NEW YORK, Oct. 27 (JTA) — A leading voice for civil rights says blacks and Jews need to build on their “coalition of conscience” to establish economic ties between the two communities.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, speaking at Yeshiva University in New York on Wednesday, reflected on a history of shared struggles for civil rights, women’s rights and workers’ rights. Jackson said the “overwhelming challenge before us” is to ensure that all Americans have equal economic opportunities.
As a first step in that direction, an interethnic task force will be formed to explore ways to form business relationships to benefit both communities in New York.
“This is not just a black-Jewish issue,” but, similar to the joint legal victories of the past, an issue on which blacks and Jews can “work together for the national interest,” he said.
Jackson delivered the keynote address at “African Americans & Jews: Economic Cooperation for the 21st Century,” the third annual conference exploring the future of black-Jewish relations in the United States. It was organized by the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and co- sponsored by Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work and the World Jewish Congress.
Jackson’s appearance comes at a time when relations between the African American and the Jewish American communities are, in his view, “better than ever.”
He noted the legal victories of the past and the political power both groups have gained during the last few decades.
“Our relationship is solid, but we still have unfinished business,” Jackson said before an audience of about 200 people, including community leaders and students.
His positive prognosis runs counter to the image of conflict between blacks and Jews often portrayed in the media. But his optimism is supported by the foundation’s findings in its third annual report, which indicates that blacks and Jews are interacting more on a grassroots level.
“The time has come to elevate the struggle from one of civil rights to one of economic rights,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, who established the foundation in 1989 with the late New York theater impresario Joseph Papp.
Schnier announced that the black-Jewish task force, made up of 10 individuals, will over the next two months identify corporations, businesses and community leaders to assist in developing mentoring programs, economic initiatives and peer support networks.
The foundation currently has no plans to work beyond the New York City area. Jackson invited the task force to participate in a January conference organized by Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition aimed at broadening the base of economic cooperation with Wall Street.
Paraphrasing principles of charity described by Maimonides, the 12th- century Jewish Spanish philosopher, Schneier, who is the president of the New York Board of Rabbis, said Jews have a “sacred obligation to bring others out of economic distress.”
In his remarks, Jackson said African Americans “don’t want to be kept, we want to be allies. We don’t want to be consumers, we want to be partners and investors.”
Beyond direct economic cooperation, Jackson cited several areas of mutual social and political concern:
• Equalizing the quality of public school education;
• Supporting affirmative action;
• Providing for community reinvestment by corporations;
• Opening media markets to minority investors.
“Our common quest is the American dream,” Jackson said.
On an international level, Jackson earlier this year took a leading role in advocating for the release of 13 Iranian Jews who have been in custody in Iran since their arrest in March on charges of spying for Israel.
Although Iranian officials have said the prisoners will get a fair trial, many believe the arrests were politically and religiously motivated. Advocates across the globe, including numerous political leaders, have lobbied Iran for the release of the detainees, who face the death penalty if found guilty.
Jackson — who had won the release of three American prisoners captured by Serbia during the American bombing there this year — in June said he would go to Iran to advocate for the 13 Jews’ release.
At Yeshiva University, Jackson said he feared that the Iranians would execute the prisoners if such attempts fail.
Iran has so far rebuffed Jackson’s attempts to procure a visa.
Jackson said he hopes Iran will see the benefits of releasing the prisoners so that Iran can “return to its rightful place as a member of the family of nations.”