents include a stenographic report about a 1938 meeting regarding the so-called Jewish question, led by Hermann Goering, and a letter referring to the confiscation of art from Jewish owners on the occasion of Hitler’s birthday.
Other documents include a copy of a document titled “Instructions for the treatment of the Jewish question” and an activity report on Nazi mass shooting operations in the former Soviet Union.
The papers reportedly are part of a collection that belonged to Isaac Stone, who headed the Berlin Document Center and the U.S. Foreign Service Office in the 1940s.
Juliana Rangel, head of the library and documentation division of the United Nations International Court of Justice in The Hague, told JTA the documents “certainly have a historical interest,” but “do not add anything to the Archives as they were entrusted to the Court by the Four Powers.”