With spring upon us, we must not lose sight of how the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 demonstrated yet another example of the fragility of race relations in the United States. White supremacists overpowered U.S. Capitol Police, shouting racial epithets and wearing T-shirts with anti-Semitic slogans with the goal of overturning a democratic election. Anyone who refused to accept the fact that we have never lived in a “post-racial” era, could not ignore the racial implications of that fateful day.
Less than a day before the mayhem, the state of Georgia elected its first Black and Jewish senators, Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, respectively. Working together—coordinating campaigns, sharing priority issues, and galvanizing many of the same voters— proved to be a winning strategy. Despite the divisive rhetoric that has exacerbated racial fault lines in American society, the election in Georgia is an opportunity for us to revisit and rekindle the unique relationship between Black and Jewish communities that has catalyzed social movements in the United States for decades. As the election in Georgia proved, we can accomplish more when our communities work together.
Our histories are intertwined. Black and Jewish communities have struggled to liberate themselves from bondage and persecution with the underlying premise that America always has the potential to become a better version of itself. Our nation’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), for example, gave refuge to German-Jewish scholars fleeing Nazi Germany. In the 1950s and 1960s, Black and Jewish faith leaders stood together against white supremacists who bombed churches and synagogues in the South, using violence to prevent Black and Jewish citizens from gathering and organizing for civil rights.
Artistically, Black and Jewish artists, musicians, and writers collaborated in ways that illustrated the complexity of American identity since its founding. From Billie Holiday’s haunting 1939 performance of Abel Meerpol’s anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit,” to James Baldwin and Richard Avedon’s 1964 collaborative book of prose and photography “Nothing Personal,” Black-Jewish collaborations have illuminated the ways in which racism and anti-Semitism have prevented America from reaching its full democratic promise.
We recognize that Black and Jewish communities are not monolithic and that Black-Jewish relations are not completely harmonious. In recent years, the relationship has seen significant strain over issues such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, anti-Semitism within the Black community, colorism within the Jewish community, and internal conversations about how Jews grapple with white privilege. In particular, acknowledgement of and support for Jews of color is not without its own challenges. Jews of color make up approximately 12-15% of the Jewish community, yet often don’t feel a part of the Black or Jewish community. From being racially profiled in Jewish spaces to experiencing anti-Semitism in other spaces, Jews of color—Black Jews in particular—are often caught in between and erased without a community to call home. Some Jews even question whether there is a place for them in the Black Lives Matter movement.
With a new administration and Congress we have an opportunity to move forward with a shared vision for justice and collective liberation. In his inaugural address, President Joe Biden spoke about America leading not merely “by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” This idea can become the guiding principle in defining what moral, anti-racist leadership looks like in 2021.
We should look no further than the new Georgia senators as an example. Through the lens of their respective Black and Jewish southern experience, Warnock and Ossoff worked in tandem to firmly turn Georgia blue and bring democratic values back to the Senate. Their votes mean the opportunity to ensure voting rights, Washington, D.C. statehood, safe school reopenings, and other measures both within COVID-19 relief and beyond that address structural racism and would most impact communities of color. And after four years of immoral governing, their moral leadership in the Senate brings the prospect of making good on a racial reckoning that occurred with the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and too many others.
The stakes are too high for us not to work together. Black communities are hit hardest by the pandemic with many experiencing both economic hardships and issues with their health care, from trouble paying for medical care, bills, and housing to bearing the brunt of infections, hospitalizations, and death. We’re also learning more about the racial disparities in access to education and the vaccine, and in Texas and Mississippi Black communities are suffering the most due to the recent severe cold weather and related power outages. Meanwhile white nationalism and anti-Semitism are on the rise. Times like this require the power of our example.
Our moral leadership, informed by our shared values, must guide our actions against injustice. We know all too well that when distorted facts are met with silence, the result is pogroms, genocide, lynching, and segregation, which allows discrimination to fester. QAnon and other right-wing conspiracy theories are the breeding grounds for this kind of racially targeted violence.
We must work together to counteract the narratives of grievance and replacement prominently displayed at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
We help combat this with fact-based public policies.
We must renew our commitment to social justice and the values of equality, mutual respect, and tikkun olam (repairing the world).
We must do so loudly, clearly, and collectively to amplify the urgency of this moment as we have done in the past.
Like the voices of Warnoff and Ossoff in the Senate, the voices of our Black and Jewish communities are what we need right now to speak truth to power, dismantle systems of oppression, and end white supremacy.