This week I was interviewed by German Public Radio for a story on the Jewish community’s relationship with the civil rights movement as a consequence of my synagogue’s celebration last week of the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s appearance in our congregation.

The role of Jews in the movement has been raised recently as well after the release of the film “Selma” and the omission of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s image in the front row of leaders near Dr. King in the Selma to Montgomery march of 1965.

The film, of course, was not about Jews nor should it have been. However, Rabbi Heschel’s absence was a significant omission and could have easily been otherwise. I suspect that the film-maker was unaware of the significance of the Jewish role in the movement generally and Dr. King’s relationship with Rabbi Heschel specifically.

German Public Radio had no idea of the prominent role Jews played in the movement either, and so when their reporter, Kirsten Zilm Dunn, joined us at our celebration, she recognized that an important story needed to be told in Germany, as did her superiors in Berlin.

For the record, the Jewish role in Dr. King’s life and the movement as a whole was substantial. Dr. King counted Jews among his closest allies and he identified strongly with the historic experience of the Jewish people against oppression since the Biblical Exodus. He was openly supportive of the Soviet Jewry movement, of Zionism and the state of Israel, and he opposed anti-Semitism as it gained momentum in the African American community.

The relationship between Dr. King and Jews was reciprocal. However, the Jewish community’s engagement with the civil rights movement was complex.

The majority of the Jews who went south to help blacks, who demonstrated in their own communities on behalf of civil rights, and who gave money to the civil rights movement were neither rabbis nor Orthodox Jews. Most activist Jews were not religious. They were unaffiliated students, lawyers and others whose activism was based in the Jewish ethos of pursuing justice.

One half to two-thirds of all whites in the civil rights movement were Jews. Leaders of mainstream Jewish organizations (i.e. American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith, the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Conservative movement’s Synagogue Council of America) railed against segregation and Jim Crow laws.

Here are a few of the most important Jewish leaders to back Dr. King:

• Jack Greenberg was head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund;
• Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, as President of the UAHC, supported the Montgomery bus boycott;
• Morris Berthold Abram, President of the AJC, helped passed laws against racism in the UN;
• Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild, of Atlanta’s “The Temple,” preached against racism early on;
• Rabbi Israel Dresner was a Freedom Rider  and one of the Tallahassee Ten;
• Stanley Levison, a lawyer, was among Dr. King’s closest friends who spoke with him every day;
• Rabbi Richard Hirsch, the founder of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C., was a Freedom Rider and offered RAC offices to Dr. King whenever he was in Washington;
• Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld of Cleveland was clubbed in the south;
• Rabbi Joachim Prinz, President of the American Jewish Congress and a refugee from Nazi Germany, spoke at the 1963 march on Washington;
• Many young Reform rabbis were arrested at St. Augustine.

Most significantly, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. King were kindred spirits since the moment they met in 1963. Rabbi Heschel was considered the civil rights movement’s Jewish conscience, and Rabbi Heschel regarded Dr. King as a modern-day prophet whose voice equaled that of the Prophets of Israel, a sign that God had not forsaken the United States.

Not all Jews, however, were in favor of the movement. Many southern Jews were frightened to put themselves on the line and preferred neutrality. Dr. King criticized those who supported the movement in principle, but refused to become activists from fear.

As time passed, Dr. King lost influence with many in the black community as Malcolm X and the black power movement preached violence and anti-Semitism.

In 1967, polls showed that 47% of American blacks subscribed to anti-Semitic beliefs as opposed to 35% of whites. When Dr. King spoke against the Vietnam War in 1967, despite his close collaboration with LBJ leading to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, not only did the Johnson Administration and the FBI’s J Edgar Hoover’s turn openly against him, but many Jews distanced themselves as well.

Still, American Jews supported the civil rights movement and the non-violence of Dr. King’s religious and political agenda. Rabbi Heschel remained close to Dr. King and was the only rabbi to deliver a eulogy at his funeral.

Unfortunately, over time the close relationship between Jews and blacks deteriorated. Yet, the American Jewish community remained liberal on civil rights and has voted Democratic by wide margins in all presidential elections since World War II. Jews remain the most liberal voting bloc in the nation behind the African American community. The Black Congressional Caucus and Jewish members of Congress still work closely together on matters of justice, civil rights, civil liberties, poverty, anti-Semitism, and racism.

In 1958, Dr. King told the American Jewish Congress, “My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.”

Our shared story is hardly finished, as the celebration at my synagogue so clearly demonstrated.

Source: “Shared Dreams – Martin Luther King, Jr. & The Jewish Community”, by Rabbi Marc Schneier. Publ. Jewish Lights. 1999.

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