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Jews Mourn Bayard Rustin

August 26, 1987
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Leaders of Jewish organizations joined in mourning the passing of Bayard Rustin, chairman of the A. Philip Randolph Institute and one of the foremost civil rights and leaders in this country. Rustin, 75, died at Lenox Hill Hospital Monday of a heart attack following surgery Friday for a ruptured appendix.

Rustin’s long-time ties to the Jewish people and Israel and his unflagging support of the labor movement and the civil rights movement earned him profound respect among Jews as well as Blacks. But his advocacy of Black-Jewish cooperation and his condemnation of increasing anti-Semitism among Blacks earned him criticism in some Black quarters.

The apex of his long career as a radical, union and civil rights organizer was in 1963 when he organized the historic civil rights March on Washington. In discussing the need for Black-Jewish unity, he told a conference of the Ant-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith in the late 1960’s that “I request the understanding, the cooperation and aid of Jews. I do so knowing that there is Negro anti-Semitism and knowing how Jews must feel when they hear some Negro extremists talk.” But, he added, “The issue can never be simply a problem of Jew and Gentile or Black and white. The problem is man’s inhumanity to man.”

In expressing enthusiasm for Israel, Rustin once remarked: “Since Israel is a democratic state surrounded by essentially undemocratic states which have sworn her destruction, those interested in democracy everywhere must support Israel’s existence.”


Rustin was a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. In that position, he spoke out strongly on behalf of the planned memorial museum because, as he wrote in a letter to The New York Times in May 1984, Americans need “dramatic reminders of the horrors of World War II, and especially a firm resolve to use our strength and wisdom to assure that the outrages of the Nazi era are never repeated against any people.”

A Holocaust memorial museum “is not only for Jews…Blacks cannot forget Hitler’s pernicious doctrines of racial superiority, or his treatment of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Christians who forget his ultimate plans for all organized religions do so at their own peril.” The museum, he said, “will stand as a warning against hatred and dehumanization whoever is the victim.”

Rustin wrote a report of his travels in Israel and Lebanon in August 1982 after the Israeli invasion of that country. His first conclusion was that “Israel did indeed receive an unfairly bad press.” He wrote that “by standards of international law, the Israeli advance into Lebanon was not an act of aggression. No nation in the world will passively accept continuous attacks from forces based in a neighboring country, and international law recognizes that when such a neighboring country is incapable of halting such attacks, the injured country has every right to undertake that task itself.”

Continuing, he scored the world’s “double standard with respect to the PLO and Israel…The nations of the world, while prepared to use violence to further their own interests, seem to demand pacifist behavior from Israel. It is immoral for such nations to denounce Israel’s use of force in achieving its objectives, while finding ample rationalization for their, own violence…The irony of this double standard is that Israel itself accepts it, holding itself to a higher standard of conduct than the rest of world.”

Rustin met frequently with Israeli leaders, both in Israel and the U.S. During the visit of Premier Shimon Peres to the U.S. in October 1984, Rustin was among the highest American notables he saw.

When Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan referred to Judaism as “a gutter religion” during Jesse Jackson’s campaign for the Presidency, Rustin admonished Jackson to repudiate Farrakhan in a New York Times Op Ed article. He wrote that “Farrakhan racism and anti-Semitism are unconscionable.”

Rustin believed in Blacks working for equality and jobs within the American system. In the editorial, he urged that Blacks heed the mainstream Black organizations such as the Urban League, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and elected Black leaders who recognize “a coalition of Black, Hispanics, women, Christians, Jews and other ethnics.”


Seymour Reich, president of B’nai B’rith International, recalled that Rustin was “an inveterate and tireless supporter of Jewish humanitarian causes — from Israel to Soviet Jewry.” Reich added that Rustin also was “an eloquent voce of reason at a time when some Black leaders had turned their backs on their Jewish ally.”

Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said Rustin “was a ‘lamed vavnik,’ a man of righteousness whose life expressed the prophetic injunction, ‘Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.’ The people of Israel and Jews the whole world over mourn his passing.”

Burton Levinson, national chairman of the ADL, said Rustin “will go down in history as a pioneer in the civil rights movement who dedicated his life to ending racial segregation and achieving fair treatment for all people alike. He was a good friend and esteemed colleague in the long battle for human rights.”

Theodore Ellenoff, president of the American Jewish Committee, recalled that his organization had conferred on Rustin its American Liberties Medallion and that Rustin had said upon receiving it: “The principle factors which influenced my life are non-violent tactics, constitutional means, democratic procedures, respect for human personality, a belief that all people are one.”

In 1978, Rustin was the recipient of the American Jewish Congress’ annual Stephen Wise Award for “illustrious leadership in the cause of racial justice, world peace and human understanding.” Herb Magidson, president of the Jewish Labor Committee, said that Rustin, who was a member of the Committee’s National Executive Board, fought tirelessly throughout his life “for human and civil rights, in this country and abroad, for peoples of all races, nationalities and creeds.”

Lester Polack, president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, and Alan Pesky, chairman of the coalition to Free Soviet Jews, both recalled Rustin’s commitment to the cause of Soviet Jewish freedom.

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