Together, we carry on the age-old struggle for justice for all

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On March 7, 1965, which came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” Rabbi Abraham Heschel joined arms with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., for voting rights for African-Americans. The 600 protestors were led by young civil rights workers, including now-Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark’s troopers beat many demonstrators with nightsticks. While others fired tear gas, mounted troopers charged the crowd on horseback; their actions caused an international outrage.

Rabbi Heschel left Warsaw for safety in London and then New York six weeks before Hitler invaded Poland. His sister died in a German bombing. His mother was murdered by the Nazis, and two other sisters, Gittel and Devorah, died in Nazi concentration camps.

{mosads}The tragic legacy of Joshua Heschel during the Nazi Holocaust mirrored those of hundreds of thousands of other Jewish families in Nazi-occupied Europe. Indeed, so many families were wiped out without a trace, without even the dignity of a grave and a headstone. The survivors — known as “Shareit Haplaita” — literally, the “remnants of survivors” — sought to find renewed meaning in their survival and in their Jewishness.

Rabbi Heschel refused to give up hope. The Nazis had two goals — to murder all Jews and to destroy Jewish values, including the very concept of justice. He connected, in post-war America, to the age-old struggle of the bible’s prophets for justice for all persecuted people, including African-Americans.

The movie “Selma” omitted the iconic image of Rabbi Heschel standing tall in the first row of marchers who soon would be met with violence by police, linked arm-in-arm with the African-American leaders led by MLK.

Later that month, Rabbi Heschel penned these words about that fateful day:

“For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

And three years after Selma, on March 25, 1968, soon after he attended a birthday celebration for Rabbi Heschel before 1,000 rabbis in upstate New York and just 10 days before his assassination in Memphis, King declared: “I see Israel, and never mind saying it, as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can almost be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality.”

Fast-forward to 2005, when Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan preached this screed: “Listen, Jewish people don’t have no hands that are free of the blood of us. They owned slave ships, they bought and sold us. They raped and robbed us.” In his telling, Jews never supported the civil rights movement, but exercised parasitic “control over black professionals, black intellectuals, black entertainers [and] black sports figures.”

Farrakhan has outlived King by over five decades. Though MLK remains an iconic American hero, the jury is out in 2019 about whose words ultimately will prevail with generations born in the 21st century.

So, on this anniversary of the Selma march, we reach out to Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and all other national leaders who marched this past Sunday in Selma and who want to be the next president of the United States: Here is your opportunity, sans barking dogs, tear gas, water cannons, or police batons. Do you have the courage to carry on, in word and deed, the vision of MLK and Rabbi Heschel? Your fellow citizens await your words and deeds.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the associate dean and director of global social action for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Historian Harold Brackman is a long-time consultant for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

Tags Abraham Joshua Heschel Bernie Sanders Cory Booker John Lewis Selma to Montgomery marches Simon Wiesenthal Center

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