Murray Friedman, one of the Jewish community’s greatest intellectual historians and the longtime regional director of the Philadelphia branch of the American Jewish Committee, died May 20 of amyloydosis at the age of 78.
He remained a registered Democrat to the end. Unfortunately for Democratic lawmakers like myself, this fact was merely a deferential nod to his impoverished past and the majority sentiment in the American Jewish community. Murray never backed away from his groundbreaking commitment to basic civil rights and improving race relations. But he increasingly saw the Republican Party as a key element of the American mainstream and an important corrective to what he saw as the cultural excesses and political failures of the 1960s.
As a polemicist, Murray could be irritating or inspiring — or sometimes both simultaneously. He was always hungry for facts or informed opinions. He lived the Walter Lippman epigram that “when everyone thinks alike, no one is thinking very much,” and he would express his deepest respect, friendship and understanding for those who disagreed with him.
There was no way to win an argument with Murray, but I found that one could end an argument with him by quoting a recent book. A voracious reader himself, Murray had a childlike joy in finding other book readers. If Murray had read the book I quoted, he would discuss it. If he had not read it, he would praise me extravagantly for having read it before he did and then probe to determine whether it was worth his reading, too.
His intellectual nemesis was Leo Pfeffer, the legal strategist for the American Jewish Congress, who, in amicus brief after amicus brief, helped convince the U.S. Supreme Court to raise the church-state wall, creating a legally enforced secular meeting ground for those of any faith and those of no faith. This meant no officially sanctioned school prayer, only limited state support for parochial education and many bans on specific governmental efforts to promote religion. Murray found these positions excessive and believed that they threatened the long-term interests of the Jewish community. While he dedicated his life to helping American Jews break into the American mainstream, Murray worried that eventually the rise of secularism would erode Jewish life in America, much more so than the increased political activism of Christian conservatives.
Murray’s drift from the Democratic Party started with his book “Overcoming Middle Class Rage,” which, from the perspective of a 1968 supporter of Hubert Humphrey, advised Democrats on how to appeal to the law and order constituencies of Richard Nixon and George Wallace in order to beat Nixon in 1972.
He was a critic of affirmative action, but Murray was no Archie Bunker, or Archie Bunker apologist. He had come to Philadelphia after being driven out of the old Confederate capital of Richmond, Va., by local opposition. His problems were publicized nationally by syndicated columnist James Kilpatrick, whose article “The Rise of Anti-Semitism in the South” clearly blamed Murray for the alleged spike in anti-Jewish sentiment.
The young Murray, who was run out of Richmond, where he served as head of the local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, was like the Philadelphia Murray: urging dialogue between black and white leaders, befriending the passionate and the uninvolved on all sides, even winning the friendship of a Ku Klux Klan member who doubled (for compensation and expenses) as an ADL informant. Down there in the 1950s however, Murray was clearly risking his life.
Philadelphia was a safer place in those days. But it was the last city in the National League to have black baseball players, and a city where the hiring of black transportation workers had led to a famous strike by the CIO transport workers local in the 1940s. He would need to muster all his diplomatic skills to help defuse racial tensions in the City of Brotherly Love.
During his four decades heading the Philadelphia chapter of the American Jewish Committee, Murray developed personal rapport with leaders of both black and white communities. His support for the civil rights legislation of the 1960s was strong and unwavering. When blacks achieved the voting strength to run winning campaigns for mayor starting in the early 1980s, Murray commissioned academic studies showing that Jews were much more likely to vote for black candidates than were other white Philadelphians. In the mid-1980s he helped found Operation Understanding — an educational program that worked to build bridges between black and Jewish high school students by sending groups of teenagers to Israel and Africa, and to black and Jewish historical locations in the United States. The initiative was his signature public achievement to improve race relations in Philadelphia.
On the national level, Murray’s greatest contribution may have been his role in helping to save the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from abolition, by cooling the anti-civil rights rhetoric of some of his fellow Reagan appointees.
Murray viewed the world much as the American Jewish Committee does. In this perspective, the country is divided into ethnic groups or tribes, each of which has its interests and outlooks. Jews should seek to ensure continuity in America by forging alliances with as many groups as possible, and to thoroughly investigate obstacles to this venture.
It was this view that led Murray to ask tough questions. What was the relevance of the black-Jewish alliance of the 1950s and 1960s to current times? How do we strengthen this alliance while advancing our own interests? How do we form alliances with other groups all across the public spectrum? Why not seek out common ground with the Christian Coalition, for instance?
To talk to Murray was to hear the themes of his books, sometimes before they were published, sometimes afterward (two of his final works will be published posthumously — one on Commentary magazine, the other on political conservatism in the Jewish community). He lived in the books he wrote. Always valuing people for what they were and what they contributed, he lived in the realm of ideas.
Murray created the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University — his own think tank — in part to help him write more books and spawn more books that he would like to read. He strongly advocated that the American Jewish experience — no less than the history of Israel — be taught in American Jewish religious schools.
His last words to me — spoken shortly before the program celebrating the 20th anniversary of Operation Understanding — were typically in the form of a question, bringing back his deep and abiding passion for black-Jewish relations.
“Things have changed since the 1960s, don’t you agree?” he asked. It was a typical Murray Friedman conversational beginning. “Yes,” I told him, “things have changed, for better and for worse.” And then, before we could get down to serious discussion, each of us was greeted by other old friends, and our discussion, between two living friends of more than 30 years, was permanently over.
But thanks to his intellectual and organizational legacy, we can be sure that the discussions and arguments will not end.
Mark B. Cohen is a Democratic member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. He was recruited by Murray Friedman to serve on the board of directors of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Jewish Committee.