After witnessing horrific acts of injustice against Black Americans in recent weeks, many Americans have vowed their intention to help dismantle systemic racism that pervades this country. While I believe all of us must come together to actively work and fight until this is achieved, there is a particularly strong obligation for members of the Jewish community, such as myself, to take part in this struggle. Our faith and long-running alliance with the Black community command us to do so.
Each community has its own culture and history. And while you can't compare one to another, it's safe to say that Jewish Americans share a history of suffering, whether the many ancestors we lost to the horrors of the Holocaust, or white supremacists who in just the past two years have carried out the deadliest anti-Semitic massacres in the history of the United States. This shared experience of struggle and mistreatment has created a bond between our community and Black Americans that goes back decades to the Civil Rights era in this country.
Jewish scripture focuses us on our responsibility to heal the world, with a Hebrew phrase, Tikkun Olam, that literally means “world repair.” This tenet dictates that we join the fight to attain social justice. That means we must take on, in our own lives, the responsibility to perfect God’s creation.
In the case of the recent police killings of Black Americans, this means we are called to be on the front lines. To sit back in silence while Black Americans are terrorized is the opposite of the Jewish faith. “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation,” the famous Jewish leader Elie Weisel famously said. “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
A core Jewish theology is that when one person suffers, the world suffers. When one person is enslaved, the world is enslaved. With this in mind, we must act as though the murder of George Floyd by the police in Minnesota is a murder of us all. If a racist authority targets a Black American, we must respond as if that authority has targeted us. This is what being an ally is all about.
Judaism is also a religion borne of a deliverance theology. As we recognize each year during Passover, God delivered us from slavery in Egypt. As one of our most holy holidays honors our freedom from bondage, this remembrance is central to not only our religious experience but our understanding of good and evil. Embedded in Judaism is that we were once slaves and for most of our history we have been foreigners in strange lands. And we never forget that as recently as 75 years ago, a world power harnessed its industrial complex to attempt to eliminate us from the planet.
Deuteronomy 16:20 calls us to “justice, justice shall you pursue so that you may live.” In this case, the suffix (“so that you may live”) is as important as the predicate (“justice”). The failure to pursue justice is a failure to live. To live as a Jewish person requires us to pursue justice.
We have a long history of doing this. A Jew, Henry Moskowitz, joined many civil rights leaders to help found the NAACP in 1909, and the organization would later be led by Kivie Kaplan, a vice chair of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Another Jew, Arnold Aronson, helped found the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. In fact, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 were written in the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, under the banner of the Leadership Conference.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Jewish activists made up a large portion of the white allies involved in the struggle. Half the young people who participated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964 were Jews, and several were arrested in 1964 fighting racial segregation with Dr. Martin Luther King in St. Augustine, Florida. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously marched arm in arm alongside him in the March on Selma.
My Jewish brothers and sisters must continue this civil rights tradition today. That means not only expressing our outrage at the brutal killing of Black lives and stating unequivocally that Black Lives Matter. But also joining the battle in solidarity — by listening, reflecting, improving, working, loving and fighting alongside our long-time allies.
This country is long overdue for change. And all of us must be part of the solution.
Joe Sanberg is the Co-Founder of Aspiration, Chair of Working Hero Action and a leader in the Jewish community.