Marching Toward The Promised Land

When he was a child in the 1960s, Simon Yisrael Feuerman’s father told him that Jews and African-Americans, though both minorities, were not oppressed “in the same way.” He reflects on how that ambiguity worked itself out as Jews joined the civil rights movement:

Most notably, our cousin Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously marched in Selma in 1965. For religious and secular Jews alike, the cause was a moral imperative. Their story, the African-American story, was in some way our story. We knew what it meant to be hated. What’s more, they had their very own Moses, Martin Luther King Jr., a man who quoted and infused life into scripture better than any rabbi I ever knew.

But the fight for civil rights also offered the Jewish community an opportunity. It dovetailed with a deep messianic urge that had been both reborn and transfigured in 20th century America. American Jews had become mesmerized, intoxicated even, by the idea that we no longer had to live life in humiliating passivity waiting for the Messiah. Instead, we, like our black brethren, could become active in ‘forcing the hand of the Messiah’ through overt action and protest. In other words, we could shape our lives with our hands, feet, mouths, and hearts as American blacks did the same. And so we marched with them.

Perhaps the rift between blacks and Jews that began in the late 1960s was rooted in the idea that some African Americans sensed that with all our good intentions we had piggybacked on them. We had used the muscularity of their cause not purely out of a Jewish love of righteousness, but because it gave us a chance to establish our own house in America, cashing in our secularized messianic yearnings on their backs….