“You know,” Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. intoned from the altar of the Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis the night before he was killed, “whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula of doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.”
I heard these words last evening at a service at the Rodman Street Missionary Baptist Church in Pittsburgh, an evening to honor the legacy of the slain civil rights leader and Nobel Laureate Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The evening was full of songs, talks by three individuals who were at the August 1963 march on Washington and a man, Daryl Lumpkins, who recited Rev. King’s last speech and channeled the voice of the man uncannily. And when the choir director invoked those words from his last speech, given April 3, 1968 in Memphis, I knew I was in the right place to celebrate Passover.
I was there because our Conservative synagogue, New Light Congregation, has had an ongoing relationship with the church for a few years. Rabbi Jon Perlman of New Light had been working as a hospice chaplain and one of his volunteers who is a member of the church asked him to speak about ministering to the sick. He came and spoke, enjoyed the group and decided that the synagogue should try to partner with the church.
We have had a joint Martin Luther King service in January for the past few years, which alternates between the church and the synagogue. There has been a joint study group that completed the shared text of the biblical Book of Proverbs; a history tour of the Hill District, the heart of Pittsburgh’s black community, is planned for June.
I was recently at the Museum of the City of New York, which is showing through June 24 an exhibit of photos Rev. King in New York City in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of his death (mcny.org). Though many of the photos were powerful, including some of King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on the dais at Riverside Church and Rev. King with many other dignitaries, there was one that touched me most. It was a photo of Rev. King from behind, with the audience in front of him, addressing a group at the United Jewish Appeal of New York. The caption noted that the group was donating to fight racism and that he was addressing them for that reason. I wonder whether there are leaders from other groups in American society that the UJA would still want to invite to address them today.
And there lies the issue about where we stand in the world. At a time of rising anti-Semitism, which is up 57 percent in America, according to a recent Anti-Defamation League report, some think Jews are afraid to speak up, as Jonathan Weisman, author of “(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump,” suggested in a recent New York Times op-ed piece. I believe at this moment, we need to participate in the civic society in America and bring our voices as Jews to the table, listening to others as we ask them to listen to us. If we want others to hear us, we can instruct them on why anti-Semitism is wrong while still participating in causes we believe in. I don’t think withdrawing from civic engagement is the answer to anti-Semites. Engaging and educating and then working together where it is appropriate needs to be our response.
This is a moment when politicians can claim Jews control the weather, as a D.C. councilman did recently (I wished it were true when I was driving in the recent snowstorms.) Yet, as Tony Norman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pointed out, when some of those who make anti-Semitic statements are confronted, they are able to educate themselves and admit the wrong of hate. Trayon White, the D.C. councilman, apologized, saying, “I have [spoken] to leaders and my friends at Jews United for Justice and they are helping me to understand the history of comments made against Jews, and I am committed to figuring out ways [to] continue to be allies with them.” Norman calls this a model apology, since White “owned up to his ignorance and wants to move forward in a positive way with Jews and everyone else.” This would not have happened had White not had contact with Jews United for Justice.
At this time, it is a mistake for Jews not to be part of coalitions with others. It is absolutely important to call out anti-Semitism where it exists and not to feel we must put our Judaism aside to be part of movements for things we value. There are ways to work with others and retain our uniqueness as Jews and our self-respect, and also to add our voices to the messages that are out in the world.
As Rabbi Arthur Waskow has written, when Rev. King was shot in 1968 it was a week before Passover. The first anniversary of his death, April 4, 1969 fell on the third night of Passover that year, and the rabbi led a Freedom Seder for 800 people using the traditional Haggadah to speak on themes of liberation. Rev. King’s death led Rabbi Waskow — and others who followed — to in his words, “make of our own Passover Seder something that would speak to our deep concerns about ourselves and our world.”
As we come to the end of this Passover in 2018, the time when it is traditionally celebrated that the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and took their final steps to put distance between themselves and Egypt, it seems fitting to remember the reminders that Rev. King gave before he died: that we must maintain unity to truly get out of slavery. As Jews we must continue to work with our allies when we have common cause to better society. Jews can both stand up for anti-Semitism where we see it, as well as continue to build coalitions on causes that are important and continue the work that needs to be done in this country. I’d like to think Rev. King would be happy with that understanding of his legacy and his death falling out on Passover this year.
Beth Kissileff is the editor of the anthology “Reading Genesis” (Continuum) and the author of “Questioning Return” (Mandel Vilar Press).