“So you’re that ni**er lover that wants to tell us what to do with all our ni**ers in Mississippi?”
Those were the last words that a Klansman said to Mickey Schwerner before shooting him in the head at point blank range. The shot was fired just after the killing of fellow Jew Andrew Goodman and their African-American friend, James Chaney, right beside him. Those murders during the “freedom summer” of 1964 personify the shared fate of the African-American and Jewish communities, which continues today.
We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.
Both Jews and African-Americans have made tremendous gains, yet both groups still face bigotry from a common enemy intent on blocking progress. That’s why the recent spate of antisemitic comments from members of the African-American community hurts so much.
Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman died alongside James Chaney because they committed the “crime” of going to the south to register African-Americans to vote. The program they participated in that summer in 1964was over half Jewish — and that’s no coincidence.
Only a decade earlier, it was the American Jewish Committee (AJC) that commissioned a study by Black sociologist Kenneth Clark which proved crucial in the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. It was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Jewish activists who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and their African-American brothers from Selma to Montgomery. And it was the Jewish community that took an unparalleled role as an ally in the struggle for civil rights.
Due in part to the instrumental and zealous participation of Jews in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the shared struggle that was so clear to each community only a few decades ago, things have changed. The “No Jews Allowed” signs were taken down, an African-American man was elected president of the United States, and both communities have made progress.
But although those hard-won gains have done many things, what they haven’t done is dissuade the racists and antisemites.
Jews have been gunned down in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles and threatened in the same sentence as African-Americans by white racists all across America — sometimes with prominent political support. Those neo-Nazis hate Jews just as much as they hate Black people, and both communities continue to be victims of senseless hate crimes of increasing frequency.
Yet prominent members of the African-American community such as entertainer Nick Cannon, professional football star DeShean Jackson, and former NBA player Stephen Jackson didn’t think twice before spouting conspiracy theories propagated by Hitler and antisemitic diatribes by Louis Farrakhan.
Some in the African-American community rushed to defend the recent publicly espoused antisemitic comments instead of condemning them, and many others remained silent.
I understand the automatic rush to defense, because when there is a track record of attacks against your community, as there was in my hometown of Chicago when I was growing up, that’s the instinct that becomes ingrained in your psyche. But defending age-old, disproven antisemitic tropes is no righteous struggle.
Black lives matter — and over 600 Jewish communities publicly support the movement. Yet there has been what seems like tacit approval by many in the African-American community after recent antisemitic comments. Even the ransacking and desecration of a synagogue and Jewish schools by supporters of Black Lives Matter in LA was met with relative silence.
Expressing and supporting conspiracy theories against allies in “bending the arc” towards justice only serves those seeking injustice.
We’re partners in the same struggle for equality and against racism, and we share the same fate. That’s why it is so vitally important for the African-American community to continue to speak out against antisemitism within its ranks, as basketball greats Charles Barkley and Kareem Abdul Jabbar have so eloquently done, and as late Congressman John Lewis did throughout his life.
Together, we can and we will bend that arc towards progress.
Rabbi Jeff Seidel is a community activist, educator, and political commentator. His writing has been published in The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, and other outlets on issues concerning Israel and Judaism.