Jewish Organizations Absent at Civil Rights Rally

By Daniel Treiman

Published August 29, 2003, issue of August 29, 2003.
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In 1963 leading Jewish groups lined up to support the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a climactic moment in the civil rights movement. The president of the American Jewish Congress, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, delivered an address that chief march organizer Bayard Rustin would later claim was the event’s “greatest speech,” eclipsing even Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” address.

This past weekend, however, as a coalition of civil rights and anti-war groups converged on the Lincoln Memorial to mark the 40th anniversary of the march, Jewish groups were conspicuously absent — none were listed among the event’s approximately 30 co-conveners. The AJCongress was not invited to participate, said the group’s spokesman, David Twersky.

Event organizers chalked up the lack of organized Jewish participation in the August 23 event to rushed planning on their part, as well as the scheduling of the event on the Jewish Sabbath. But after decades in which the historic black-Jewish civil rights coalition has slowly unraveled — thanks, in part, to occasional sniping over issues such as Israel, affirmative action and antisemitism — Jewish groups appeared relatively unconcerned about the lack of an organized Jewish presence at the commemoration.

“History doesn’t stand still and wait for anybody. African Americans aren’t at the same place that they were at 40 years ago and American Jews aren’t at the same place they were at 40 years ago,” Twersky said. “And the two — in terms of evaluating their own interests and strategies to broaden human rights and civil rights — don’t necessarily see things in the same way, and certainly not the same way they saw them back then.”

Twersky added that AJCongress has “good feelings and good wishes towards black America” and does not feel slighted by the lack of an invitation. “I feel like this is an accurate reflection of the way things are right now,” he said.

The event drew a relatively small crowd estimated at several thousand. Speaker after speaker denounced the Bush administration in the strongest terms. A handful of speakers criticized American aid to Israel as part of their larger indictments of American foreign policy.

The commemoration, which was billed as a gathering that would bring together the “sit-in generation and the hip-hop generation,” featured speeches from civil rights movement veteran Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, Reverend Jesse Jackson and Reverend Al Sharpton, as well as representatives of liberal groups, including the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Organization for Women. Among the co-conveners were an array of black, civil rights, women’s, anti-war, gay rights and liberal advocacy groups.

The event’s sole speaker representing a Jewish group was a figure far removed from the leading national Jewish organizations: Rabbi Arthur Waskow, the director of the left-wing, Philadelphia-based Shalom Center. Consistent with the overall tone of the event, Waskow, drawing on a Passover analogy, compared the Bush administration to Pharaoh.

Organizers of the commemoration insist that they want to include Jews in a coalition they are building to advance an agenda of “jobs, peace and freedom.” Reverend Walter Fauntroy, who served as a coordinator for the 1963 march and was an adviser to the recent event, called the failure to invite the AJCongress “a horrible oversight. American Jewish Congress had been central to our efforts in ’63.”

Fauntroy, who served as the District of Columbia’s nonvoting representative in Congress, said that the commemoration was planned by a fairly young group of activists, who did not have comprehensive organizational lists.

The National Council of Jewish Women’s co-director of Washington operations, Ellen Witman, said her group sent a representative to some planning meetings for the commemoration. But ultimately, she said, NCJW did not decide to participate because the event was on the Sabbath and, although her group agreed with most of the event’s “quite broad” agenda, some of it was “outside of our purview.”

Indeed, many major Jewish groups would likely have been uncomfortable with the strident tone many speakers took in denouncing the Iraq war, as well as a handful of remarks criticizing Israel.

American aid to Israel was criticized in a speech by Leslie Cagan, national coordinator for United for Peace and Justice, an anti-war coalition. “Today instead of our money going into schools and healthcare and the other things our communities need, instead our money goes to help maintain the deadly Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Today our tax dollars go to maintain U.S. military bases in every corner of the world,” Cagan said.

James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute, one of the event’s co-conveners, said during his speech that the West Bank fence Israel is building is “imprisoning” Palestinians in a “situation that is worse than ever existed even in the bantustans of South Africa.” He said that current American policy has failed both sides in the conflict.

The low profile of Jewish groups in relation to the latest commemoration contrasts with past anniversaries of the historic march, which had often provided occasions for blacks and Jews to act out their increasingly strained relationship on the public stage.

Organizers of the march’s 20th anniversary commemoration scrambled in 1983 to secure the support of Jewish groups, some of which had declined to endorse the event because its statement of aims included language criticizing American arms exports to the Middle East. Ten years later, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan blasted Jews for allegedly blocking him from being permitted to speak at the 30th anniversary commemoration.

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