Rabbi Seth Goren (WGFA, Class 16) wrote an op-ed this week about the Jewish legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, and what its leaders teach him about how to live in 2015. Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Exponent.
Of the many memorializations of the civil rights movement, among the most familiar to Jews is a photograph of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching in 1965 in Selma, Ala. In addition to its own innate power, it is referenced as evidence of our community’s support for black rights and the strength of African-American/Jewish relationships.
I like to envision myself in the background of this tableau, just out of view, behind Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel. I want to think that had I been alive then, I’d have been among the Jews who joined the Freedom Riders and served as unflinching advocates for civil rights, often at risk to themselves.
It’s tempting to imagine ourselves as part of that groundswell of Jewish activism and advocacy, to retroactively inject ourselves into our understanding of the period’s Jewish mainstream, and to envision how we would have, naturally, done the same.
We should resist this impulse. Invoking the merit of our ancestors is a millennia-old component of Jewish prayer, but ascribing their deeds to ourselves is not.
Regardless of how we understand ancestral merit religiously, it’s a leap to attribute the bold achievement of parents and grandparents during the civil rights era to those of us who have come after them.
Our inheritance of Jewish bravery and engagement from those generations should inspire us to be empathetic and audacious in dismantling oppression; there’s no basis for it to substitute for our own actions, or for their accomplishments to be considered as ours today.
Even in 1965, the photo of Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel presented challenges. Its implicit narrative of unwavering solidarity papered over existing tensions between Jews and African-Americans, and eclipsed the susceptibility of many Jews to “blockbusting,” in which real estate agents raised the “threat” of blacks moving into a neighborhood to induce sales at below-market prices.
Moreover, focusing on King and Heschel’s camaraderie obscured how Jews of diverse backgrounds fit into racial categories, creating a “black or Jewish” dichotomy that negated the existence of Jews of color, and disregarding how white Jews (along with Italian- and Irish-Americans) had been classified as not-exactly-white not so long before. Our past is far more complex than this distinct moment.
The more timeless and general difficulty centers on gaps between self-perception and others’ perspectives. Reading ourselves into the photo from Selma, even if it accurately reflects our “What if?” responses, may clash with the impressions of people with far more mixed experiences with the Jewish community. Intentions, however good and whether collective or individual, don’t always match outcomes, and there’s no inherent reason our positive intent should trump negative impact in the minds of those bearing its brunt. We can reflexively dismiss their “truth” in favor of our own “truth,” and wrap ourselves in counterfactual scenarios, but ignoring this friction allows misimpressions and divisiveness to fester, pushing us further from the shared ideal of societal fairness.
Frankly, I’ll never know what I would have done in the 1960s; ahistorical fantasies of myself in Selma will remain just that. Instead of speculating during next week’s holiday, we can look beyond snapshots from which we are absent, consider the massive remaining work toward equal rights, and dive into challenging modern conversations that push us to examine our communal memory and our connection to it more carefully.
Just as our Jewish social justice heritage is obvious, we don’t have to look far to uncover the legacies of prejudice that have been bequeathed to us: résumés with African-American-sounding names receive fewer responses than identical ones with white-sounding names; Pennsylvania public school funding comes with strong race-based discrepancies; blacks are far more likely to be arrested for drug-related crimes; and the median white family’s wealth is 13 times larger than that of the median African-American family. These lowlights might not be as visually dramatic as scenes of police officers beating unarmed marchers in Selma, but they’re no less real, and provide a mere sample of contemporary discrimination and its effects.
There are enough injustices here in 2015. By setting aside conjectures based on one 50-year-old image and remaining grounded in the present, we’re better able to confront them.
Rabbi Seth Goren is the City Director of Repair the World Philadelphia. Originally from Oreland, Pennsylvania, Rabbi Goren received his B.A. and M.A. in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania. After teaching English in the Czech Republic, he attended the University of Pennsylvania Law School, receiving his J.D. in 1998 and subsequently practicing human rights, antitrust, commercial and consumer protection law in Philadelphia. Rabbi Goren left the practice of law in 2003 to enroll in Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion’s rabbinical program as a Wexner Graduate Fellow (Class 16). He received his M.A.H.L. in May 2006, was ordained as a rabbi in May 2007 and previously served as Lehigh University’s first Director of Jewish Life and Associate Chaplain. Seth can be reached at email@example.com.