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John Lewis was the model of black-Jewish relations we need right now

Editor’s note: In observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Forward is resurfacing some of our recent coverage related to the Black-Jewish experience and racial justice. This article originally appeared in July, 2020.

The death of Rep. John Lewis comes at a particularly fraught time for blacks and Jews in America.

A series of nasty Twitter-fueled feuds have consumed both communities. Black celebrities from the worlds of sports and music have echoed the anti-Semitic ideas of Louis Farrakhan and the Black Hebrew movement. Jews have reacted with outrage and hurt. Blacks have either dug in or, in the cases of TV host Nick Cannon and former NBA star Stephen Jackson, listened to their more thoughtful critics and apologized.

But the atmosphere of hurt feelings lingers, and the petty digs and punch-backs continue online, with both groups behaving less like natural allies with a shared if complicated history, and more like angry siblings in the back seat on a long car ride.

John Lewis was the grownup in front.

“There are forces in America today,” he said in a 2016 speech accepting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s 2016 Elie Wiesel Award, “forces of hate. And we must never hate. For hate is too heavy a burden to bear.”

Lewis, who died July 17 at the age of 80, saw Jews as partners in his lifelong mission to “redeem the soul of America.” That’s what he said to Rabbi Abraham Cooper when the two of them shared a bus ride in 2014 to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, the site of Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1965 march where Lewis and other protestors were attacked and beaten by state troopers.

Lewis kept marching, toward a lifetime of accomplishment. As director of the Voter Education Project, he added four million new voters to the rolls. As a Congressional representative, he fought, among other things, for universal healthcare, against Bill Clinton’s welfare reform, for a national African American museum in Washington (a struggle that took 28 years) and for gun control.

For much of that struggle, Jews were by his side.

“Yes I knew and marched with Rabbi Heschel,” he said receiving the Elie Wiesel Award. “Yes, I knew and marched with Rabbi Prinz. But there were hundreds and thousands of young Jewish students and adults who marched on Washington. Many came to Selma.”

Lewis continued to work on civil rights and social justice issues side-by-side with the Jewish community, helping to found the Atlanta Black Jewish Coalition in 1982.

When then-candidate Barack Obama needed a surrogate to help him win support among Orthodox Jewish voters in New York and New Jersey, he sent Lewis.

In 2009, Lewis was arrested alongside Rabbi David Saperstein outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, D.C. when they crossed police lines to protest the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. In 2017 Lewis spoke out after vandals desecrated dozens of gravestones at a Philadelphia Jewish cemetery.

“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. compared the spread of hatred to an ‘unchecked cancer’ that corrodes the very fabric of our society,” he said in a statement calling for more federal action on anti-Semitism. “If we truly believe in the equality of every human being and the inherent right to individual liberty, then there is not any room in our society for these acts of hate. To allow anti-Semitism, violence and other campaigns of hate and fear to continue unconstrained threatens the safety and security of every American.”

Lewis understood that when you show up for the causes that matter to your friends, they are more likely to show up for you.

When he drew President Donald Trump’s Twitter wrath for saying Trump was not a “legitimate president,” the Anti-Defamation League came to Lewis’s defense.

“Everyone at @ADL_National is proud to call @RepJohnLewis an ally; a true #CivilRights hero whose lifelong fight ag #hate deserves respect…,” the ADL tweeted back to the President.

The relationship weathered, as all friendships must, deep disagreement. Just last year, Lewis cosponsored a nonbinding House resolution introduced by Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., that was widely seen by mainstream Jewish groups as supportive of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanction) movement aimed at Israel.

He made clear that while he did not support BDS, the heir to King’s non-violenct protest movement could hardly vote against the idea of boycotts.

It’s an overreach to say that Lewis’ lifelong black-Jewish alliance has always been the norm. Many Jews stayed on the sidelines of the civil rights movement or actively opposed it, even as, as a community of mostly white Americans, they have benefited from the social and economic structures that oppress blacks.

Black leaders like Farrakhan and others have scapegoated Jews, weaving delusional conspiracy theories that have fed actual anti-Semitic acts of violence.

But if the relationship Lewis wrought hasn’t been the norm, it should be the model. Instead of trading Twitter punches, we can go back to working together on the issues that really matter to our communities, and to America. Amid the mounting animosity between blacks and Jews, the legacy of John Lewis reminds us: We are stronger together.

Rob Eshman is national editor of The Forward.

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