Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel presenting the Judaism and World Peace Award to Martin Luther King Jr., Dec. 7, 1965
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel presenting the Judaism and World Peace Award to Martin Luther King Jr., Dec. 7, 1965 (Wikimedia Commons)

This year, as we honor the life and legacy of Dr. King, Jews can educate themselves on what’s being done to preserve Black-Jewish unity and we can work to strengthen and renew it.

We’ve all seen those grainy black and white photographs from the 1960s. We see Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marching in civil rights demonstrations, oftentimes locked arm and arm with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, his fellow activist and close friend. As Jews, we see these pictures and we rightly take pride that a rabbi was integral to Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. We’ve been citing that fact for 60 years.

Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel were indeed genuine friends. Dr. King and his family were due to attend a Passover seder at the Heschel’s house in April 1968, just a few weeks after the assassination. Instead, during that same week, Rabbi Heschel delivered the eulogy at his friend’s funeral. Over the years, Rabbi Heschel has become an iconic symbol of commitment and solidarity between Black and Jews. 

But that was then, and this is now.

The Black and Jewish experience together has ebbed and flowed in the past 60 years. Both communities have, at times, felt betrayed and aggrieved by the other. Jewish racism and Black antisemitism have never been eradicated, and far too many Black and Jewish leaders have contributed to the anger and divisions between both communities.  

But in recent years there have been new and robust efforts among Blacks and Jews to jointly promote unity and fight racism and antisemitism.  In 2019, a bipartisan group of Congressional lawmakers formed the Congressional Caucus for Black and Jewish Relations and, this year, members of the Michigan legislature followed suit with its own Black and Jewish Unity Caucus. Both groups cited the urgent need for the communities to come together in light of the dramatic spike in white supremacy groups and hate crimes targeting Blacks and Jews. 

Last September, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the National Urban League kicked off Black-Jewish Unity Week, a national initiative of programming events, seminars, advocacy and prayers designed to foster unity and strengthen the fight against racism and antisemitism.

Locally, the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC, in partnership with the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity, operate the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity. The group has a three-fold mission: 1) promote solidarity between both communities; 2) speak out against racism, antisemitism and other forms of hate; and 3) identify and cultivate future leaders among the younger generation. 

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), initially organized to combat antisemitism, has become increasingly active in fighting racism in recent years, particularly this past year because of the George Floyd killing and other incidents. Its local branch, led by Carolyn Normandin, is combating hate crimes and exposing hate groups, as well as partnering with local organizations to expand the ADL’s commitment to promoting Black and Jewish unity.

The joint efforts among Blacks and Jews to form solid, meaningful and effective alliances are alive and well today. There are still critics and detractors, but for many people in both communities, the spirit of Dr. King’s and Rabbi’s Heschel’s friendship and commitment for justice is thriving in full vibrancy today.

Fifty-three years after Dr. King’s death, Blacks and Jews are facing a surge in hatred and violence. Dr. King once wrote that “we may have all come on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.” That is indeed true today. How we navigate that boat will depend on our commitment, our relationships with one another and our solidarity. Many people from both communities are already deeply committed to this task. 

This year, as we honor the life and legacy of Dr. King, Jews can educate themselves on what’s being done to preserve Black-Jewish unity and we can work to strengthen and renew it. Rabbi Heschel left us a shining example. But we cannot rest on that memory; we must build on it. We must, as Rabbi Jennifer Kaluzny of Temple Israel noted in a recent sermon, “be a Heschel today.”

That’s a noble challenge for the Jewish community as we observe the King holiday this year, as well as a fitting and beautiful way to honor his dream.  

Mark Jacobs is the AIPAC Michigan chair for African American Outreach, a co-director of the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity, a board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council-AJC and the director of Jewish Family Service’s Legal Referral Committee. 

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