The upcoming observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on Jan. 20, juxtaposed against the recent passing of Nelson Mandela, should cause us to reflect with pride on the inspiring role that Jews played in both the civil rights movement in the United States and the struggle for the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa.
Beyond the black community, no segment of society provided as much and as consistent support to Dr. King and Nelson Mandela as did American and South African Jews.
In both countries, Jews had achieved considerable success and security, yet they chose to stand up for the oppressed black communities in a forthright manner that angered white power structures. Let us not forget the threatening atmosphere confronting South African Jews during the notorious Rivonia Trial of 1963-64 in the aftermath of the arrests of 19 leaders of the African National Congress — including six Jews — at the farm of ANC member Arthur Goldreich. Eventually, 10 ANC leaders — including Mandela and three Jews — were tried on charges of attempting to overthrow the apartheid government. Speaking during the Rivonia trial, then-Justice Minister and later Prime Minister B.J. Vorster observed that Jews were only about 3 percent of the white population but 100 percent of the country’s “saboteurs,” an unmistakable message to the country’s Jewish community that they should keep quiet and tow the pro-apartheid line — or else.
Vorster’s sinister comment was eerily evocative of the hate mail and obscene threatening phone calls directed against several rabbis and Jewish leaders who ministered to and provided succor to civil rights activists and freedom riders. In places as varied as rural Mississippi and more cosmopolitan Atlanta, synagogues were firebombed in response to their rabbis’ activities.
Why did so many Jews mobilize in support of the black struggle for justice and equality? There are many factors that partly explain this phenomenon, but ultimately the Jewish conscience refused to abide oppression. Imbued both with a soaring moral vision of ending injustice first articulated 2,500 years ago by the Hebrew Prophets, and with a searing memory of what it meant to be societal pariahs — the Holocaust being only a generation in the rear view mirror — Jews took considerable risks in the 1960’s in America and from the ’60s to the ’80s in South Africa to support blacks in their freedom struggle.
Fifty years ago, American Jews traveled south in great numbers to take part in the heroic freedom rides in solidarity with persecuted Southern blacks. Many Jewish freedom riders and marchers were tear-gassed, beaten and arrested in the South during the height of the civil rights struggle, and two young Jews from New York, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, were martyred in Mississippi together with James Chaney, an African American.
In a testament to the seminal role played by American Jewish leaders in the civil rights movement, the speaker chosen to address the March on Washington just before Dr. King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech was Rabbi Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress. Rabbi Prinz remarked, “When I was a rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime … the most important thing that I learned … is 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.” No one could have better articulated why it was necessary for the Jewish people to speak out in the face of evil.
It is true that just as some Jewish institutions in the American Southern remained silent out of fear of retribution, so too Jewish organizations in South Africa responsible for insuring the continuation of Jewish life in their country chose not to openly confront the apartheid regime. Yet, as we have seen, many South African Jews became anti-apartheid activists. Among the best known was Helen Suzman, who founded the anti-apartheid Progressive Party in 1959, and from 1961-1974, served as party’s sole representative in Parliament. There she spoke eloquently about the enormous human damage the apartheid system was inflicting upon non-whites and was frequently excoriated in turn by supporters of apartheid, sometimes in crude anti-Semitic language.
In his autobiography, “Long Walk To Freedom” Mandela wrote of the disproportionate role that South African Jews played in the anti-apartheid struggle, remarking, “I have found Jews to be more broad-minded on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.” These words evoke the eloquent testimony of Dr. King, who stated; “Our Jewish friends have demonstrated their commitment to the principle of tolerance and brotherhood … often at great personal sacrifice. Can we ever express our appreciation to the rabbis who chose to give moral witness with us at St. Augustine? Need I remind anyone of the awful beating suffered by Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld of Cleveland when he joined the civil rights workers in Hattiesburg, Mississippi?”
Dr. King closed his peroration with a comment on the American civil rights movement which is as applicable to the freedom struggle in South Africa, and one in which Jews should take great nachas. He stated, “It would be impossible to record the contribution that the Jewish people have made toward the Negro’s struggle for freedom — it has been so great.”
Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation of Ethnic Understanding, is author of “Shared Dreams; Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Jewish Community.”