By: Rabbi Marc Schneier, President and Russell Simmons, Chairman of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding
For nearly three decades, we have been working together to restore the historic alliance between African and Jewish Americans; a partnership that reached its pinnacle during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s. Last week’s demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, by neo- Nazis and other white supremacists, once again singled out our two respective communities.
The “Unite the Right” rally gathered top neo-Nazis in the United States, including the Ku Klux Klan’s David Duke and alt-right leader Richard Spencer among others, to offer us an important wake-up call.
These hate-mongers and racists immediately went after the Jews with chants utilizing anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans — “blood and soil” (an English rendering of the Nazi “blut and boden”) and “Jews will not replace us.”
They paraded giant swastikas and wore clothing with quotes from Hitler. KKK’s David Duke said, “the American media, and the American political system, and the American Federal Reserve, is dominated by a tiny minority: the Jewish Zionist cause.” White supremacist leader Richard Spencer taunted the city’s Jewish mayor.
Then, the white supremacist group went after the African American community as well — citing slogans and anti-black rhetoric and diatribe meant to further incite violence. One protester shouted, “Dylann Roof was a hero!” referring to the white supremacist who killed nine African Americans in a church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. Another demonstrator told Vice News, “This city is run by Jewish communists and criminal n----rs.”
The question must be asked — why were Jews and African Americans targeted during the rally? Perhaps, that despite all of the internecine challenges our collective communities have faced, we have successfully worked through them together and have come out stronger than before.
Today, the state of black-Jewish relations is one of cooperation, not conflict. Or, maybe blacks and Jews were singled out because the alliance of our two communities brought about the greatest social and political changes in our country’s history. Anti-black and anti-Semitic sentiment has long been interwoven in America, yet, we are stronger than ever, and the white supremacists are aware.
Sixty years ago blacks and Jews united in the Civil Rights struggle. No segment of American society provided as much and as consistent support to Dr. King and to African Americans as did the Jewish community. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Our Jewish friends have demonstrated their commitment to the principle of tolerance and brotherhood not only in the form of sizable contributions, but in many other tangible ways, and often at great personal sacrifice.
Can we ever express our appreciation to the rabbis who chose to give moral witness with us in St. Augustine?
Do we have to remind anyone of the awful beating suffered by Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld of Cleveland when he joined the civil rights workers or in Hattiesburg, Mississippi?
And who can ever forget the sacrifice of two Jewish lives, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, in the swamps of Mississippi? It would be impossible to record the contribution that the Jewish people have made toward our people’s struggle for freedom — it has been so great.”
Sixty years later, the struggle continues. The events in Charlottesville should sound an alarm to African American and Jewish leaders. It must shatter our complacency. It must ignite a blazing sense of restlessness within us. It was our two communities that were singled out in the streets of Virginia. We must mobilize our historic alliance once again to combat racism and anti-Semitism.
African Americans and Jews, veterans of the Civil Rights struggle, must demonstrate that in the face of evil there is no moral equivalency. We remember from the Civil Rights era, there is a qualitative difference between those who march with racists and bigots and those you counter demonstrate against racism and bigotry.
There is no moral ambiguity in condoning and supporting racists who want to extinguish blacks and Jews. Defending white supremacists, peddling to racists, is just as bad as being a racist.
As the primary targets of the most vicious anti-Semitic and anti-black demonstration in recent history through the streets of the world’s greatest democracy, Jews and African Americans have a heightened responsibility to join forces once again in defense of our two communities and other minorities across America.
Rabbi Marc Schneier is the president and founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. Rabbi Schneier and Imam Shamsi Ali are the co-authors of Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation about the Issues that Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims.
Russell Simmons is the chairman of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. USA Today named Russell Simmons one of the “Top 25 Most Influential People of the Past 25 Years,” calling him a “hip-hop pioneer” for his groundbreaking vision that has influenced music, fashion, finance, television and film, as well as the face of modern philanthropy.