Never again. Sixty years have passed since the liberation of prisoners at the Auschwitz concentration camp. World leaders solemnly commemorated this event recently with vows that never again would the world stand by and permit genocide like the Nazi regime’s extermination of six million Jews during World War II.
While these cries for human rights are compelling and noble, some African Americans would quibble about who has suffered the most, Blacks or Jews. Whether we grieve for six million Jews exterminated in crematoriums or the six to 20 million Africans who lost their lives in the Atlantic slave trade, we need to remember those whose lives were snuffed out by bigotry. It’s not a competition between oppressed minorities, but a call to appreciate each other’s suffering and to work cooperatively toward social justice for all.
Some may argue that Jews and African Americans are each responsible for their own destinies and don’t need each other. Our futures as Blacks is indeed in our own hands, but that does not mean we should not embrace as brothers and sisters a people who have experienced the most heinous form of bigotry. One could contend that in many respects Jews are now privileged and are no longer oppressed. But their success is relative. Virulent – and dangerous – anti-Semitism is still rampant in the Middle East, Europe, Russia and occasionally in the United States. And we must not keep silent about such hatred. If we do, the blood of our Jewish friends will be on our hands.
That would be tragic. Without a doubt, Jews have been true partners in the struggle, especially during the civil rights era. In 1964, a reputed Ku Klux Klansman in Mississippi – now awaiting a new trial for murder –allegedly tortured and killed Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, both Jews, together with James Chaney, an African American. The three young adults had been participating in Freedom Summer, a voter registration drive to challenge the racist exclusion of Black voters. Their deaths helped to galvanize support for both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In turn, African Americans have helped the Jews by playing a key role in mediating the Arab-Israeli conflict. As UN mediator on Palestine in 1949, Dr. Ralph Bunche obtained signatures on armistice agreements between Israel and the Arab States after 11 months of virtually ceaseless negotiating. He was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP, as well as the Nobel Peace Prize. Andrew Young, Colin Powell and now Condoleezza Rice have followed in Bunche’s footsteps in seeking a diplomatic resolution of the explosive conflict. In addition, Rice appointed Lieutenant Gen. William Ward, an African American, as the new security coordinator for the Palestinians and Israelis.
As African Americans, we of all people should understand the need for evenhandedness in this crisis. Our respect for the Jews does not mean that we should not sympathize with the plight of Palestinians or fail to honor their aspirations. However, it does mean that we should guard against any attempts to deny the Holocaust existed or justify and forget its inexcusable atrocities. Their dead deserve deep respect, just as we hallow the memory of those Africans who perished during the Atlantic slave trade.
Our hearts can continue to be touched by the horror of genocide through cultural exchanges and open dialogue. In the past, local Black churches have visited synagogues during Passover in recognition of our common heritage as former slaves. Some African American pastors have preached at synagogues, and certain Black civil rights activists have lent support to Jewish causes like those of former Soviet dissidents Andrei Sakarov and Natan Scharansky.
But now, as we remember Auschwitz’ liberation, is the time to increase our mutual ties. We can be enriched and challenged with individual and group visits to our respective museums. For example, I was moved when I went to see the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum with several family members last summer during my family reunion in Washington, D.C. Since we had an African American tour guide, the visit resonated with me deeply. Her perspective on the Holocaust was all the more valuable because of her special experience.
Similarly, African Americans would find it worthwhile to visit the local Holocaust Memorial Center, especially on May 8 to observe ceremonies for Holocaust Remembrance Day. Small group discussions with Holocaust survivors and their children could follow the commemoration to promote intercultural understanding.
In turn, Jewish groups should visit the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History to see its impressive new core exhibit, “And Still We Rise.” This would be ideal for Juneteenth celebrations commemorating the ending of slavery in American. Both groups can appreciate the importance of lessons learned from deliverance from oppression. Again, dialogue between the groups can be fostered with informal gatherings after the day’s activities.
Finally, mutual solidarity would be strengthened with a colloquium, perhaps in a university setting, on the resistance efforts by the two Rosas: Rosa Parks, the mother of the civil rights movement, and Rosa Robota, an Auschwitz heroine who helped Jewish crematorium workers blow up a crematorium. Her last words before being hanged were, “Be strong! Have courage!”
That bold, resolute determination should never be in short supply. Not in these turbulent times. If we want Jews to denounce racism, we should put out the flames of anti-Semitism. Disagreements with Jews should never become attacks on their dignity and rights.
We must cover each other’s backs, as soldiers in a foxhole must do. In this war against bigotry, we should stick up for each other or we both might get shot.
Never again will we allow this to happen, we say. Yet today we are witnessing the slaughter of millions of Africans in the Darfur region of Sudan. And in the past decade, 500,000 Tutsis were massacred in Rwanda.
At least the movie “Hotel Rwanda” shows us some hope amid the tragedy. In an Oscar-nominated performance, Don Cheadle portrays the courage of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who singularly saved more than 1,200 Tutsis during the Hutu genocide.
If one man was able to turn back the tide of senseless slaughter, how many more lives can we save if Blacks and Jews work together? As the two Rosas of the resistance would say, we must never again take a back seat to hatred of each other – or of any group.
(First published in the Michigan Chronicle, March, 2005)