Home inFocus The Awakening (Winter 2024) Where are Our Allies? If Genuine, Allyship is Mutual

Where are Our Allies? If Genuine, Allyship is Mutual

Avi Mayer Winter 2024
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addresses the crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, during the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. (Photo: Uncredited / Wikimedia Commons)

The names James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner will resonate with anyone who knows their American—and American Jewish—history.

The three young men had been spending the summer of 1964 registering African Americans to vote in Neshoba County, Mississippi when they were lynched by a group of men associated with the Ku Klux Klan. Their bodies were tossed into a shallow grave on a nearby farm—there are indications that Goodman was still alive when he was buried along with Chaney and Schwerner—and were only found 44 days later thanks to an FBI informant.

Chaney, 21, was African American; Goodman, 20, and Schwerner, 24, were Jewish.

The wave of public outrage over the brutal murder is widely believed to have facilitated the passage of the Civil Rights Act in July of that year. Several months later, on March 21, 1965, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rabbi Maurice Davis linked arms with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders as they marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in protest of racial injustice and segregationist policies. A Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) article two days later noted that hundreds of African American participants in the march had donned kippot (yarmulkes) in “respectful emulation” of the rabbis, dubbing the head coverings “freedom caps.” Several rabbis were arrested during the march and conducted Shabbat services behind bars. Representatives from a slew of national Jewish organizations traveled from all over the country to join the march and offer support to participants.

American Jews had aligned themselves with African Americans’ struggle for freedom and equal rights for decades. In 1909, W. E. B. Du Bois and other black leaders were joined by Rabbi Emil Hirsch, Rabbi Stephen Wise, Lillian Wald, and other prominent Jewish figures in forming the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Joel Elias Spingarn served as the organization’s chairman, treasurer, and second president. Jews donated heavily to the National Urban League, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and other civil rights groups. Jewish newspapers likened the plight of African Americans to that of the ancient Israelites fleeing slavery in Egypt and, in reporting on violence against African Americans, frequently compared it to the pogroms plaguing Jews in Russia.

Later, Dr. King maintained close ties to Jewish leaders—he and Rabbi Heschel were close friends and often traveled and spoke to audiences together—and, in an address to the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly in 1968, famously lauded Israel as “an oasis of brotherhood and democracy” and “one of the great outposts of democracy in the world.”

  The legacy of Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement lives on today, as Jews continue to be heavily involved in movements for social justice and equality. In the summer of 2020, after the murder of an African American man, George Floyd, by a Minnesota policeman, hundreds of Jewish organizations and synagogues across America signed on to a statement declaring that “Black lives matter,” reflecting a sentiment shared by large numbers of American Jews; many congregations had hung banners with the phrase on their buildings years earlier. Jewish groups have joined Latino groups in advocating immigration reform and have stood up for Asian Americans in the face of racism and discrimination. Jews have been among the loudest and most prominent advocates for women’s rights and LGBTQ rights; indeed, some of the iconic leaders of both movements have been Jewish themselves. American Jews march, advocate, give, volunteer, and otherwise contribute to these communities’ efforts in a vast range of ways.

In explaining their involvement in these causes and others, many liberal Jews draw on a Hebrew phrase far more often uttered in American-accented Hebrew than in guttural Israeli tones: tikkun olam, roughly translated as “repairing the world.” While the phrase first appears in the Talmud in Tractate Gittin about measures enacted to ensure an equitable society, it is recited by many Jews several times a day as part of the Aleinu prayer that concludes the three daily services. There, it is part of a longer phrase that calls on God “to establish a world under the Almighty’s kingdom.” Today, tikkun olam has become a catchall for the Jewish pursuit of social justice and it is employed even by members of other communities—former US President Barack Obama made a practice of peppering addresses to Jewish groups with it—to refer to Jewish involvement in movements for fairness and equal rights.

In recent weeks, though, growing numbers of Jews have started wondering whether equivalent phrases exist among some groups with which they had long allied themselves—and whether they apply to Jews, as well.

While the immediate aftermath of the October 7 Hamas massacre in southern Israel saw an outpouring of horror and sympathy from organizations and communities across America, many of them have since shifted their tones or fallen silent. Others have exhibited shocking amorality.

On October 8, for instance, the National Action Network (NAN), National Urban League, NAACP, and Drum Major Institute issued a powerful joint statement condemning what they called “the deadly terrorist attack against Israel … in which civilians have been targeted, killed, and kidnapped,” describing it as part of “the horrifying effects of violence upon innocent civilians in the Middle East.”

In the weeks since, however—as Israeli hostages have continued to languish in Gaza, as Israeli cities and towns have come under intense rocket fire, and as Jews across America and the world have been subjected to spiking antisemitism—that solidarity has given way to equivocation. On November 15, for instance, the NAACP released another statement that called for a “de-escalation of global hate and violence” in light of the “humanitarian crisis unfold[ing] in the Middle East.” Neither Israel nor Jews were mentioned (nor, for that matter, were Hamas, Gaza, or Palestinians). The Drum Major Institute went a step further, calling for a ceasefire—which Israel, the United States, and most major Jewish organizations oppose—and saying there is “no room for collective punishment.” NAN has not issued any further statements on the subject since October 8 and the National Urban League doesn’t even have the original joint statement on its website. Of the four, the only group to even mention soaring Jew-hatred in recent weeks was the Drum Major Institute, which condemned “any sentiments or acts of antisemitism, Islamophobia, and anti-Palestinian rhetoric.”

All-in with Hamas support

Those groups, however, at least got it right initially. Others have gone all-in with their support and even celebration of Hamas and its massacre. On October 10, for instance, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) chapter in Chicago posted an image of a paraglider—a clear reference to the paragliders used by Hamas terrorists to infiltrate Israel and murder Israelis three days earlier—with the text “I stand with Palestine.” The BLM chapter in Phoenix shared a post stating that “Palestinian freedom fighters are not terrorists,” adding “we will stand in full support of the resistance happening in Palestine” and stating that “the Palestinian attack was a revolution and attempt to reclaim their freedom.” The Movement for Black Lives has shared a constant stream of content hostile to Israel on its platforms, including multiple posts accusing Israel of “genocide” and “apartheid” and portraying the conflict in starkly racial terms, portraying Jewish Israelis as oppressors and Palestinians as the oppressed and justifying acts of “resistance.”

Other communities and movements have also been infected with a similar amorality. Some LGBTQ groups have marched in protests against Israel under the richly ironic banner “Queers for Palestine” (one wonders if they have ever stopped to consider whether Palestine is “for” queers to quite the same extent). Some Asian American and Latino campus groups have signed on to statements blaming the Jewish state for Hamas’s murderous violence against its citizens. Some women’s rights groups have been conspicuously silent in the face of mounting evidence of sexual violence against Israeli women during and after the Hamas massacre.

Many Jews, who have long prided themselves on standing with other groups and communities in their time of need, have been left wondering: Where are our allies?

Indeed, in the weeks since the October 7 massacre, a slew of Jewish activists—many of whom have long identified with the progressive left—have written heart-wrenching essays and social media posts expressing their sense of pain and abandonment. “It is horrifying that people who profess that their life is all about the humanity of others—that maybe that humanity doesn’t extend to Jews,” one such activist, Jonathan Rosen, told The Financial Times. Rabbi Sharon Brous, a popular progressive Jewish leader in Los Angeles, described feeling “existential loneliness.”

And yet, not everything is bleak.

Many prominent figures from communities with which American Jews have long aligned themselves have stood up for Israel and the Jewish community in recent weeks. House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries—one of the most senior elected officials in America and a longtime member of the Congressional Black Caucus—was front and center at the massive March for Israel in Washington in November, where he spoke powerfully about the need to support Israel and Jews around the world at this time. The Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute has the text, “CHLI mourns for the victims of the heinous attack on our friends, the people of Israel. This is a time for solidarity with the State of Israel,” emblazoned across its website’s homepage. Scores of leaders from the African American, Asian American, Latino, and LGTBQ communities have expressed their revulsion at Hamas’s atrocities and have condemned the recent explosion of Jew hatred across America and around the world.

In a conversation he and I had recently, Congressman Ritchie Torres of New York made his position plain.

“I’m commonly asked why, as a gay Afro-Latino from the Bronx, am I so outspoken against antisemitism, and people are asking me the wrong question,” he told me. “The right question is not why I have chosen to be outspoken. The right question is why others have chosen silence in the face of the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.”

Allyship should not be transactional. We support one another not because we expect to get something in return, but rather because it is the right thing to do.

And yet, at the same time, allyship, if it is genuine, should be mutual and bi-directional: We feel your pain. We stand with you, we march alongside you, and we speak out for you when you need us. Is it too much to ask that you do the same?

That is the question that many Jews are asking at this fateful moment. The answer we receive will echo for years to come.

Avi Meyer is fomer Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Post. He was raised in the United States before making aliyah to Israel. This article is reprinted by permission.