As I sat in the audience Wednesday night at the Levine Museum of the New South, listening to an intriguing discussion about the bond between blacks and Jews, a friend leaned over to show me something on her smartphone. It was a story about 90-year-old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein. On Monday, Epstein was one of nine demonstrators arrested in St. Louis, MO, for failing to disperse after a protest of the shooting of an unarmed black man in nearby Ferguson.
In an interview with Newsweek magazine, Epstein was frank about her involvement: “I’m deeply, deeply troubled by what’s going on in Ferguson,” she said. “It’s a matter of racism and injustice, and it’s not only in Ferguson…. Racism is alive and well in the United States. The power structure looks at anyone who’s different as the other, as less worthy, and so you treat the other as someone who is less human.”
She added: “I’m Jewish and I was born in Germany, so I think I can understand what it feels like to be African American in this country. I was a child living under the Nazi regime. I remember feeling uncomfortable walking down the street, seeing people cross to the other side of the street.”
That shared experience of persecution gave birth to symbiotic relationship that has spanned decades. It is a refreshing reminder – especially when the protests and confrontations in Ferguson starkly spotlight a lot of what still divides Americans – that hands can and do reach across differences to lift each other up.
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The backdrop for the talk at the Levine was an exhibit that showcases the little-known story of how black colleges opened their doors to Jewish professors who fled Nazi Germany following the rise of Adolf Hitler. Called “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges,” the exhibit explores the lives of these refugee scholars as they taught and interacted with black students at historically black schools, and came to understand and deal with the injustices and persecution blacks experienced in the segregated South. And like Hedy Epstein, the professors felt a kinship, given the persecution they endured in Germany.
Rabbi Judy Schindler, sharing the stage with Ron Carter, president of historically black Johnson C. Smith University, spoke of that kinship Wednesday: Blacks and Jews share a “common history of slavery and of unfathomable persecution.”
That history is an imperative for Jews and blacks to be “vigilantes against hatred” and not stay silent about persecution and injustice: “We must speak out for one another .”
That speaking out was evident during the civil rights era. Jews held visible leadership roles in black organizations: Kivie Kaplan was president of the NAACP from 1966 to his death in 1975. Schindler’s father, Alexander Schindler, influential in modern Reform Judaism before he died in 2000, marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King. He fled the Nazis with his family in 1937 at age 12 but returned as a U.S. solider at 17 to fight the Nazis. The evil he saw in Germany’s concentration camps reportedly spurred him to return to the states and fight racism here.
Both Schindler and Carter acknowledged though that there have been conflicts as well as kinship in the relationship between blacks and Jews. The conflicts have played out foremost in differing views about the Israeli-Palestinian situation, and anti-Semitism expressed by some blacks, particularly Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan, and racism by some conservative Jews.
But those differences and conflicts haven’t unraveled the bond, as evidenced by Jewish participation in the Moral Monday protests of N.C. legislative acts, protests led by the Rev. Barber of the NAACP. “Our partnership has power,” Schindler noted.
Carter, who studied and learned Hebrew, said the conflicts are evidence of the continuing struggle to find a way to “speak a common language, to live out our common values, to transcend difference.”
But he said blacks have a “kindred spirit with Hebrew people – a cosmic kinship, and that’s not by accident.”
Hedy Epstein recognized the kinship on Monday. As she was being escorted to police van after her arrest, she reportedly said of her protest: “I’ve been doing this since I was a teeenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90. We need to stand up today so that poeple won’t have to do this when they’re 90.”
In truth, we all share a kinship – black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Jew, Christian, Catholic, young, old, male, female. All our lives and livelihoods are bound together – even when we refuse to acknowledge or see it. Shared pain serves to illuminate the bonds. But it shouldn’t have to.