The recent conviction of Lemrick Nelson in the stabbing of Yankel Rosenbaum, the final spectacle of the Crown Heights riots of 1991, has been described by some as not just the nadir but the effective end of the alliance between blacks and Jews.
Observers such as Samuel Freedman, associate dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, are arguing that the special relationship between our two communities was created during the mid-1950s for cynical reasons of utility and expediency. Battling against the mutual enemy of prejudice and working toward the shared goals of equality and integration, they say, it was a relationship of convenience that was further augmented by the Jewish need to feel better about themselves in relation to other whites, and by blacks’ need for allies of any stripe in their struggle for civil rights.
Freedman and thinkers like him are dreadfully wrong about the relationship between blacks and Jews, a relationship that was built on a shared faith rather than a shared oppression, a common destiny rather than a common history, shared values rather than shared interests, and a mutual commitment to social justice rather than being mutually alienated from the mainstream.
The central pillar of the black community has always been its faith. The civil rights movement, far from simply being a political response to injustice and oppression, was a religious movement, conceived in churches, led by ministers and marched to the sounds of old “Negro spirituals.”
The soldiers of the civil rights movement were fueled by faith and sustained by sacrifice. That is the secret of why they succeeded. Other liberation movements either succumbed to the battling egos of their leaders or simply replaced one form of oppression with another: Czar Nicholas with Lenin and Stalin, Batista with Fidel Castro, white-ruled Rhodesia for Mugabe-controlled Zimbabwe.
But the leaders of the civil rights movement, being men of deep faith and spiritual conviction, exhibited the humility of putting the interest of the people before their own lust for power. Walter Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth could easily have begrudged Martin Luther King Jr. his high profile, and King could have wanted more for himself than to die on a lonely balcony in a second-rate motel in Memphis. But since their objective was to lead God’s children into a promised land of equal rights and human dignity, they put the people before their egos and placed reconciliation with the white man ahead of fratricidal civil war.
The same chains of slavery that bound the Jews in ancient Egypt and the blacks in the New World may have imprisoned their bodies, but liberated their spirit. Those chains taught the Jews and blacks, above all else, to rely on God for their salvation rather than on any professed human liberator, be he as righteous as Moses or as determined as Lincoln. Both became nations to whom faith was endemic and sustaining.
For most people, religion teaches them how to gain entry into the afterlife, how to avoid hell. For blacks and Jews, religion taught them to find hope and comfort in this life so that their earthly existence could transcend hell. Other religions kept the faithful oppressed by instructing them in the divine right of kings. But Jews and blacks taught that no man was born subject to another, for all men were princes.
Other people’s religion taught them to accept their suffering in this world because the comforts of paradise would more than compensate. But the faith of Jews and blacks inspired them to challenge existing prejudice because man was not born to suffer. Man dare not await the paradise of Eden. His highest obligation is to create heaven on earth.
Almost a millennium ago the foremost Jewish scholar of the age, Maimonides, wrote that “the Jewish people are believers, the children of believers.” The same idea was given expression by Elie Wiesel, who said: “A Jew can love God. A Jew can hate God. But a Jew can never ignore God.” In modern times the only other nation that fits that criteria is the African-American community.
As a Jew, my attachment to King’s speeches has little to do with the injustice of segregation, to which I was thankfully never subject, and everything to do with a modern preacher who brought the ancient Hebrew prophets to life. While studying at yeshiva I related to Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah as characters in a book. But through King I related to them as living figures who embolden and animate the opponents of injustice. Like Moses, King never reached the promised land but found redemption in a life of service over adventure, and righteousness over recognition.
That the Jewish and black communities are distinguished by their attachment to their faith is further evidenced by the unique problems faced by each upon the abandonment of that faith. The Jewish break with the ritualistic tradition has led to an indulgent materialism. Assimilation has led to a repugnant self-loathing, a sad attempt to erase distinctive Jewish characteristics, and a pathetic attempt to blend into the mainstream. For many in the black community, a loss of the anchor of faith has led to a breakdown in familial and social bonds, a pop and music culture that glorifies violence and feeds on misogyny, and an awkward desire to neutralize distinctive black characteristics in an effort to be more accepted.
Today Jews and blacks need each other more than ever before. The segregation enemy of the past might be behind them. But an even more daunting enemy looms ahead, namely, acceptance.
What will inspire young black men and women to fight for black interests, now that they are embraced by mainstream universities and career ladders are rising up before them? What will inspire young Jews to retain their religious and ethnic differences when peer pressures push them to blend in rather than experience the loneliness of the outsider.
Surely, in both cases it is faith’s conviction that the continuity and survival of both peoples is essential to the enrichment of the world. Both nations have imparted to the world the idea of being free on the inside even if chained on the outside, the belief that light will always triumph over darkness, the need for humans to dedicate themselves toward the eradication of all suffering, and the centrality of God to the dignity of the human person. Both nations have taught the world that with liberty comes responsibility, with freedom obligations.
It is a lesson Samuel Freedman and those who revel in the burial of the black-Jewish relationship should learn.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, co-host of the morning show on WWRL 1600, the oldest African-American radio station, is the author of “The Private Adam: Becoming a Hero in a Selfish Age” (ReganBooks/HarperCollins, 2003).