Rabbi Lazaron, Jewish member of the “Good-Will Trio” which has just completed a nine-thousand-mile tour of the country in the interests of racial tolerance, describes below his experiences on this unique crusade and evaluates its work and achievements.
At the invitation of the National Conference of Jews and Christians, Father John Elliot Ross, Rev. Mr. Everett R. Clinchy and I set forth on a seven weeks’ tour which took us into thirty-five cities and as many states from coast to coast. This tour was well named “An American Adventure.” It was without precedent in history and perhaps only in America could such a thing be done. Some indication of the extent of the tour may be gathered from the fact that we travelled nearly 9,000 miles, about 8,000 of which were done by airplane.
Before we started, October 31, the three of us had agreed on several points: that there would be no watering down of the Catholic, Protestant or Jewish position; that we would make it clear we did not desire to reduce religion to a common denominator; that each would stand loyal to his own religious and cultural background and tradition. We knew that the problem was not solely religious; that no one cares particularly how any of us worships or what any of us believes. We agreed that the American scene presented definite areas of friction rising out of the differences in religious and cultural background. These are the tough realities which must be faced.
The idea of the National Conference of Jews and Christians, an organization over six years old, is this: That in any period of economic instability, tensions between groups develop. The prejudices and hates which are under the surface at all times tend to crystallize. Suspicions and fears break through into overt action. Prolonged economic crises are fruitful soil for demagogues who play upon latent prejudices and utilize the taut nerves of men and women to further their own ends. These areas of friction may be roughly classified as follows: Catholic resentment at discrimination against them, particularly by Protestants; Catholic and Jewish resentment at Protestant discrimination against them politically and economically; Protestant and, to a somewhat less extent, Jewish fear of Catholic political ambitions; Jewish fear and unhappiness at economic discrimination against them as Jews.
Each one of us admitted faults in his own group, but all protested against mass judgment and attempted to explain the acceptance of mythical and unfounded generalizationsâ€”about Jews, for instance. We found that there is a widespread belief that Jews dominate the country financially; there is, in some quarters, an equally groundless myth that all Jews are Communists. These suspicions and prejudices were brought into the open through frank discussion. On all questions, each would take the side of the other. For instance, Father Ross and Mr. Clinchy would point out how Christian discrimination against Jews in the past brought about the mal-distribution of Jews in the economic structure of the United States, and that in such great enterprises as the steel industry, the automobile industry, public utilities, communications, and the like, it is not Jews who dominate but Christians; that even in banking, too, the largest Jewish banking houses cannot compare in power with the great House of Morgan. We developed, as we went along, a completely new technique. Instead of three speeches, we stood before the large massmeetings and talked things over informally. Often, even in meetings of over three thousand, the vast crowd was drawn into the discussion as if it were a parlor gathering.
We appeared before almost every type of gathering: meetings with ministerial groups, with women’s club groups, with Sunday School teachers, before theological seminaries, on the campuses of universities and colleges, before chosen groups of laymen, at parlor meetings, high school assemblies, university convocations, luncheon groups, public massmeetings, churches, synagogues, and on the radio. The enthusiastic reception which greeted us everywhere we attribute to the idea that we represented.
None of us was known, but we were the protagonists of an idea which seems to have caught the imagination of people everywhere. “There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.” The head of the Department of Sociology at the Ohio State University, who presided at a three-hour seminar attended by about 400 students at which the frankest sort of discussion prevailed, told us: “If you men could spend a week on the campus, we would open our classes to you.” Along the way we received telegrams and long distance messages from colleges that we could not touch, asking us to give them some days. I mention these things to indicate that the time is ripe to promote the program of the National Conference of Jews and Christians.
The aim was simply this: To bring suspicions and jealousies into the open and subject them to the light of critical examination; to cultivate attitudes of appreciation of differences, racial, cultural as well as religious; briefly, to make America safe for differences; to interpret the democratic ideal not in term of the all-dominant state but in terms of cultural pluralism.
A final word as to the practical accomplishments of the tour. I shall list four; there are many others, as well as interesting by-products:
First: In thirty-five key places we left continuing committees to carry on the program of the National Conference. They organized as branches of the Conference and the men on these committees constitute a chosen group. Laymen predominate; there are men and women on the faculties of universities in the departments of political economy, sociology, anthopology, psychology and education, outstanding lawyers and jurists, industrialists and businessmen. In some cases representatives of labor, and clerics of all denominations.
Second: The work with youth is indicated as one of the most important items on the National Conference agenda. We addressed thousands of youths at high school assemblies, submitting ourselves to searching questions in many of them. We received the impression that the youth in high schools, as well as the young people in universities, are impatient with denominational distinctions and the prejudices that arise out of them. The mere fact that the three of us appeared on the same platform, being friends, yet differingâ€”utterly, in some respectsâ€”from each other, drove home the point. This was told us again and again. It was revealed, too, how much the prejudices of the older generation have entered into and crystallized the points of view of youth. The older folk appreciated this, too, and declared that this work of breaking down prejudices in the coming generation might well form one of the most important aspects of the National Conference program.
Third: We discussed these things #n intimate groups of ministers. Sunday School teachers and lay religious leaders: how the crucifixion story might be told so as not to prejudice the children against Jews of today; how to tell the reformation story without prejudice against the Protestants or the Catholics.
Fourth: In many places the idea to organize state branches of the National Conference of Jews and Christians was presented and taken up with enthusiasm. In a number of cities, men had come from over 150 miles for the evening massmeeting. This was outstandingly true in Jackson, Mississippi, where the local committee sent out invitations to key people throughout the state. The attendance of many Mississippi leaders outside Jackson will make the organization in the state more easy.
The National Conference of Jews and Christians presents to the American people nothing more nor less than a mass educational movement. It means the re-conditioning of the attitudes of the coming generation so that they will learn to appreciate differences, rather than to build up walls of prejudices by reason of these differences. It is a long time drive to re-mould the psychology of the coming generation. From the Jewish point of view, the tour was a factor of immeasurable significance in presenting the Jewish point of view to thousands of people by word of mouth in small, private gatherings and massmeetings and over the radio. The tour started centers of influences in the right direction. It mobilized liberal opinion in key centers. It organized those forces in American life upon which we must depend to erect a tariff wall against the importation of those hates and prejudices which have laid Europe low.
We presented the problem as an American problem. No group can ride out of the depression on the backs of any other group. There is so much that must be done to rebuild the structure of our American life on more just and stable foundations. We must approach the task of conquering poverty and human misery not with denominational labels but as citizens. Above all, we presented the problem as a challenge to the religious sincerity of Christian and Jew.