Aug 06 2020

From Time to Time: Pervasive Anti-Black Racism

Published by at 10:45 am under From Time to Time

From Time to Time

History does not repeat itself,
But it certainly likes to rhyme.

 

IN THE FACE OF PERVASIVE ANTI-BLACK

RACISM, WHAT SHOULD JEWS SAY?

 

I. Hear the Words of a Refugee Rabbi, and be Inspired

by Rabbi Michael Panitz

 

Speakers at the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963, including Rabbi Joachim Prinz (standing, second from left) and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (seated second from right).
Source of photo: Center for Jewish History, New York, NY. Photo Quest/Getty Images

 

We Americans are at an inflection point in our national history. Four centuries of racism have defined our country as a society that, for all its great accomplishments in the realm of freedom, has fallen tragically short of its potential. Our national legacy of racism has been sporadically challenged and partially redressed, but the original sin of the nation still distorts life in our country. Today, we are in the midst of a powerful wave of protest. Alas, some of the protesters themselves are guilty of anti-Semitic statements and actions. But the overarching question for us as American Jews is whether we will side with the racist establishment, or whether we will side with those who seek to dismantle that sinful edifice, even while engaging with them to raise their own consciousness of where they, too, fall short.

At these critical cross-roads, it is instructive for us to reexamine the history of our people’s involvement with the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century. At our worst, we were silent or self-absorbed at that time. In the middle of the spectrum were those of us who felt sympathy for other oppressed souls, but who were simply too fearful of losing the tentative, partial tolerance extended to us to speak up. But at our best, we joined hands, black and white together; we marched; we reached across barriers and touched hearts; we made a difference that widened the horizons of opportunity for millions of our fellow-Americans.

Of the many moments in that era, the August 28, 1963 “March on Washington” is a high point. And of the many moments of that march, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” is the best remembered. King’s speech is justly celebrated as an Everest of American oratory and a prophetic call for America to become a better nation.

King was, nonetheless, not the only speaker that day. Do you know who spoke just before him, and what he said?

The speaker was Rabbi Joachim Prinz. Tomorrow, I will share with you the story of this amazing man and inspiring leader. For now, let his own words uplift you:

 

“I speak to you as an American Jew.”

 

“As Americans we share the profound concern of millions of people about the shame and disgrace of inequality and injustice which make a mockery of the great American idea.”

“As Jews we bring to this great demonstration, in which thousands of us proudly participate, a two-fold experience – one of the spirit and one of our history.”

“In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.”

“From our Jewish historic experience of three and a half thousand years we say:”

“Our ancient history began with slavery and the yearning for freedom. During the Middle Ages my people lived for a thousand years in the ghettos of Europe. Our modern history begins with a proclamation of emancipation.”

“It is for these reasons that it is not merely sympathy and compassion for the black people of America that motivates us. It is above all and beyond all such sympathies and emotions a sense of complete identification and solidarity born of our own painful historic experience.”

“When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

“A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder.

“America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. Not merely black America, but all of America. It must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of us, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community but for the sake of the image, the idea and the aspiration of America itself.”

“Our children, yours and mine in every school across the land, each morning pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the republic for which it stands. They, the children, speak fervently and innocently of this land as the land of “liberty and justice for all.”

“The time, I believe, has come to work together – for it is not enough to hope together, and it is not enough to pray together, to work together that this children’s oath, pronounced every morning from Maine to California, from North to South, may become. a glorious, unshakeable reality in a morally.”

 

II. If You are not Standing with Moses, you are Standing with Pharaoh

 

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Aug. 28, 1963, viewed from the Lincoln Memorial

Photo Credits: Time Toast Timelines

Bayard Rustin (left) and Cleveland Robinson, photographed Aug. 7, 1963

Photo Credits: International Business Times

 

If the Bible were being written today, it would have used the language of “plagues” to describe our contemporary world’s experience. The plague of sea-level rise, inundating the coastal buildings that we have erected in our greed and our hubris; the plague of dead marine life washed ashore, killed by the plastic we have dumped into their watery home; the plague pulmonary disease, triggered by our short-sighted and reckless burning of hydrocarbons, which also blot out the sun with smog for days at a time, feel like the first nine plagues of the Exodus narrative. Now, the plague of COVID-19, most likely caused by our persistent encroachment upon the habitats of wild animals, feels like the tenth plague, claiming victims so that every household knows someone who has died.

But if the Bible were being written today, surely, it would include another sin and another plague: the sin of racism and the plague of murder of the weak by the powerful. The prophet Amos spoke of the wealthy and wicked, “trampling the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground” (Amos 2:7). Across the millennia, Amos’ words accuse the murderers of George Floyd.

Floyd was neither the first nor the last victim. But his murder, committed at a particular confluence of events and accumulated frustrations, has been the catalyst for sustained protests against racist violence. Incredibly, after so much fruitless protest in the past several decades, this time, the outcry has achieved speedy, if thus far mostly symbolic, victories. Monuments to racism have come down. Undoubtedly, racism endures. But for the first time in much of the past half century, it feels as if racism is on the defensive, not on the rise.

This striking historical development occasions a reexamination of the last time that a mass movement against racism in America yielded tangible successes, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Is it possible, at last, to recapture some of the momentum of that electrifying yet evanescent era?

Consideration of this question is the context for remembering Rabbi Joachim Prinz’s address at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. His speech, which was delivered just before the memorable “I have a dream” speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., received high acclaim within the Civil Rights community. Bayard Rustin, director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute and organizer of the 1963 March, made the provocative claim in 1965, “To my mind, the greatest speech made at the March on Washington, historically, philosophically, was not Dr. King’s but Rabbi Prinz’s…”[1] Today, we celebrate King’s words reverentially, and rightly so. But what was Rustin driving at?

Rustin’s question can be answered by considering why a rabbi—why this rabbi—was part of the day’s program, speaking from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, just before Dr. King. His capsule biography provides the answer:

“Joachim Prinz was born in Burckhardtsdorf in Upper Silesia on May 10,1902. Invited to Berlin in January 1926, Prinz became the youngest ordained rabbi to serve the Jewish community of that city. During Hitler’s rise to power in the 1920s and until his departure from Germany in 1937, Prinz was a vocal and public critic of Nazism. Through his writings and speeches Prinz made numerous attacks on the Nazis, resulting in his being repeatedly arrested by the Gestapo…, Prinz was formally ordered to leave Germany in 1937… For the next two years Prinz toured the U.S. raising funds for the United Palestine Appeal while lecturing on European affairs. On September 9, 1939 Prinz was installed as rabbi of Temple B’nai Abraham in Newark (and later, Livingston), New Jersey… Prinz was active in social issues, including the civil rights movement throughout the 1960s, being one of ten founding chairmen of the 1963 march on Washington for civil rights… Earlier, in April 1960, Prinz led a picket line in front of a Woolworth store in New York City, protesting discrimination against African Americans at lunch counters in Southern states…”[2]

As a critic and victim of Nazism, Rabbi Prinz had the standing to speak about racism and injustice on a national scale. In his address, he spoke as both an American and as a Jew. Prinz connected his experiences as a target of racism in Germany with what was unfolding in the United States. He correctly emphasized that the entire nation was being called to take a stand. Standing with the victims of racism and mustering the courage to fight injustice was the way to meet the crisis of conscience of the entire society. Germans had failed that test. Some swallowed their misgivings; some strove to live quietly, all too many were “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”, and all too few were exemplars of moral courage. In America, Jews were being called upon to pass the test that history posed to the Germans. In this country, Jews, who were somewhat able to “pass as White,” had the temptation of remaining silent, but they were obligated not to do so. White Christians were no less called to the bar of conscience. Prinz was emphatic on this: “the most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

That is what impressed Rustin to the point of his singling out the rabbi’s speech as the most importance utterance of the day of protest. The Civil Rights struggle could not succeed if it were a protest by Blacks alone. For it to succeed, its message needed to be amplified by White and Black voices in harmony. Blacks were crying out in pain. Whites needed to cry out in courage.

Of course, there were key differences between Germany in the 1930’s and America in the 1960’s, left unstated by Rabbi Prinz. Germany was totalitarian. In that respect, Germany was ruled by one more like a Pharaoh than like a president. Only Pharaoh could release the Israelites, and Pharaoh did not stand for election or reelection.

That difference made the choice of silence and quietism all the more culpable here. White Americans and Jewish Americans had less at risk, and therefore, all the less excuse to be on the wrong side of the ethical question of the day.

But even if Pharaoh was a closer fit to dictator than to democratically elected leader, the Bible’s key point still speaks to us as Americans. Since we can stand with Moses with less peril to our lives and our livelihoods, we should realize that standing off to the side is basically no better than standing with Pharaoh.

Prinz was not the only Jewish refugee from Nazism to engage Dr. King on the grounds of the shared message of the Bible for African Americans and for Jews. When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. King met for the first time, at a conference in Chicago sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, on the theme of “Religion and Race”, Heschel captured the hearts of those in attendance by evoking the shared sacred narrative that unites us: “At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses… The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.”

In his own, poetic language, Heschel made the same point as Prinz, a point that resonates today: You do not have the freedom to abstain from choosing. If you are not standing with Moses, you are standing with Pharaoh. Make the right choice.

 

Footnotes

[1] Bayard Rustin, “The Civil Rights Struggle,” Jewish Social Studies, #1 (1965), p. 36.

[2] “Joachim Prinz”, Civil Rights Digital Library

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