Opinion

A call to renew the Black-Jewish bond

Leaders in a Vietnam war protest stand in silent prayer in Arlington National Cemetery, Feb. 6, 1968. (AP Photo/Harvey Georges)

This Thursday, the world will celebrate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, soon after the United States celebrated the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and we can look to Dr. King’s life and words for inspirational connection between these two days.  

In March 1968, Dr. King traveled to the Catskills’ Concord Hotel to deliver the keynote speech at the Rabbinical Assembly’s annual conclave of Conservative rabbis. He was there at the request of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel had joined King in the 1965 Selma march, and both protested the Vietnam War at Arlington National Cemetery three years later.

Heschel was the honoree at the convention that March evening, but he introduced his close friend Dr. King with an ovation that rings through the ages. “Where in America do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America,” Heschel declared. “God has sent him to us. His presence is the hope of America.” 

As King took the stage, he was greeted with a rendition of “We Shall Overcome”—sung in Hebrew by the rabbis in attendance. By every available account, King’s speech was among his finest. “When King struck the depths of a moral geyser,” the chairman of the event reportedly said, “living waters gushed universally.”

In the event’s aftermath, Heschel invited King to Passover seder at his home on April 12, 1968. But that reunion was not to be. Just days prior, King was felled by an assassin’s bullet on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. That summer, many of the rabbis who had heard one of King’s final speeches at Concord attended the March on Washington, a landmark gathering in the struggle for civil rights.

As the country reflects upon King’s legacy anew, it is worth bearing in mind the shared ties between our country’s leading Jewish figures and civil rights leaders. In these bonds, we find more than mere speeches or coincidental get-togethers. We find a deep and joint commitment to combating racism and fighting antisemitism.

In the early 1900s, Jewish figures helped establish and fund the NAACP; later the Anti-Defamation League and NAACP worked hand-in-hand against oppression. Dr. King was among the staunchest voices in defense of Israel’s right to exist, and he counted a Jewish lawyer, Stanley Levison, as one of his closest advisors. 

Movingly, both sides gave the last full measure of devotion to the cause: Among the dead during the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer were Jewish and Black young people, slain while attempting to extend the franchise in the South. And Holocaust survivors would speak with reverence about the Black soldiers who greeted them as they liberated concentration camps.

Today, this shared, powerful heritage is easily forgotten—even as the need for it is more urgent than ever. Hate crimes against Black Americans and antisemitic rhetoric and violence are surging. But the ties that once bound Heschel and King and those of their era have weakened. There have been disputes and gaffes as well as disagreements on policy issues. And with each rupture, both sides have become suspicious and distrustful—and crucially, have missed an opportunity to work together on matters of profound mutual concern.

There is perhaps no more important moment than the International Holocaust Remembrance Day to rekindle the more than century-long partnership between Black and Jewish people—a history of legal, political, and moral work that reshaped America and awakened its conscience. “The churches and synagogues have an opportunity and a duty to lift up their voices like a trumpet and declare unto the people the immorality of segregation,” Dr. King argued in 1963, “We must affirm that every human life is a reflex of divinity, and every act of injustice mars and defaces the image of God in man.”

Today both sides must do more to salute the divinity of the other. Our need to work together and cooperate is greater than ever before. At a time when the twin plagues of racism and antisemitism have returned with renewed force, let us commit to our joint endeavor: ensuring equality of opportunity, defending the victims of persecution in our ranks, and preserving our heritage within this country and beyond it—a heritage built atop strength in the face of suffering and mutual effort in the face of bigotry.

Paul Packer is the former chairman of the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, a federal agency that protects and preserves historic sites of significance to American citizens.

Dr. Kiron Skinner served as US President Donald Trump’s Director of Policy Planning at the State Department.  She is the Taube Professor of International Relations and Politics at Carnegie Mellon University, recently joined the Board of Academic Advisors of the America First Policy Institute, and is the president and CEO of Forum for America and the World, through which she and Packer will combat global antisemitism.