Faith And Politics On MLK Day In The Holy Land
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Faith And Politics On MLK Day In The Holy Land

African-American Brooklynites look to strengthen black-Jewish alliance in Trump era, though Israel issues linger.

The Brooklyn United Churches group in Israel: Spiritual pilgrimage with political overtones.
The Brooklyn United Churches group in Israel: Spiritual pilgrimage with political overtones.

For some 200 African-American New Yorkers, a weeklong visit to Israel that wrapped up on Monday was supposed to be first and foremost a spiritual pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

With an itinerary that included visits to the Sea of Galilee, the Mount of Olives, the Garden of the Gethsemane and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, most of the sites were selected to follow the life and times of Jesus. Participants from four Brooklyn churches said they were overwhelmed by visiting biblical sites.

But the significance of the trip was more than simply spiritual. On the eve of observing Martin Luther King Day in Jerusalem, one of the trip’s organizers said the Israel visit also should help strengthen black-Jewish ties back at home.

“If America is going to be great, then we have to say great things about people.”

Rev. Gilford Monrose of Brooklyn’s Mount Zion Church of God argued that the black-Jewish alliance from the civil rights era must be reinvigorated to face the challenges of the Trump administration and deal with inter-community issues in Brooklyn.   

“The Israel visit is big for us, especially given what is happening back home on the mainland with the president, and with so many issues we are facing,” said Rev. Monrose.

He continued: “With all the rhetoric going on across the country, it’s important for us to really have the friends that we know for sure — those who have experienced racism, who have experienced segregation, and have experienced being the ‘other.’ I think now us being here on MLK Day is going to be able to put us in a position that we say, ‘We want to continue to work with you.’”

Rev. Gilford Monrose, left, and ADL’s Evan Bernstein. Visit seen helping to deal with inter-community issues in Brooklyn. Photos courtesy of ADL

The “rhetoric” Rev. Monrose referred to was President Trump’s reported use of the term “shithole countries” to describe Haiti and African nations during a discussion on immigration policy last week. The pastor also faulted the president for failing to specifically condemn anti-Semitism and racism at a Charlottesville, Va., white nationalist rally last summer.

Rev. Monrose expressed concern that the current political climate is taking the U.S. back to the days of racial segregation, when Martin Luther King led a struggle to integrate the southern states and pass civil rights legislation. 

“We don’t want to live in the 1960s in 2018. We cannot be in a situation where we are responding to comments that we feel are from the 1960s.”

“These are very peculiar times in America,” the pastor said, speaking by telephone. “We don’t want to live in the 1960s in 2018. We cannot be in a situation where we are responding to comments that we feel are from the 1960s. If America is going to be great, then we have to say great things about people.”

On the final morning in Israel, the group of Caribbean Americans from four Brooklyn churches held a memorial ceremony for MLK Day in the conference room of a Jerusalem hotel. During the ceremony, one of Rev. Monrose’s colleagues expressed pointed criticism at the president’s reported comments.

Haitian-born Rev. Mullery Jean Pierre of Beraca Baptist Church called the reported remarks “a dagger to the heart” and called on Americans and Israelis to join him in seeking an apology, according to the Haaretz news website.

Rev. Monrose’s suggestion that visits to Israel could help strengthen an alliance between African Americans and Jews sounds counterintuitive, to say the least. The days of the alliance between Martin Luther King and Conservative Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel are long gone. Israel has been a sore spot between the two groups for decades, with African-American groups finding common cause with pro-Palestinian organizations.

In 2016, when the Black Lives Matter movement adopted a platform that implicated Israel in a “genocide” against the Palestinians, Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League condemned it. And in 2015, when Benjamin Netanyahu delivered an address to Congress against the Iran nuclear deal, many African Americans saw it as an insulting affront to President Barak Obama.

“We understand that some people in our community have issues with the policies of the Israeli government,” said Rev. Monrose. “We will never say that it’s not an issue. The support is still there [for Israel], but you’re not going to get blind support.”

The pastor said that the Black Lives Matter movement is an important activist force in the African-American community, and that the controversial platform stance on the Palestinians should be discussed from within the movement rather than serve as a reason to pull out. 

“We can support Black Lives Matter and Israel at the same time,” Rev. Monrose insisted.

“With the rhetoric we hear post-election, these partnerships are more important than ever.”

The only group participant not from the churches was a local leader from the Anti-Defamation League, who was invited by Rev. Monrose to join the trip in order experience Israel from the perspective of the African-American pilgrims. 

The ADL’s regional director, Evan Bernstein, said he first struck up a relationship with Rev. Monrose during a seminar nearly two years ago at Brooklyn Borough Hall on security for houses of worship, and since then they’ve found common cause on issues such as police violence.

Bernstein said the visit gave him a chance to understand the participants’ relationship to Israel, and was an important opportunity to build grass-roots relationships with other community leaders. “There’s a bonding that goes on. Hopefully I’ll be able to follow up and start building bridges at a grassroots level. Those bridges aren’t there in the way they need to be,” Bernstein said.

Bernstein, who said his father was a civil rights-era activist, said that the Jewish community needs to build alliances with other minority groups and religious denominations at a time when the political climate toward minorities has become threatening.

“With the rhetoric we hear post-election, these partnerships are more important than ever,” he said.   

“We need partners in every corner; we can’t do this on our own,” Bernstein continued. Referring to the black-Jewish alliance of the civil rights era, he added, “We need to rebuild these partnerships that may have been strong 40 and 50 years ago, but now we have to revisit them. It’s an imperative for us.”

Roger Edmunds, a 43-year-old Queens resident who hails from East Flatbush, said friends and family back home were skeptical about his trip to Israel, and cited concerns about security and Israel’s controversial politics.

“When we look at each other, we actually have more in common than we don’t have in common.”

Speaking just hours before leaving Israel, Edmunds sounded glad he came as he gushed about the local hummus and visits to the sites of biblical dramas.

“It was surreal to actually be in the place that I read about” he said.

Bernstein said that both communities share ties to the Old Testament, Israel and a desire to see peace in the region. “We want to see a State of Israel that is strong,” he said. “Every person I’ve come in contact with here wants to see a healthy and secure Israel. As a Jew, that’s an amazing thing for me to hear.”

Despite all of the recent friction between the Jewish- and African-American communities, they both share in their deep disapproval to the Trump administration; among U.S. demographic groups they remain the most resistant to Trump’s policies. Both Rev. Monrose and Bernstein insisted that there is more that unites blacks and Jews than what divides them.

“When we look at each other,” Rev. Monrose said, “we actually have more in common than we don’t have in common.”

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