2017-06-21 / Voice at the Shore

Fates of Jews and African Americans intertwined, say BJE educators

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER Voice shore editor

Meryl Rodgers, a docent with the National Museum of American Jewish History, and adjunct Stockton University professor Rabbi Robert Fierstien spoke at “Yearnings: The Jewish Struggle for Freedoms in America,” on June 4. Meryl Rodgers, a docent with the National Museum of American Jewish History, and adjunct Stockton University professor Rabbi Robert Fierstien spoke at “Yearnings: The Jewish Struggle for Freedoms in America,” on June 4. The fates of African and Jewish Americans have long been intertwined, according to two speakers at a Board of Jewish Education program at the JCC on June 4. The program, “Yearnings: The Jewish Struggle for Freedoms in America,” talked about Jews’ involvement in the Civil Rights Movement as well as how Abraham Lincoln, “The Great Emancipator,” helped Jews gain acceptance in American life at the same time he led the fight to end slavery.

The roughly 40 program attendees included locals and summer visitors as well as local NAACP President Kaleem Shabazz.

American Jews—who are no strangers to oppression and exclusion—have often stood beside African Americans in their efforts to combat racism. Some Jews have also played significant roles in the Civil Rights Movement, noted Meryl Rodgers, a docent educator for the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

“Hitler got a lot of his ideas about racism from the United States,” said Rodgers, who explained how eugenics, “a false science” dedicated to uncovering a genetic basis for undesirable characteristics, took hold in America in the late 1800s. Research into eugenics was supported by prominent, so-called “enlightened” members of society, such as the Rockefeller family, the Carnegie Foundation and others

Eugenics’ popularity reached its height in the 1920s and 1930s, when racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment ran high in the United States, with many politicians and citizens calling for an end to America’s “open-door” immigration policy.

“Americans were unhappy with the ‘quality’ of many immigrants,” said Rodgers. People blamed social ills of the time, such as “pauperism and criminality,” on immigrants and other undesirables, and sought to come up with a scientific rationale for discriminating against people who looked and behaved differently than the average American. Immigrants considered undesirable included the Chinese, the Turks, and Russian-Jewish Bolsheviks. “The closing of our doors [in the 1930s] was the culmination of this anti-immigrant feeling,” said Rodgers.

The American racism of the early 1900s was countered by a push for racial equality that gave rise to the creation of the NAACP—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People— which began in 1909. According to Rodgers, the NAACP held its founding meeting in New York City at the Henry Street Settlement House, a haven founded by Jewish social activist Lillian Ward. Under Ward’s direction, Henry Street offered shelter and services to those in need, including poor people of all races and immigrants. Ward and Jewish social worker Henry Moscowitz were among the roughly 40 black and white founders of the NAACP.

Many Jews devoted to the cause of racial justice played active roles in the NAACP. Among them was Joel Elias Spingarn, an “independently wealthy” academic at Columbia University who left his position there to devote himself to the NAACP in 1911, said Rodgers. In addition to recruiting wealthy supporters for the organization, he also established an annual award recognizing outstanding achievement by an African American, called the Spingarn Award, which is still given out today. “The award was created because Americans rarely heard about the achievements of African Americans,” she explained.

A number of lawyers who took up the NAACP’s cause were also Jewish. One of these, Joel Spingarn’s younger brother Arthur, set up an NAACP legal committee that eventually became a separate entity known as the Legal Defense Fund (LDF). Another Jewish lawyer, Jack Greenberg, worked on LDF’s most famous case—Brown v. the Board of Education, a landmark case brought before the Supreme Court in 1954. The decision in this case effectively outlawed segregation in schools.

Rodgers also talked about the special relationship between Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the famous Jewish philosopher and author. Heschel walked with King during the Civil Rights march in Selma, Alabama, and described the experience as the equivalent of “praying with his legs,” said Rodgers. Trained as an Orthodox rabbi, Heschel passionately supported the Civil Rights Movement because of his Jewish beliefs, said Rodgers, noting he was also “one of the few religious Jews to participate in the Civil Rights Movement.”

Rabbi Robert Fierstien, Adjunct Professor of Jewish Studies at Stockton University, also spoke at the BJE program, describing the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and the Jews. According to Fierstien, the same president that fought to free African Americans from slavery also went out of his way to give Jewish people more opportunities and acceptance in American society throughout his lifetime.

“The first Jews Abraham Lincoln knew were those in the Bible,” said Fierstien, who noted that Lincoln was especially partial to the Old Testament and would often quote from it.

One of Lincoln’s first Jewish friends was Abraham Jonas, a lawyer who shared Lincoln’s politics and opposition to slavery and helped President Lincoln get elected. This friendship was the first of many personal and professional relationships that Lincoln had with Jewish people, who were not well accepted into American society at the time and were often regarded with suspicion, said Fierstien.

Lincoln also acted politically on the Jews’ behalf, opposing an idea then circulating to change the Constitution so that Christianity became the nation’s official religion. “Lincoln would have none of it,” he said.

Lincoln also revoked an order by General Ulysses S. Grant (called General Order No. 11) that called for the expulsion of all Jews from Grant’s military district, which comprised areas of Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky. At the time, Grant suspected Jews as being among those running a black market trade of Southern cotton. But according to Fierstien, the reason Grant likely singled out Jews was that they were generally distrusted by other Americans, simply because they looked different from the average American.

“When Lincoln found out about it, he insisted Grant’s order be revoked,” said Fierstien. “Lincoln did not like to see any group singled out.” 

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