MLK DAY ISN’T JEWISH
Decades ago, Jewish leaders, especially rabbis, were very much actively involved in the civil rights movement in this country. Aside from the social justice reason commanded by the Torah, Jewish spiritual leaders of yesteryear were quick to see parallels between the Jewish experience and the Black experience. However noble their effort to draw similarities between the two groups, Jewish leaders, religious or otherwise were blatantly wrong.
Addressing the annual meeting of the American Jewish Congress in 1958, Dr. King remarked: “My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe.” I couldn’t agree more. I have no idea how many Yiddishisms were adopted by American Blacks, but Goldeneh Medineh wasn’t one of them. “ Moving on up” (to the East Side) by J’anet Dubois served as the theme song for the television sit-com The Jeffersons that debuted four and a half decades ago. The real moving on up, however, began 140 years ago as our Eastern European ancestors moved on up to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It may have been a cold-water flat with a shared bathroom at the end of the hallway, but it was a far cry from fetching a pail of water from the well and making one’s way to the outhouse in the shtetl. The only discrimination encountered in the overcrowded, unsanitary, and even dissipated world of the self-imposed ghetto of Jewish immigrants were not being hired at a “sweat shop” by another Jew for refusing to work on Shabbat.
To be sure, Jews did suffer from discrimination in this country. There was a tacit understanding among Christians – a gentleman’s agreement – that Jews were not welcome to live in certain neighborhoods throughout the United States. There were restricted country clubs, quotas in medical schools, and doors closed to Jews in corporate America. Jewish power responded far differently than black power. Amongst Jews, there were seldom any protests, peaceful or violent. Instead, Jews circumvented quotas. Jews built their own neighborhoods or “gilded ghettos”, Jews built their own country clubs. Any Jew could not get into medical school, would often “settle” getting into dental school. And if Jews were unwelcome by the Big Three automakers in this country, they became most successful, owning dealerships selling automobiles manufactured by those very same corporations who refused to hire them. True, Jews were known to go out on strike demanding better wages or better working conditions, but seldom if ever was there ever any looting or rioting. It wasn’t until the ‘60’s that Jews became involved in protests, against the war in Viet Nam or for freedom for Jews in the Soviet Union. And those protests were not because they were being treated less than equal because they were Jews.
Martin Luther King Jr. saw himself as the Moses of his people. “But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop… I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land” said King Luther King Jr., a day before he was felled by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, Tennessee. Our Moses predated Reverend King by over three thousand years. Facing 600,000 newly liberated slaves, our Moses soon laid down the law by transmitting to them a Torah from HaShem. And in that Torah, there was a long list of do’s and don’ts otherwise known as the 613 commandments. The understanding was that a successful future was commensurate with the willingness of the newly freed slaves to incorporate those mitzvot into their daily lives.
MLK Day isn’t Jewish because no one individual campaigned for our people’s equal rights. In 1963, MLK led a march on Washington of 250,000 people. It was a tremendous achievement. The closest we Jews ever came to matching that, was twenty years prior when 400 rabbis traveled to this nation’s capital having been led to believe that they would be meeting with the president. It was an abject failure. MLK Day isn’t Jewish, because we have been known to handle discrimination on an individual basis. MLK Day isn’t Jewish because we too were gifted with a leader who had been to the mountaintop, and soon after made it clear what was expected of us. MLK Day isn’t Jewish, because it was never designed to be Jewish. It is a day for Black Americans. May his message live on as his legacy is honored.