What Would Heschel Do?


Stung by the Black Lives Matter platform that condemns Israel in unfair and malevolent terms, calling it “genocidal” and an “apartheid state,” many in our community have noted with lingering pride that Jews were at the forefront of the civil rights movement, most notably during the 1960s. The most tangible example of that alliance may well be an iconic photograph of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a leading theologian and philosopher of his time, marching along with Rev. Martin Luther King in Selma, Ala., at a voting rights demonstration in 1965, symbolizing their close bond and the strong ties between Jews and blacks at the time.

But times have changed.

During several recent conversations I’ve had with lay and professional leaders of mainstream Jewish organizations on how to respond to Black Lives Matter, they have noted how much more complicated racial issues are today than 50 years ago.

In the 1960s King was a towering figure of nobility in the face of racism, preaching faith and dignity. Recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, he was a supporter of Israel who embraced the backing of the many Jews who took up and helped lead the civil rights cause. Today, Black Lives Matter, a consortium of black activists from some 50 organizations, has emerged as a significant social movement whose leadership seems amorphous and whose tenor is imbued with anger. Based on its condemnation of Israel — the only country called out in such terms in the BLM platform — there is the sense that Zionists are not welcome, that one can’t be a supporter of both human rights and Jerusalem.

(We shouldn’t assume the BLM position on Israel speaks for the majority of the black community, though. A number of black leaders, from the NAACP to prominent church officials, were unaware of the controversial BLM platform on Israel and upset by it.)

Still, Zionist leaders feel as if they have been written out of the BLM movement and are deeply worried about the eroding impact Israel’s policies toward Palestinians are having on our community’s alliances with blacks and other minority groups — and with significant segments of Jewish youth.

“There is a hemorrhaging of the left toward Israel in America today,” one prominent Jewish professional told me, “and we have to decide whether we write off our critics as racists or re-engage in new civil rights efforts.”

Some, like law professor Alan Dershowitz, call for a complete break with Black Lives Matter “until and unless [it] removes this blood libel from its platform and renounces it,” he has written. On the other side, the left-leaning rabbinic group, T’ruah, while expressing “extreme dismay” over the genocide reference in the BLM platform, did not mention the apartheid charge, and asserted: “We applaud the leaders of Black Lives Matter for insisting that the United States meet its human rights obligation, and for concretizing these into specific policy recommendations.”

Somewhere in the middle are the socially committed pragmatists like the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), trying to thread the needle of condemning the BLM language while addressing key issues the group raises, and recognizing its growing influence in our society.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, second from right, marching in Selma. JTS

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the ADL, has taken pains to explain that his organization speaks out against the bigoted anti-Israel comments in the BLM platform and has no “official relationship with the body of activists who claim membership in this effort.” But he also notes that “many of the concerns raised by participants in the Black Lives Matter movement are critical civil rights issues that merit attention,” including “police brutality, mass incarceration, racial profiling and the school-to-prison pipeline.” The ADL’s position is to produce educational material to spur critical thinking among students and to “continue to collaborate with other civil rights groups, law enforcement and government officials to address these societal issues.”

The JCPA, the national umbrella group of dozens of Jewish community relations organizations, focuses primarily on domestic issues, with a strong interest in social justice. Discussing BLM and recognizing social trends in the U.S. that favor growth among political progressives, David Bernstein, president and CEO of JCPA, believes “we can’t walk away from the table.” He said that BLM cannot be dismissed as irrelevant and that Jewish groups have far less standing to voice criticism of others unless they are part of the discussion.

Calling for Jewish organizations to be more involved in issues like immigration, voting rights, prison reform and social justice while advancing “our particular interests,” Bernstein acknowledged that such a strategy calls for nuance at a time when it is sorely lacking, given the climate of sharp political differences in the country.

“I’m parting company from Dershowitz and others who draw such bright lines,” he said, adding that approach “won’t help us and won’t win the day.”

Cheryl Fishbein, JCPA chair, noted that after the bruising and losing battle on the Iran nuclear deal, there is concern that AIPAC and other Jewish groups have lost some clout in Washington, and that younger Jewish professionals are less inclined to support Israel on issues like settlements, peace talks and treatment of Arabs.

Looking for guidance in navigating whether and how to engage with critics, particularly in the black community, some wonder: What would Heschel do today?

I put that question to Heschel’s daughter, Susannah Heschel, a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth who has often written about her father.

“The Jewish community needs to pay more attention to issues of racism,” she said. “We don’t think about it enough, and sometimes my father [based on his leadership in the civil rights movement] is being used now as a security blanket rather than our taking up the challenge.”

Heschel said her father was warned not to speak out for Soviet Jewry or against the Vietnam War for fear of reprisals against the Jewish community, but he ignored them. Though he has been made an icon since his death in 1972, he was sharply criticized for his stands at the time. “He felt it was morally wrong to keep silent,” his daughter said.

“If Jews support BLM that doesn’t necessarily mean they have abandoned Jewish interests,” she asserted. One lesson Heschel said she learned from her father was to engage in dialogue with critics — especially with critics.

“The problem is we tend to talk to groups who agree with us,” Heschel said. “Interfaith groups tend to be liberals who pat each other on the back. My father maintained wonderful relationships with people with whom he disagreed and he always kept the door open for dialogue.

“Davka [specifically] because of that BLM platform [critical of Israel], which was wrong, stupid and self-destructive, we have to talk to those people.”

Heschel asserted that “there is underlying racism in this country and Jews are not immune from it. Now is the time to talk about it.”

Part of that discussion should also include what appears to be an anti-Semitic impulse among some black activists and to point out BLM’s moral blind spot in justifying the murder of Israeli men, women and children by Palestinian terrorists as a matter of course, decade after decade.

Rabbi Heschel infused his moral writings and speeches with Jewish language, values and wisdom. “When I marched in Selma, I felt my feet were praying,” he famously wrote.

As Jews, we can emulate his moral courage in the face of criticism. And we can deepen and enrich the discussion by employing the language of our faith and prophets in recognizing that all men are created equal in the eyes of God, and in demanding fairness and integrity (“Justice, justice shall you pursue,” from Deuteronomy 16:20). In that spirit, it is not a slight to blacks or others to insist that all lives matter. 



was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at garyrosenblatt.substack.com.