by Aislinn McNiece
The Center for Jewish Civilization (CJC) hosted NAACP President Cornell William Brooks on April 19, 2017, for an event titled “Blacks and Jews in The Age of Trump.” The event opened with a performance by jazz band MBowie and the Blast, who covered songs about civil resistance by the likes of John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Alicia Keys.
Brooks is the 18th President and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was founded in 1909, only four years before the founding of the Anti-Defamation League, the international Jewish organization to fight anti-Semitism headquartered in the United States. Brooks called attention to the proximity of these dates as a reminder that the African American and Jewish American’s fights for equality and social justice have long been related.
“The NAACP has doubled down on building, deepening, expanding the relationships between African Americans and Jews. Why? Because we understand that that relationship is not predicated on a transitory sharing of interests in any way that is transactional. It is based upon a canon of social justice, on a shared experience of suffering and exclusion,” said Brooks.
The history of the African American-Jewish American relationship is deep: a Jewish man, Henry Moskowitz, was one of the founding members of the NAACP in 1909; by the 1960s, the relationship reached what Brooks called “the golden age of the relationship.” But this relationship was not just between prominent and famous leaders of the Black and Jewish communities at the time, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; it was a fundamentally deep, grassroots-level relationship, explained Brooks. For example, during Freedom Summer in Mississippi, a campaign to register black voters in the state, three civil rights volunteers were murdered — two Jewish men and one African American man. The tragedy of the volunteers is what Brooks called “an eloquent example” that activism must be a shared experience.
“We understand that the relationship between African Americans and Jews must be deep, must be profound, must be historically informed, must be theologically inspired, and must be maintained and held as sacred and valuable. The relationship between Blacks and Jews cannot be a matter of nostalgia – it must be a matter of a now priority,” said Brooks.
Brooks added that the historical parallels between the period during which the NAACP was founded and modern times are not superficial, such as anti-immigrant sentiment and economic anxieties. Brooks cited over 1,000 hate crimes occurring since election day in 2016, including spikes in anti-Semitic, anti-black, and Islamophobic hate crimes. Furthermore, “a young black man is twenty times as likely to lose his life to police than is his white counterpart,” said Brooks.
And millennial activists, Brooks hopes, are at the heart of the movement to change these statistics. “When we think about this moment in history, it is a serious moment. It is a moment in which we have seen a generation of young activists across the country who have attested with their very bodies that ‘Black Lives Matter.’ They do so with the understanding that ‘Black Lives Matter’ is the moral predicate to the ethical conclusion that ‘All Lives Matter.’ Activists now are coming together to address these challenges in a way that demonstrates profound understanding of the intersectionality of the challenges before us,” said Brooks.
He argued that this intersectionality depends in part on the deep relationship between Jewish Americans and African Americans. The activism of both groups, explained Brooks, is historically rooted in the common ethical tradition between the Black church and the Jewish faith and their shared canon of social justice. In that vein, Brooks said, it is important that this relationship survive any potential policy disagreements between the groups.
In the present, the NAACP and a large number of organizations in the Jewish community are standing together to fight the continued problem of voter suppression. For instance, Brooks cited over 200 of the more than 2,000 reformist Jewish rabbis in the country joining a NAACP march from Alabama to Washington, D.C., to support voting rights. In this sense, he said that the Jewish-Black relationship is not just about a romanticized past but rather about present day struggles as well.
“This is not a moment for us to theorize or philosophize about this relationship. The relationship is best understood, appreciated, and discovered in working for a common endeavor and by laboring together. The relationship is deepened when we struggle together,” said Brooks.