On the anniversary of a rally that explicitly sought to "Unite the Right" under a banner of bigotry, we are reminded that it's not enough for people of good will to stand up against hate. We must stand together.
And that sometimes requires hard work to repair relationships that have frayed over time.
Case in point: In the early days of the civil rights movement, Jews and blacks literally stood arm in arm against hate, discrimination, and bigotry. At the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, national director Ben Epstein and the entire leadership of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) marched alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and other leaders of the movement. Dr. King, in turn, was a staunch supporter of the Jewish people: In a 1958 address to the American Jewish Congress, he said of blacks and Jews: "Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility."
Yet as the movement made gains, some in both communities began viewing their former allies with suspicion. Some blacks saw Jewish participation as disingenuous and disempowering. Some Jews, in turn, felt betrayed by such sentiments. Many were dismayed by evidence of lingering racism among Jews and anti-Semitism among blacks.
Meanwhile, the haters and bigots were only too happy to see us fighting among ourselves.
Today, more than ever, we cannot afford to be divided by our differences. In the words of the ADL mission, we must "secure justice and fair treatment to all."
As early as last year, representatives from the ADL Philadelphia office began talking with members of the black community to explore how to rebuild the relationship between the groups. Those discussions led to the establishment of the Black-Jewish Alliance of the ADL.
Just a few months later, the events in Charlottesville added new urgency to those efforts. Even so, we proceeded cautiously. We understood that old resentments could derail attempts at constructive dialogue. We also grappled with the issue of legitimacy: The coalition doesn't claim to speak for the communities at large; our voices are only our own.
How, then, could we make a difference? And where would we begin?
We started with the idea that community comes from shared experience. We initiated a series of conversations called "Sharing Our Stories, Sharing Ourselves" and enlisted houses of worship to help us bring these stories to a wider audience.
The goal of these conversations is simply to help people understand the day-to-day experiences of one another. They are not a platform for people to express political viewpoints or engage in debate.
We ask black and Jewish panelists to describe a time where it felt challenging to be black or Jewish and to share something that makes them feel good about being part of their group. Afterward, the audience breaks into pairs or small groups to share their own stories.
These conversations – empowering, alarming, astonishing, enlightening – have a profound effect on the people telling them and the people hearing them. They end in hugs, tears, and new friendships formed. They would continue for hours if we had time. Perhaps we need to find the time.
We plan to hold more of these conversations in the future, and invite organizations interested in hosting one to contact us through the Philadelphia regional office of the ADL.