BOSTON (JTA) – As I traveled the country for my brother John Kerry, speaking with Jewish groups and other communities in 2004, I learned that the most powerful way to show you have listened and understood is to bring the stories you have heard to wider audiences. As one African-American woman in Seattle put it, “I want to hear you call my name.”
When Barack Obama delivered his remarkable speech on race in Philadelphia, I felt as a member of the Jewish community that he was calling my name. Speaking with moral clarity about Rev. Jeremiah Wright, he said a view “that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam,” is “profoundly distorted.”
Sen. Obama was calling my name in Ramallah in 2006 when, under tough questioning from students at Bir Zeit University, he told them flat out that the United States will always stand by its commitment to Israel’s survival.
He was calling my name from the pulpit of Martin Luther King Jr.’s church earlier this year when he challenged anti-Semitism among African Americans. Contrary to “King’s vision of a beloved community,” he said, “the scourge of anti-Semitism has, at times, revealed itself in our community.” He was saying the same things even before he entered politics, telling an interviewer in1995 that “anti-Semitic and anti-Asian statements are not going to lift us up.”
These words speak like actions, because they represent moral choices to stand up for Israel and against anti-Semitism when silence would have been easy.
As Obama’s candid acknowledgement “of our old racial wounds” recognizes, the sometimes uneasy alliance of Jews and African Americans has been strained in recent decades. But at times this alliance, born in the common narrative of slavery to freedom and the common enemies of oppression and bigotry, has been a powerful force for social change.
Early in the 20th Century, W.E.B. Dubois co-founded the NAACP with Jews, and Jack Greenberg succeeded Thurgood Marshall as legal director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Inc. And the Anti-Defamation League was founded in response to the lynching in Georgia of Leo Frank; in addition to fighting anti-Semitism, it also aims “to secure justice and fair treatment of all citizens.”
The alliance had its apotheosis with King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm-in-arm in Selma, Alabama. For me as a young man, the picture of them across the front page of the newspaper imprinted a powerful image of Jewish commitment to social justice that undoubtedly influenced my later decision to become a Jew by choice.
In today’s world, we need African Americans who will stand arm-in-arm with the Jewish community in advocating for Israel and standing up to anti-Semitism – not only within the black community but also among Africans, Europeans and Muslims across the world. Jews everywhere have good reason to worry when anti-Semitism is widely accepted in much of the world and Israel faces an existential threat such as it has not seen since the early days of independence.
Barack Obama has shown – by speaking out rather than staying silent – that he will be such an advocate. His words bear witness to what he called this week his “kinship” with the Jewish community. And he has shown by the power of his words how forceful an advocate he can be.
Those choices speak to the strong voice Barack Obama can be on behalf of the Jewish community and the Jewish State of Israel. It’s what makes him stand out. With Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama all committed to supporting Israel and a two-state solution in which Israel and the Palestinians determine the basis on which they will live side by side, those choices say much more than policy positions alone.
In 2004, introducing Bill Clinton at Temple B’nai Torah in Boca Raton, I alluded to how he had bid goodbye to Yitzhak Rabin with the words shalom chaver – “goodbye friend.” I greeted the former president with the same words to recognize someone whose friendship to Israel and to Jewish people and values has transcended ethnic or religious bounds. Barack Obama has shown that in the same sense he, too, is a chaver.
Rather than be frightened by voices that sow fear and rumor about Barack Obama in the Jewish community, we need to hear this chaver calling our names.
(Cameron Kerry is a lawyer in Boston and a Vice-Chair of the National Jewish Democratic Council. In 2004, he was a senior adviser to his brother John Kerry’s campaign and chaired its Middle East Advisory Committee.)