NEW YORK (JTA) – On April 4 our nation marked the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who challenged us to recognize the struggles of others and make them our own.
It is significant that just weeks before this tragic anniversary, Barack Obama similarly challenged the nation, saying in Philadelphia that “working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.”
“For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life,” he said. “But it also means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans – the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who’s been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family.”
King surely would have agreed with these words.
In a nation built of countless peoples, King understood that those who fight for their own rights are most honorable when they fight for the rights of all people. While his focus was certainly on the needs of African Americans, he championed the needs of all, and in particular those of the Jewish community.
King found a special symbolism in Jewish history, a kinship with the Jewish people, and during his life, no segment of American society provided greater or as consistent support to the black community as did the Jewish community. From Selma to the freedom riders, Jewish Americans marched, fought and died alongside their African-American brethren.
Likewise, King supported the State of Israel, was intimately involved in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry, frequently referenced the Holocaust in his writings and speeches, and notably had a complete disdain and zero tolerance for anti-Semitism of any stripe and from any quarter.
In his call for greater empathy, King recognized the inherent power in connecting the struggles of one people to another. Referencing the Holocaust, he wrote: “If Protestants and Catholics had engaged in nonviolent direct action and had made the oppression of the Jews their very own oppression and come into the streets besides the Jew to scrub the sidewalks, and had Gentiles worn the stigmatizing yellow arm bands by the millions, a unique form of mass resistance to the Nazis might have developed.”
Like King, Obama has called on all Americans to show greater empathy for the anger, resentment and fear within the African-American community.
“Let us be our brother’s keeper,” he said in Philadelphia. “Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.”
Obama’s speech was a message of deep consequence about race in America, but perhaps the single most salient fact was the effect it had on us. Reverberations from and reactions to Obama’s words continue to be heard within the walls of our public spaces and felt within our private hearts.
As a nation, we are conducting a conversation unlike any we have held for the past 40 years. We are openly struggling with the fact that we cannot understand each other’s pronouncements or the nuances of our behavior if we do not put them into a powerful context of perspective. If we fail to do so, we will not be able to move forward.
Jews and gentiles, blacks and whites, Americans of all backgrounds and creeds must jointly consider each other’s reality alongside their own and create a mutual narrative.
Indeed, as Obama also noted in his speech, we really have no choice. American society grows more diverse by the day, and if we hope to continue in America’s great tradition, if we hope to realize the dreams and ideals of democracy, if we hope to forge a more perfect union, we will have to learn to be more responsive to the issues of others across racial and ethnic lines. The changing face of America demands that we make each others’ oppression our “very own oppression.”
The elders of the Sioux Indians knew that humanity requires such empathy, calling on the Great Spirit, “help me to never judge another until I have walked two weeks in his moccasins.” The Hebrew sages understood this need likewise, teaching the Jewish people to “judge not your fellow man until you are in his place.”
This was the perspective of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose life we celebrate and whose death we commemorated last week. Like other great men and women of history, King had an ever expanding responsiveness that allowed him to honestly respect and honor the pain, the hunger and the needs of others. He is calling on us to do likewise.
(Rabbi Marc Schneier is the president of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and the author of “Shared Dreams,” a book documenting the Rev .Martin Luther King Jr.’s relationship with the Jewish community.)