As someone who grew up in Atlanta, it is easy for me to claim that US Congressman John Lewis was my representative. Whether his name was on a ballot you completed or not, Representative Lewis represented much more than Georgia’s 5th Congressional District. John Lewis represented the courage of an American patriot to fight for our ideals. He represented a generation of civil rights leaders, like Dr. King, who were taken from us before they finished their work. Senator Mitch McConnell wrote, from the other side of the partisan aisle, “our great nation’s history has only bent towards justice because great men like John Lewis took it upon themselves to help bend it.”
People like John Lewis remind us that certain values call us to leave the communities where we segregate by race, religion, class or politics and gather for a shared purpose. Like a pandemic that threatens life everywhere, racism is an easily acquired disease. It rears its head in ignorant individuals and in uninformed institutions. As a Jewish community, we are neither immune from it, nor are we to sit on the sidelines while our neighbors stand up to fight it. This is our problem, it is our fight, it is a Jewish cause, and it is fraught with complexities.
In 2016, when the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement began, there were a number of statements and policies put into place by the BLM leadership that were cause for great concern among Zionists. Since that time the leadership has changed and Israel has not been a focus. But even if it were today, we cannot sit out on battles that are deeply important to our country, our neighbors and the Jewish community because of a single disagreement, even if that disagreement is over Israel.
Of course, this is nothing new. In 1939, the British who controlled Palestine, published a policy (the 1939 White Paper) aimed at limiting Jewish immigration and minimizing Zionist influence in the soon to be State of Israel. Zionists were furious at the British. At the same time in Europe, the British lead the Allies in the fight against Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. What was a Jewish person to think of the British? Were they our enemy, preventing the creation of a Jewish state or our hero, fighting the Nazi’s?
David Ben Gurion, later to be Israel’s first Prime Minister, wrote that year:
We must assist the British in the war as if there were no White Paper and we must resist the White Paper as if there were no war.
Today, a war of hateful anti-Semitism flanks us on one side while a battle against racism flanks us from the other. As Ben Gurion shared eighty years ago, we must fight both. We must fight racism in any way possible, including our vocal and visible support of the Black Lives Matter movement. And we must call out anti-Semitism, even when it comes from the mouths of some of those who march with us.
There are issues and times when all that divides us shrinks in relation to universal values that unite us. The fight against the pandemic has brought us to one of these times. The fight against racism, anti-Semitism and an increasing wave of hate, is the issue.
If some form of heaven exists, I would like to imagine leaders like John Lewis and David Ben Gurion sit together and look over our society as we put their lessons into practice. I pray that they can look on us in the coming year with pride as we fight battles they led, but were not around to complete.
Due to the hard work of a number of leaders in our community, this work has already begun. In the coming weeks there are a number of opportunities for the Akron Jewish community to gather to learn more about why racism is a Jewish issue and what we can do to act against it as a community. (See the online Calendar for events.)
Plans are also under way to facilitate regular discussions among an interfaith and interracial community in Akron and we look forward to sharing that information when it becomes available.
May we look toward the future with the courage of Representative John Lewis and may we face our fights with the commitment of Prime Minister David Ben Gurion as we continue to bend the arc of history toward justice for all.