Keeping Their Eyes On The Prize?

Keeping Their Eyes On The Prize?

As Jews celebrate King’s legacy amid ‘Selma’ controversy, challenges emerge over how to pursue his dream.

The Martin Luther King Shabbat in Crown Heights last Friday achieved what its organizers, Repair the World, were hoping it would achieve.

Organized by the group’s Turn the Tables campaign, the supper drew more than 75 people to hear three community activists discuss how they became involved in the battle for social justice and what they’re doing today to further that goal.

The discussion, in turn, spurred what Cindy Greenberg, director of the group’s New York operation, called “deep and meaningful conversations” around the room about race, privilege and partnership. Moreover, many of those attending the event, nearly all of them in their 20s and 30s, were planning to volunteer three days later, on Martin Luther King Day, for any one of several community service activities in and around Crown Heights.

But the panel discussion also showed how sensitive and challenging those conversations could get today, 47 years after King’s assassination and at a moment in time when a rash of incidents in which unarmed black men have been killed by police officers, including Eric Garner in Staten Island, have caused many to wonder how much of King’s dream remains unfulfilled.

So, too, did a growing debate in the Jewish community regarding “Selma,” a new film about the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., to push for voting rights.

Friday night’s panel included Tynesha McHarris, director of community leadership at the Brooklyn Community Foundation; Amy Ellenbogen, director of the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center; and Mark Winston Griffith, executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, a community organizing group. One of the most rousing and amusing moments came as McHarris, of Jamaican and African-American descent, and Ellenbogen, of Eastern European, Jewish descent, discovered how much they had in common, having both been inspired by strong, deeply passionate grandmothers and having both launched afterschool programs at the age of 16.

Later, though, a question from the audience drew responses from McHarris and Ellenbogen that may have been jarring to some ears.

The question, coming from a young man in a kipa, concerned how members of the audience, nearly all of them white, could make themselves effective allies in struggles for racial justice. In her reply, McHarris said that sympathetic whites needed to acknowledge that people of color should be leading the movement, which they’re welcome to follow and support. She also led the audience in chants of “black lives matter” and “let blacks lead.”

“We all have to take risks now,” McHarris said, adding that for some people, that means “confronting your community, your own family, your own institutions, over white privilege.”

Ellenbogen told the questioner that white allies, presumably including herself, need “to shut up and listen, and when you’re done with that, to shut up and listen some more.”

Griffith, though, offered a markedly differently response, saying that his own agency included “leadership roles for everybody,” whatever their background. “This is not about [inducing] race guilt or marginalizing white voices,” said Griffith, 50, who recalled earlier that he had come of age as a black man during the civil rights and black-power movements.

To be sure, most members of the audience greeted all three responses with applause. But two friends in the audience offered different reactions in interviews with The Jewish Week.

The most important thing for sympathetic whites to do initially “is to learn and listen,” said Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein, 24, a member of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. Some people are more affected by certain injustices,” he added, “and we should listen to them.”

But David Guttman, 25, said McHarris’ comments made him uncomfortable.

“I felt like we were being spoken to as if we were a group of WASPs from Greenwich, Conn.,” he said — not as members of a community that has strongly supported the cause of racial justice.

Asking sympathetic whites to “let blacks lead” is extreme and “doing exactly what you’re fighting against,” said Guttman, who added that he’s been “persecuted” in the past for being both Jewish and gay, neither of which have made him feel privileged. He also believed during the “black lives matter” chant that he was being addressed “as if I didn’t already feel that black lives matter. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t feel that way.”

Yet another view came from Jamie Maxner, 33, an assistant camp director for Young Judaea, who believes “the concept of privilege is an important one for people to grapple with.” Maxner pointed out that a white gay man may feel oppressed because of his sexuality but still be privileged because of his color. “It’s not like one line we’re all on.”

Commenting on the disagreements, Greenberg said in an email that she imagines portions of the discussion were “challenging” for some attendees. But she believes “in the power of productive discomfort,” she said, saying that only through “honest conversation” can “we build authentic relationships and move toward a more just society.”

The Crown Heights event was one of more than 100 “MLK Shabbat suppers” held throughout the country, Greenberg said. Most of them — including 17 others in the New York area — took place in private homes, where the discussion also focused on King’s legacy and racial justice.

Just as important in Greenberg’s eyes are the volunteer opportunities organized by Repair the World, a national, nonprofit agency that seeks to mobilize members of the Jewish community to volunteer in community-service projects.

Locally, 250 volunteers worked on Martin Luther King Day in such activities as packaging and delivering meals for hungry New Yorkers, distributing information about public entitlements to impoverished New Yorkers, and promoting a violence-prevention program. Partnering organizations included the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, agencies of the UJA-Federation of New York.

In some ways, the discussion over the movie “Selma,” conducted on op-ed pages, on social media and in face-to-face conversations among friends, mirrored the disagreements in Crown Heights. Those dismayed by the movie believed it should have reflected more of the march’s huge Jewish presence, especially the role played by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, while defenders of the film said its focus was on the black Americans at the center of the struggle for civil rights.

Perhaps the most prominent voice in the debate is that of Susannah Heschel, the rabbi’s daughter and a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College. Writing for JTA, Heschel called her father’s absence from the film a “pity.” She said the omission “erases one of the central accomplishments of the civil rights movement, its inclusiveness, and one of King’s great joys: his close friendship with my father.”

In a phone interview with The Jewish Week, Heschel said she couldn’t imagine anyone with a knowledge of the Selma march, particularly of the famous photograph of her father marching with King, not knowing of her father’s involvement.

“The Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement was so immense, so intrinsic, that there’s an ethical obligation on the part of historians or those who represent history” to include that role, she said. Not doing so is akin to leaving women out.

Others believe that, while it would have been gratifying to see Heschel in the film, the movie’s focus was not on Jewish involvement in the march or even on white involvement, but on the perspectives of blacks involved, including King.

“If it were a 300-page book about Selma and didn’t mention [the Jewish presence],” then it would have been airbrushing it,” said James Goodman, a history professor at Rutgers University whose father, Rabbi Sidney Shanken, participated in the march. But Goodman, said he’d give a good deal of leeway to the filmmaker, especially one whose movie focuses on a single event in a 300-year struggle.

The movie “gives no indication that Jews were not involved” in the march,” said Goodman, who observed what others have also noted: that the film does show at least one participant in the march wearing a kipa and that, with the exception of two white participants murdered at the event, it doesn’t focus much on whites in general.

Janet Bordelon, historian at the Jackson, Miss.-based Institute of Southern Jewish Life, said she understands why people on both sides of the debate are upset, but she agrees with Goodman.

“If people are upset about the movie” and want the story of Jewish involvement to be told, “they should make a movie” about Jewish involvement in Selma, Bordelon said. “There’s a lot of space to show those other stories, too, and they should be told.”

Another person with a personal interest in the topic is Tom Lowenstein, a writer in New Orleans whose father, the late Allard K. Lowenstein, was the only white board member of King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Lowenstein said the civil rights movement included “a nutty, fringe strain of anti-Semitism,” just as society in general does — people who believed that Jews were trying to control the movement. But the movie’s omission has nothing to do with that, he said.

For Lowenstein, a film that portrays the civil-rights movement from a black perspective is a milestone. “I’m so happy that there’s a movie that portrays the civil-rights movement,” he said. “To have a movie that shows a new generation of young black people that you can go out, and you can demonstrate, and you can work for change nonviolently, is a hopeful sign.”

read more: