Jews and Social Justice: complicating the narrative, learning from our past
by Judith Rosenbaum
On a hot July night in 1964, Heather Tobis Booth – a young Jewish college student spending the summer as a civil rights activist in Ruleville, Mississippi – wrote a letter to her brother. Booth was one of approximately 1,000 young people who came to Mississippi as part of the Freedom Summer Project to register voters, run Freedom Schools for African-American children, and build the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party as an alternative to the state’s all-white Democratic Party. In her letter, she described the fear she faced daily as an activist in Mississippi, the power of singing freedom songs like “We Shall Overcome” to dissipate that fear, and how her experience provoked religious feelings:
“There is almost a religious quality about some of these songs, having little to do with the usual concept of a god. It has to do with the miracle that youth has organized to fight hatred and ignorance. It has to do with the holiness of the dignity of man. The God that makes such miracles is the God I do believe in when we sing, ‘God is on our side’.”
Most Jewish social justice activists today probably cannot relate to the fear that Booth felt in Mississippi, knowing that three of her peers had already been murdered for their activism. But the questions she raises about the role of God and religion in working for justice echo in our own time.
Today, a new generation of activists are turning their attention both to the spiritual and textual roots of the Jewish commitment to justice and their application to contemporary society. Many young Jews learn about tikkun olam and the biblical injunction to pursue justice, studying rabbinic laws about how to treat workers, strangers, and the poor.
Along the way, we may also hear about the Jewish role in American social justice movements: “Jews built the American labor movement!” “Jews made up more than half of the white Freedom Riders!” This legacy is usually presented in celebratory terms, without exploration of the complexities, obstacles, and fears American Jews experienced in these movements. We don’t usually hear the voices of people like Booth, and we’re poorer for it.
It’s time to broaden the narrative, filling in the historical context of Jews and social justice and examining not only the leadership of Jews in many social justice movements but also the challenges they have faced. Their stories are relevant to our own identities as Jews and as Americans and can help illuminate the contemporary politics of social change.
Consider the Civil Rights Movement. While some Jews – like Booth and her martyred fellow Freedom Summer activists – were on the front lines, others, such as some Southern Jews, were ambivalent at best, struggling to balance ethics with concerns for their own physical and economic security. In 1956, for example, the Hebrew Union Congregation in Greenville, Mississippi, wrote a letter to the Reform Movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, defending segregation and urging “that your fine organization not embarrass and injure the Jews of this community and other Southern communities who feel as we do, by having it broadcast that the Jews as a whole are actively working to desegregate the South.” Despite what we might prefer to remember, American Jews were not of one mind about civil rights.
Certainly, some Jews were drawn to civil rights by Jewish values or by the memory of Jewish persecution. Freedom Summer volunteer and journalist Paul Cowan recalls overhearing a girl at the Freedom Summer training in June 1964 shouting to her parents on the phone that of course she was still going to participate despite the murder of her three colleagues: “If someone in Nazi Germany had done what we’re doing, your brother would still be alive today.”
Others, like Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, joined the Movement to seek refuge from the superficiality of their Jewish communities. She recalls the initial impetus to her commitment to civil rights, “In the Civil Rights Movement, I could escape Flatbush, my parents’ clothing store, the world of working- and lower-middle-class Jews, a world I thought of as materialistic … Against materialistic stood the world of struggle and change.”
So how do these more varied accounts help us in our own activism today? First of all, we learn to listen to different voices to understand the tapestry of experiences that bring a movement together. We hope that Jewish activists today are inspired by the texts of our tradition, but we must also acknowledge and respect those Jews who are motivated to activism by negative experiences within the Jewish community.
Though the texture of the relationship between Jews and blacks has changed in the 35 years since the height of the Civil Rights Movement, we’re still struggling with some of the same dynamics and challenges, such as suspicion of the other or the sting of high expectations that have not been met. The words of Lew, a Freedom Summer activist who wrote home about the lack of trust among whites and blacks in the Movement, might resonate with today’s activists negotiating the rocky terrain of interracial cooperation: “Right now we don’t know what it is to be a Negro and even if we did, the Negroes here would not accept us. It’s the old case of having to prove ourselves … Intellectually, I think many of us whites can understand the Negroes’ resentment, but emotionally we want to be ‘accepted’ at face value.”
The Civil Rights Movement can also help us better understand how to work in our current multicultural context. Debra Schultz, author of Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement, explains what the experience of Jews in the Movement can teach us today: “The story of Jews and the Civil Rights Movement demonstrates how to practice what may be the key political skill of the 21st century – the ability to empathize with and be an ally to people who differ from oneself on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, gender, sexual identity, socioeconomic status, and geographic location.” In an increasingly diverse and globalizing world, this lesson will only become more essential.
Finally, though it’s great to celebrate Jewish heroes, sometimes celebrating ordinary folks can be even more inspiring. Barbara Rosenblit, a fifth-generation Southerner and teacher at the Weber School, a Jewish high school in Atlanta, recently taught about the Civil Rights Movement using Living the Legacy, an online social justice curriculum from the Jewish Women’s Archive. “We need to know what deeply ordinary fellow human beings can achieve – heroic behavior modeled by ordinary people, demonstrating what it means to be in a complicated situation and know that there are times that action trumps debate,” she says.
Being a Jewish social justice activist can raise more questions than answers: What’s Jewish about this work? What’s the role of religion in social change? Where is God in all of this? These questions are pressing, but they are not new. In seeking answers, we will enrich the conversation if we allow the voices of history – voices like Booth’s – to mingle with our own.
Judith Rosenbaum, PhD, is director of public history at the Jewish Women’s Archive and co-author of Living the Legacy: A Jewish Social Justice Education Project, which is partially funded by the Covenant Foundation.
This post is from the just-released PresenTense Jewish Social Action Now issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.