Americans, Jews and non-Jews alike, often believe that anti-Semitism in this country is largely a thing of the past. While stories of mounting anti-Semitism in Europe pepper the news, in the United States the age of quotas for Jews at universities, restrictive housing covenants for them and job ads that explicitly prohibit them from applying are simply a part of history.
Lulled into a sense of security in the United States, many Jewish Americans today can be more complacent on issues of discrimination and inequality than Jews of generations past.
But recent news stories suggest that anti-Semitism is alive and well, on both the American right and left. In America’s heartland, some believe the recent suicide of Missouri state auditor Tom Schweich, a Republican candidate for the Missouri governorship, stemmed from attempts to discredit him among the state’s conservative voters by highlighting his partially Jewish ancestry.
On America’s “left coast,” UCLA’s student government initially voted against a Jewish candidate for fear that her Judaism and involvement in the Jewish community would prevent her from being “unbiased.”
But the possibility of more public anti-Semitism may have a silver lining: It could help current generations of Jews, the majority of whom are white, re-commit and re-invest in anti-racist struggles with communities of color.
Many Jews who came of age in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s recognized that the inequality and racism that undermined American ideals—including anti-Semitism—threatened all Americans, including them.
Yes, some who supported multiracial communities’ struggles believed in justice for its own sake. But many had a pragmatic understanding that inequality against African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and Native Americans was dangerous to Jews as well. That belief inspired many to join the civil rights battles of those other communities, as well as fight those they saw more as “their own.”
As we see new examples of racism in this country on college campuses—most notably in the chantings on a bus of fraternity members from University of Oklahoma—and we observed the 50th anniversary this month of the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, we should remember how many Jews joined to support African-Americans.
While Selma is an example of African-Americans’ steadfastness and bravery challenging a racist, violent society that excluded them from the political system, it is also an example of how an interracial, interfaith community joined forces in hopes of achieving a more equal society.
Many Jews in the 1950s and 1960s, and even before, recognized blacks’ voting rights struggle to be part of a larger movement that would create a better society for them as well.
Jewish-Americans, both religious and secular, participated in African-Americans’ freedom struggle. Rabbis joined marches in Selma and elsewhere, including Abraham Heschel, who appears to Martin Luther King Jr.’s left in photographs from Selma.
Secular Jews, particularly those from the North, joined the southern freedom struggle in Selma, the Freedom Summer, and elsewhere.
Jewish-Americans were also often involved behind the scenes in various communities’ civil rights movements even before the widely recognized movements of the 1950s and 1960s, in the South and elsewhere.
They helped found national organizations working for African-Americans’ equality like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and western organizations working for Mexican Americans’ rights, such as the Community Service Organization (CSO). In places like California, Jews supported postwar struggles of Japanese Americans.
To be sure, not all Jews supported other minorities’ civil rights initiatives. Many believed that the best way to protect themselves in a racist society was by distancing themselves from others deemed even bigger outsiders.
But many believed the opposite, that creating a fairer society for themselves meant supporting all groups in their quest for access and equality.
In other words, Jews were often invested in racial equality not only for the sake of others, but also because of their own stake in it.
Certainly, Jews today have joined protests against inequality and racism experienced by African-Americans, Latinos and others. Some report that Jews remain more liberal, are more likely to vote for the Democrats, significantly supported Barack Obama in both elections and are more aware of inequality and racism experienced by these communities than are other white Americans.
The Massachusetts Board of Rabbis issued a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, many Jewish media outlets write in support of protecting African-Americans’ rights, and Jews joined with Muslims to march in protest of police violence against Black men. Jews have spoken out against racial profiling of Latinos in places like Arizona.
But more Jews, including those who see themselves as “whites” with no common cause with blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans, may rethink that stance as they recognize that racism in any form—anti-Semitic or otherwise—threatens all Americans.
Multiple minority communities in the past recognized that racial and ethnic exclusion of any kind was a danger to democracy. Racism and bigotry remain a danger today, in Ferguson, Missouri, in Missouri state politics, at UCLA and everywhere else it appears.
Americans of many backgrounds have a stake in the social justice struggles of the past and present. The multiracial communities of activists who fought to help achieve the gains that resulted from historic struggles must continue to keep the many goals yet to be achieved on Americans’ agenda.
Shana Bernstein is a historian and Clinical Associate Professor of Legal Studies at Northwestern University. She writes and teaches about issues of social justice, and is the author of Bridges of Reform: Interracial Civil Rights Activism in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles.