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January 16, 2004 - Image 5

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2004-01-16

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Uniting, Overcoming

or much of the 20th century, the Catskill
Mountains in upstate New York were a favorite
meeting and vacation spot for Jews.
So it wasn't surprising that the Conservative
movement's Rabbinical Assembly held its 1968 convention
there. Who would speak at the annual event, however, was
not so predictable.
When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. entered the
meeting hall, the rabbis greeted him with a Hebrew version of
the grand anthem for civil rights, "We Shall Overcome."
The date was March 25, 1968.
Ten days later, Dr. King — the legendary
champion of civil and human rights — was
gunned down in Memphis, where he had
gone to support striking sanitation workers.
He was only 39. His murder came 13 years
after he achieved prominence during the
Montgomery bus boycott, a seminal event in
civil rights history.
The 75th anniversary of Dr. King's birth
ROBERT A. was Jan. 15. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a
federal holiday, is Jan. 19 this year.
This is the right time to focus on anti-
Semites who twist Israeli policies to stoke
flames of anti-Jewish hatred around the world — from U.S.
campuses to Turkish synagogues to French schools. It's inspir-
ing that Dr. King was so willing to speak out for Jews while
fighting for black equality. He resisted separatism and counted
Jews among his freedom fighters.
In Judaism, a good name is a high honor. Dr. King pledged
to "do my utmost to uphold the fair name of the Jews because
bigotry in any form is an affront to us all."
Standing before 1,000 rabbis in the Catskills, Dr. King
defended Israel's dream of peace
amid Jewish-Arab tensions. He
spoke nine months after the Six-
Day War of 1967 in the Middle
His words echo still today.
"Peace for Israel means security,
and we must stand with all our
might to protect its right to exist,
its territorial integrity," Dr. King
"I see Israel, and never mind say- Dr. King
ing it, as one of the great outposts
of democracy in the world and a marvelous example of what
can be done, how desert land almost can be transformed into
an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means
security — and that security must be a reality"
He understood that the Arab world's "imposed poverty and
backwardness" was a threat to Mideast stability. He under-
stood that lasting peace required statesmanship by Israel, pro-
gressive Arabs and the West.

Special Voice

One of 20th-century America's most profound thinkers and
theologians was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a dear friend
of Dr. King. The rabbi wanted Jews to confront racism in
their hearts, not just in public.
Introducing his colleague in the Catskills, the rabbi asked:
"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. God has sent him
to us. His presence is the hope of America."

Rabbi Heschel, a revered teacher at the Jewish Theological
Seminary in New York, described America's best-known free-
dom fighter as "a voice, a vision and a way."
"I call upon every Jew to hearken to his voice, to share his
vision, to follow in his way," the rabbi said. "The whole future
of America will depend upon the impact and influence of Dr.
Rabbi Heschel was prescient given the emphasis on cultural,
ethnic and religious diversity that developed after Dr. King's
The rabbi and the minister first met at a 1963 forum in
Chicago on religion and race, appropriately enough. In 1965,
the man whom Dr. King called "my rabbi" was so moved
walking alongside the civil rights leader from Selma to
Montgomery, he declared, "My feet were praying."
That remark is embedded in the Jewish psyche, Jewish
educator Nancy Kaplan of West Bloomfield reminded me
this week, because it "appeals to many folks who believe that
acting for social justice is equally as important as sitting in
services uttering prayers when it comes to being partners with
God in perfecting the world."

Soul Mates

One was black: the son of a
southern Baptist minister, a
descendent of slaves, a role model
for nonviolent dissent against big-
otry. The other was white: a scion
of a long line of Chasidic rabbis, a
refugee from Hitler's Europe, a
role model for helping make the
world better.
Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel
joined in a spiritual kinship
- Rabbi Heschel
that spoke to the bereft as well as
the power brokers. Is there a Divine
message in their birthdays being just four days apart? Jan. 11
marked the 32nd yahrzeit of Rabbi Heschel's death in 1972
at age 65. With God as their guide, and steeped in the tradi-
tion of both biblical testaments, these unlikely allies urged
racial reconciliation, never buckling to fear.
Dr. King had critics. Some felt he pandered to Jews to win
their support. Others felt his protests were a veiled incitement
to violence. Still others felt he was a communist sympathizer.
He was a purebred humanitarian who saw similarities of
slavery segregation and ridicule in the black and Jewish strug-
gles. He saw the interdependence.
Locally, Jews and blacks have many strong social, business
and organizational ties. This Martin Luther King Jr. Day,
blacks would do well to reinforce their disdain for anti-
Semitism and stand in solidarity with Jews. For their part,
Jews would do well to help the community at large overcome
those racist undercurrents that have made greater Detroit the
most segregated of any metropolitan region.
Blacks and Jews were joined at the hip in the fight for civil
rights. We'd be foolish to forsake that shared history and let
the hovering gales of division and stereotype keep us from
embracing one another as friends, neighbors and business
partners — simply as equals.
Dr. King put it perceptively: "Every Negro leader is keenly
aware, from direct and personal experience, that the segrega-
tionists and racists make no fine distinctions between the
Negro and the Jew. We are caught in an inescapable network
of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny" 71




















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