This year more than most, the important commemorations of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this past Monday and International Holocaust Remembrance Day the next make for a particularly odd juxtaposition. After all, following the recent acts of violence against Jews in New Jersey and New York, mostly at the hands of African-American suspects and seemingly motivated by anti-Semitism, the once-strong relationship between our communities, which has been increasingly strained in the last several years, appears to be approaching a crisis point.
At times the rift makes us feel like it’s been even longer than the 55 years since Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and King marched together in Selma, Ala. Putting the recent spate of attacks against Jews aside for a moment, it’s difficult to imagine that such a close friendship would precede a movement that would one day single out Israel — only Israel — for condemnation in a charter that otherwise advocates for justice and racial equality, or devout people who pray for peace three times each day but continue to use a vile Yiddish word to refer to members of another race.
Admittedly, Jews and African Americans had more in common during the civil rights movement than we do today. In those days Jews, though on their way to becoming accepted members of American society, were still considered “other,” often suspected of dual loyalty toward Israel and the U.S., accused of having questionable financial ethics, and bearing responsibility for the death of Jesus. The situation was far worse for members of the black communities — in the South, of course, but even above the Mason-Dixon line — but the murder of six million European Jews based solely on their ethnicity gave us some credibility regarding the purity of our intentions regarding our unity with another downtrodden group, and the experience of having been turned away from various establishments open to most white Americans made it feel like we were indeed kindred.
For American Jews, that’s largely and literally history. We have become entrenched in the technology, financial, medical, and legal sectors, prominent in the media and entertainment industries, and in spite of the scourge of Jewish poverty, we are perceived as successfully climbing in upward mobility. Rather than being thought of as “other,” now Jews benefit from white privilege, a concept which would have been a ridiculous notion just a few decades ago.
In the years since the march on Selma, the acceptance of the black community in the U.S. has also, thankfully, risen, but despite the election of Barack Obama to the highest office in the nation, the community continues to fight institutional racism and pervasive discrimination whose effects are apparent in discriminatory lending practices, public health crises, high incarceration rates, and more.
On Jan. 9 the ADL New York/New Jersey and the NAACP New Jersey State Conference announced a partnership to combat hatred and bigotry in the Garden State. The steps they pledged to take — providing anti-bias education to elected officials; building tolerance and understanding between the constituencies of the two organizations; and responding to all incidents of racism and anti-Semitism in the state with one voice — sound good on paper, if also familiar and, to an extent, tired.
But it may be our only path toward returning to how our communities thought about each other all those years ago: two distinct people with one shared vision for equality in the United States.