Director’s Desk: Many Juneteenths

By Jacob Bender, CAIR-Philadelphia Executive Director

Every June 19th was a special day for my family. *

In the first decades of the 20th century, fleeing the anti-Jewish violence in Eastern Europe, my grandparents and parents emigrated to America seeking a new life in a land where “all men are created equal.”

New converts to the of socialist movement for workers’ rights, and with first-hand experience of Jewish oppression in Europe, my family very quickly took notice of the brutal racist hypocrisy at the heart of the American soul: the cruel centuries of slavery, the terrorism of Jim Crow apartheid, and massacres like the so-called Tulsa “race riots” of June 19, 1921.

My parents were insistent that my brother and I learn about this history, the connections between Jews and Blacks, as the reason our family became early supporters of the civil rights movement and organizations like CORE (Congress of Racial Equality)

SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee)

and Dr. King’s SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference)

And come every Juneteenth, my parents would utilize the occasion to talk to their small children about “race relations” in America, how Juneteenth celebrates the Emancipation Proclamation of June 19, 1863 and the end of slavery …

just as the Jewish holiday of Passover celebrates the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from their bondage in ancient Egypt; and why we should never use the “N-word” — even if we heard it emanating from the mouths of our schoolyard friends. And my mother would read us chapters from “Freedom Road”, a novel about Reconstruction by Howard Fast, and tell us stories from her own childhood, as when she walked up and down the Coney Island Boardwalk, collection can in her hand, shouting at the top of her lungs, “HELP FREE THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS!”

Of course, there can be no parallel between what white liberals experienced, even at the height of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts and the anti-communist hysteria that led to the execution by electrocution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the so-called “husband and wife atomic spies” on June 19, 1953, and the violent horror of the systemic white supremacy that African Americans experience on a daily basis all across this nation.

And lest we Jews forget that while in the 1960s the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once marched with Dr. King in Selma, by the 1970s Jewish liberals had all but abandoned the cause of civil rights in favor of protecting their white privilege, turning their backs on affirmative action, and labeling as anti-Semites any who dared condemn the growing list of Israeli human rights against Palestinians.

Rabbi Heschel once wrote, clearly in relation to the Black liberation struggle, that “while some are guilty, all are responsible.” Even now, the tears we shed for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean and Eric Garner, and countless countless others murdered by the police, are but drops in the ocean of Black suffering.

After World War Two, international opinion held that Germany owed reparations to the Jewish People who had suffered so much in the Holocaust, and restitution for the property stolen from them by the Nazi government.

This nation was built by the slave labor of African Americans. The time has come for the nation to settle the bill.

Three generations ago, my great great grandparents lived 10 to a room, working 14 hour days in the stinking garment sweatshops of the Lower east side of New York and other urban ghettos of the Great North East American Metropolis.

For many Jews today, firmly ensconced in well-to-do neighborhoods all across the nation, and when contemplating how their families rose from poverty to wealth in only three generations, America must indeed seem the greatest of all countries. I have heard as well this sentiment from their South Asian Muslim counterparts and their mostly professional children.

This analysis of course, mirrors the white supremacist discourse that sees Blacks as a lesser order of human beings. Overturning centuries of white supremacy will not be easy, but as the rabbis of the Talmud wrote, “we are not required to complete the task, but only to begin it.”

* I respectfully pen this from a position of privilege, not pretending to speak for, or on behalf of African Americans, but as an ally in their struggle for freedom and dignity.