When I grew up in Denver in the early 1950s and 60s, it was a very different world. Perhaps we over-simplified our values with fewer areas of ambiguous grey, but we knew who the good guys were, the US, and who the bad guys were, previously the nazis and now the communists (as kids we used to joke about “disappearing one of our friends if he insulted or offended us). Israel was a small, heroic outpost and almost none of us (I certainly didn’t know of anyone) in our Jewish community weren’t fiercely proud. For that matter, few, if any, Americans didn’t admire it, even if that admiration was accompanied with, perhaps, too much pity (for the Holocaust) as well. Religious or not, we spoke with pride of “Jewish Values”. It seemed that most of the adults were small businessmen, working extremely hard to provide for their families and to ensure a better life for their children than they, themselves, had experienced. That’s not surprising, as most were no more than one generation “off the boat”, and many of my friends’ parents bore the tattoos of concentration camps on their wrists and arms.
My father was a conservative businessman, even in those days an anomaly as most of his friends and colleagues were committed liberals and democrats. He came from Texas and when I was little we would regularly take long family car trips there at least twice a year (I used to joke that they were our family’s Regalim, pilgrim festivals). On each of these trips, my father, the conservative, but also the Jew, made a point to drive us through impoverished rural black towns as well as the black ghettos in the larger cities. We’d see people living in shacks that lacked walls, lacked roofs, unpaved streets either filled with dust in the summer or mud in the winter, poor people with no jobs and nothing to do, sitting forlornly on their porches. He wanted to impress on us exactly what injustice and prejudice looked like (much like Eisenhower’s insistence to document the horror of the liberated concentration camps so the world would never forget). Each time he’d remind us that our people also suffered these same indignities and worse.
My father was a conservative, but he was a humanitarian and there was, both in those years and now, in spite of the political propaganda machine, no contradiction. Although Denver, in those years, was not a center of political activism, he made sure that we understood the bond between our people and black Americans. He was also a very non-violent person and as race relations began to heat up and turn violent in the mid-60s, he pointed to Martin Luther King, Jr. as someone whose struggle we should all support. Most Jews, even conservatives like my father, aligned themselves with the black struggle for equal rights and opportunity.
Jews were active in the Civil Rights Movement. We didn’t just give lip-service, some of us gave our lives. Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, both Jewish, along with James Chaney, black, were murdered on June 21, 1964, as they worked together to register black voters in Mississippi and hundreds, if not thousands, other Jewish college students joined them in voter-registration efforts. As a people we mourned all three martyrs. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously marched with Martin Luther King in the Selma-Montgomery March of March, 1965, commemorated in iconic photographs. Heschel spoke of the march as “praying with his feet” and King referred to Heschel as “one of the truly great men” and a “great prophet”.
Jews were both active and highly visible in the Civil Rights Movement. We were also acknowledged as its strongest supporters.
Something happened in the march of years from the mid-1960s to the mid-2010s. The Civil Rights Movement politicized and then radicalized Jewish youth, me among them. Well-meaning but often naive, too many of us missed the slight-of-hand as the agenda of the left either changed or revealed itself to become ever-increasingly anti-semitic. Too many, committed to humanitarian ideals, confused them with “liberalism” and “universalism” and when push came to shove decided that their own Jewish people were the bad guys.
The Arab world, which never accepted the existence of the State of Israel, nor the existence of free, non-dhimmi, Jews living among them might be a lot of things, but stupid is not one of them. Early on they adopted the language of “national liberation”, a pet “cause” of the increasingly radical left, naming their most visible organization dedicated to erasing Israel the “Palestine Liberation Organization”. Their self-branding granted them an almost immediate “hechsher” (strictly speaking, a certification of kashrut, but used here to mean legitimacy), brotherhood with the the radical left worldwide and alliance and support of the Former Soviet Union. That their sole raison d’être was genocidal no longer mattered because they were now “members in good standing” with the international radical left, itself no stranger to wholesale slaughter (100,000,000 murdered by Lenin and Stalin).
As the formerly liberal movement in America, especially in the universities, raced to keep pace with the “international standard”, more and more young Jews, seduced by seeming acceptance on campus and beyond, also radicalized. Today, among the most vile Israel-haters in the US (and, following a parallel perverse path, in Israel as well) are “Jewish”.
Which brings us to today, January 8, 2015, the opening of the new movie, “Selma”, celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. and his heroic leadership of the Civil Rights Movement, culminating in that very same, famous Selma-Montgomery March where, literally arm-in-arm, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, marched with him.
I haven’t seen this movie and I don’t plan to. I’d heard rumors and, to verify, I checked several full-cast lists for that film. While prominent and highly visible in the real march, conspicuously absent from the movie is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. With the ease of operating some movie cameras, Jewish Americans have been “disappeared” (sound familiar?) from the Civil Rights Movement.
I don’t normally write about films or popular culture. But I have read, seen and heard almost no protest of this revisionist history, this distortion of facts (but distorting facts is one of the anti-semites favorite tools, such as denying the historical and continual Jewish connection to the Land of Israel….). So, today I write about a movie.
Synchronicity is a powerful experience in the study of Torah. This Shabbat, around the world, Jews read and study Parsha Shemot, slow transition of our Egyptian exile in abject slavery. Like the well-known metaphor of boiling a pot of frogs, if you very gradually increase the heat, subtlely but steadily shift the status of and attitude towards Judaism, too many don’t even notice until it’s too late. The analogy to the “switcho-chango” of natural Jewish humanitarian values into vile Jew-hating antisemitism which is rapidly on the rise in today’s world, should be too obvious to miss.
Unfortunately, too many of us continue to miss it.