Jews and the Struggle for Civil Rights
Given the great disparity in the socioeconomic levels of the black and Jewish communities, the programs and institutions they share strike some as strange. The phenomenon is even more baffling considering the ongoing disagreement about strategies to bring about greater equality for people of color in American society. While it is true that the Jewish community shares an interest in breaking down legal and social barriers to full social equality in America, that motivation does not explain why thousands of Jews demonstrated, marched, lobbied, and risked their lives to go south during the civil rights movement. That explanation lies much deeper in the psyche of American Jews.
It is undoubtedly true that few of the Jewish civil rights activists, with the exception of a handful of rabbis, were motivated by the religious principles of the Torah. Yet the social justice principles that we have identified with the Sinai impulse are often internalized by Jews, whether or not they ever sat at the feet of a Jewish educator. For Jews, the principle of din, justice and fairness, became part of their folk culture, conveyed by parents to their children in the way they saw and experienced the world. Jews who devoted themselves (and in some cases, gave their lives) to the cause of civil rights identified with the outsider status of American blacks because they themselves did not yet fully feel a part of the mainstream of American life. As such, their activism was a manifestation of the Jewish value of ahavat ger (loving the stranger). To the extent that most white Americans were not willing to confront the reality of American racism and discrimination against blacks until the civil rights movement put the issue onto the front pages of American newspapers, activist Jews were among a small minority of whites who were committed “not to stand idly by” while their neighbor’s blood was being shed, the value of lo ta’amod al dam re’echa (Sanhedrin 73a
Few, if any, Jewish activists used this language at the time. Even the rabbis involved in the struggle spoke about their religious witness in the most general of terms. But most American Jews had a personal story in which persecution and oppression were not more than a generation behind them. The appeal to Jews of the struggle for equality on the part of American blacks had little to do with Jewish concerns about discrimination in the workplace. Rather, it had to do with a cultural instinct for acting on a situation that was morally reprehensible and patently unjust.
A generation earlier it manifested itself in Jewish involvement in the American labor movement. At the turn of the century in Europe, Jews embraced socialism as a way to affect greater social equality, an ideology later apparent in America as well. Just a few years after the height of the civil rights movement, this passion for justice presented itself in the antiwar movement and the feminist movement. In all of these struggles for social change, Jews played leadership roles far disproportionate to their numbers, a phenomenon best understood as Jews, whether religious or secular, acting on a Sinai consciousness that was passed down through the generations.