Are Jews and blacks still allies?

Rabbi Susan Talve at an NAACP march in Ferguson, Mo., with recent bar mitzvah boy Terrel Wooten Jr.. PHILIP DEITCH PHOTO

There was a time when American Jews and blacks were linked in the struggle for civil rights.

Though relations between the two groups have at times been fraught with conflict, throughout the 20th century – and particularly in the 1950s and ’60s – the alliance between Jews and African-Americans was evident in Jews’ role in founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, and in Jewish leaders joining black leaders to push through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of the 1960s.

In some instances, Jewish figures projected spiritual meaning onto the struggle for social justice. After marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1965 Selma Civil Rights March, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was famously quoted as saying, “I felt my feet were praying.”

Jack Greenberg, former director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, likened his early days arguing civil rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court to being in synagogue.

While demographics and history have played out differently in Canada, from the 1950s to the early 2000s, the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) engaged in dialogue with groups such as the Jamaican Canadian Association and the Urban Alliance on Race Relations.

Now, some argue these ties have dissipated and that North American Jews no longer have the same appetite for social justice.

Yavilah McCoy, the African-American Jewish founder of Ayecha, a non-profit that advocates for Jews of colour in the United States, wrote in Tikkun magazine last January about what appeared to her to be “a great silence among many of the white Jewish social activists I know,” in the wake of the 2012 killing of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida and the acquittal of his killer.

Bernie Farber, a social activist and former CEO of CJC, said Canadian Jews have strayed from their duty to support other minority groups.

“Working with the Canadian Black community was once part and parcel of what we believed was necessary to create a climate of tolerance,” he said. “Somehow, we’ve slipped away from that.”

In light of the August killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., and of the grand jury’s decision last week not to indict him, as North American Jews, we might ask ourselves: do we feel an obligation to fight for the rights of marginalized groups around us, even when their causes no longer directly affect us?

And if not, why not?

The weakened coalition between blacks and Jews can, McCoy argued, be partially attributed to the Black Power movement of the late ’60s, which saw black activists shift from King’s racially integrated approach to an ethos of “self-determination, self-defence tactics, and racial pride.”

Though this was “crucial to the evolution of black consciousness and identity in America,” it left many Jewish activists “with little input in the black community, and an anti-racism movement that seemed to be moving on without them.”

She also cites dwindling anti-Semitism in the United States, compared to sustained anti-black racism, and the growing class division between Jews and African-Americans as factors.

Farber said the gulf between Jews and blacks resulted not from class disparity, but from North American Jews – particularly Canadian Jews – becoming more inwardly focused, fixated on self-preservation.

About a decade ago, he said, angst about Israel caused Canadian Jews to place their focus on Israel advocacy, downplaying associations with groups of colour.

“Canadian Jews have become more parochial,” he said. “Issues of social justice have taken second position… But by giving up on the social justice agenda, we do ourselves an incredible amount of harm… we’ve lost a lot of who we were.”

In Canada, the Jewish response to Ferguson has been fairly quiet, but some leaders are voicing concern.

“The killing of Michael Brown should deeply disturb us and offend our sense of Jewish moral values,” said Rabbi Aaron Levy of the Toronto congregation Makom. “There’s a strong history of part of the Jewish community identifying with the political left. Where that has gone is a good question.”

Avrum Rosensweig, president of Ve’ahavta, said the “deep scars between the white and black communities” in the United States are “deeply troubling.”

“We see that in Canada with our Aboriginal community… Like Michael Brown, they are seemingly invisible, judged differently because of the colour of their skin.”

While Jews on both sides of the border may be less involved in activism, there are certainly exceptions: some American Jewish groups have thrown their support behind demonstrators in Ferguson. In October, nearly 30 rabbis from across the country joined 200 interfaith clergy in peaceful demonstrations, asking police to repent.

The New York-based group Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), which coordinated protest groups after Martin’s killing, is running a campaign for greater police accountability.

T’ruah, a multi-denominational network of rabbis and Jewish communities that works for human rights in North America and Israel, has expressed staunch solidarity with the Ferguson protesters and is in the midst of launching a prison reform campaign.

“Torah teaches us we shouldn’t stand idly by the suffering of our neighbours,” said Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, T’ruah’s director of programs. “Policing and mass incarceration disproportionately affect this one part of our population, and we feel obligated to speak out.”

Rabbi Susan Talve of the Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, near Ferguson, has long worked to alleviate racism and poverty, developing relationships with African-American and Muslim groups.

A fixture at the Ferguson protests, Rabbi Talve laments that the Jewish community has become less engaged in social justice.

“We’ve gotten pretty complacent in America, as white people,” she said, “but [events in Ferguson] have been a real wake-up call to the Jewish community to stand up for people who don’t have a voice… That’s certainly what Torah calls us to do.”

Rabbi Michael Adam Latz, senior rabbi at Minneapolis’ progressive Shir Tikvah Congregation, said he, too, felt compelled to protest in Ferguson.

“It wasn’t too long ago that it was Jews getting beaten in the streets. I think that we who have suffered have the obligation to stand with people who continue to suffer.”