What follows is from a piece co-authored with Hiam Simon (the chief operationg officer of Ameinu) at the Times of Israel website:
. . . Some 3,200 marchers set out from Selma, led by Martin Luther King Jr., marching arm and arm with Ralph Abernathy, Ralph Bunch, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. . . . Dozens of other rabbis participated, including Rabbi Israel Dresner, a dedicated activist still living in our northern New Jersey neighborhood today.
Jews had always been deeply involved as allies of the civil rights movement. Henry Moskowitz had helped in the founding of the NAACP in 1909. As the civil rights movement grew in the 1960s, so too did Jewish involvement. Rabbi Joachim Prinz of Temple B’nai Abraham in Newark spoke at the great 1963 civil rights demonstration in Washington, where Martin Luther King declared “I have a dream.” Hundreds of Jewish activists joined in the Freedom Ride movement. Nearly a year before the Selma marches, two young Jews, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were murdered along with a young black civil rights worker, James Chaney. Their deaths shocked the country and were a factor in the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
What motivated this disproportionate participation by Jews in the civil rights movement, at no small hazard, was a sense of obligation to fight the injustice of racial discrimination. For many, their action was a conscious and living embodiment of values they held as Jews. For Rabbis Heschel and Prinz, the participation was particularly poignant; they had been victims of Nazi racial laws and had barely escaped Europe before the Holocaust. It was unconscionable that the land of the free and the home of the brave, which had found room for Jews as full and equal citizens, continued to suffer from segregationist repression.
. . . Jews always have taken pride in walking the path of moral commitment. Our Jewish values and love of justice drive us to civil rights work, and we should indeed be proud of these values. These efforts also are of great practical self-interest to American Jews. Jews, like every small minority, benefit from building a country that is dedicated to equal rights for all its citizens. . . .
It was an act of great bravery to march into danger to defend civil rights and communal tolerance where we Jews are a minority. It takes another kind of bravery to create that society for ourselves in a place where Jews are the majority. Last month, Israel was rocked by two violent acts. The first was a knife attack, where six observers were stabbed at a Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem. The stabbing, in the shadow of Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard, took the life of 16-year-old Shira Banki. She was there to celebrate the bravery of her friend, who had just found the strength to come out. The attacker, a charedi Jew, had been released only three weeks earlier, after serving 10 years in prison for a similar hate attack. The second was a firebombing of a home [photographed above] in the Arab village of [Duma, near] Ramallah. Eighteen-month-old Ali Dawabsheh was burned to death and his father, Saed, died of his burns a week later. The infant’s mother and 5-year-old brother remain critically wounded.
These attacks occur in the context of rising official pronouncements and actions that serve to build a sense of tribalism that further divides Israeli society. West Bank settlers for whom intercommunal coexistence and democracy are anathema are aggravating intercommunal tension even further.
In contrast to the government’s behavior, a growing number of nonprofit groups have long been working tirelessly to stem this rising tide of intolerance. They have embraced the role of supporting intercommunal communication, cooperation, and coexistence. Some examples include Givat Haviva, a kibbutz educational center, which for many years has promoted educational programs to bring Jews and Arabs together. Bina, a secular yeshiva, combines text study with boots-on-the-ground service in the most challenged communities across Israel. Hand in Hand operates five intercommunal schools that teach Israeli Jews, Arabs and Christians in both Hebrew and Arabic. Dror Israel is a pioneer Zionist movement of educators that work in all sectors of society to strengthen faith in man and action in society and to actualize the values of equality, social alliance, and social responsibility in everyday reality.
Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. But Jewish nationalism does not need to mean Jewish chauvinism. Israel is a multiethnic and multireligious country. Let us strengthen the hands of those who come to build it with the consciousness of democracy, civil rights, intercommunal tolerance, and a desire for peace with its Palestinian neighbors, so that we too can proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof.