It’s notable and laudable that many Jewish groups commemorate Martin Luther King Day, but I’ve always found it a bit troubling that these commemorations often return to a single image: Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm in arm with Martin Luther King at Selma.
Of course, it makes sense that we, as a community, are proud of this image. For one, Heschel was perhaps the most universally revered of all 20th century Jewish theologians. While affiliated with the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, he had Orthodox bona fides and a commitment to social justice shared by the Reform movement.
But this post isn’t about Heschel. It’s about moving beyond Heschel.
As far as I’m concerned, there are two problems with speaking about Heschel on Martin Luther King Day. First, it smacks of self-righteousness. Too often, these conversations turn into expositions about Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movement, and Martin Luther King Day turns into a day in which American Jews exchange self-congratulatory pats on the back, which clearly isn’t the point of the day.
Similarly, and secondly, Heschel marched with King in 1965. While it’s worth being proud of that moment, we must also grapple with the last 42 years of Black-Jewish relations. And the pressing questions of today have less to do with Heschel than with what’s happened since Heschel.
And what’s happened since hasn’t always been pretty.
This week on MyJewishLearning, Mik Moore looks at the somewhat contentious history of Black-Jewish relations in America, from the Ocean-Hill/Brownsville teachers’ strike of 1968 to the tensions in Crown Heights in the 1990s. The good news is that Moore believes that after decades of inter-communal decline, Black-Jewish relations are improving.
Obviously, we shouldn’t forget Heschel, and certainly Martin Luther King Day is, first and foremost, about Martin Luther King. But if we do use the occasion for communal introspection, let’s make sure to be honest about where we’ve been — and where we stand today.