What sparks a commitment to social justice? On Bill Cohen, Martin Luther King and more

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (center left) joins with Martin Luther King in 1968, at one of many joint appearances.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (center left) joins with Martin Luther King in 1968, at one of many joint appearances.

During the Civil Rights era, blacks and Jews had a close, even special relationship.

Rabbis and other Jewish leaders supported and marched with black civil rights leaders.

Jews worked for change, sometimes putting themselves in great danger themselves. Of the three civil rights workers killed in Mississippi during Freedom Summer, 1964, two — Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — were Jewish.

Growing up, I learned of these connections and came to believe that much of these linkages arose from Jewish theology and from the many historical experiences of oppression Jews suffered.

Jews are taught to remember and to take the past seriously. When celebrating Passover, we say and teach our children that we were once slaves and strangers in Egypt. As one Haggadah, the text followed before our Passover dinner, reads:

In every generation, each of us should feel as though we ourselves had personally gone forth from Egypt. Every generation must discover freedom anew. For we read in the Torah: “And you shall explain to your child on that day, it is because of what the Eternal did for me when I went forth from Egypt.” Every generation must earn its claim to liberty.

It is an ever-recurring theme of history. We continue to remember: “It was we who were slaves… we who were strangers.” And therefore, we recall these words as well:

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in Egypt.

When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them… You shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt. You shall rejoice before God with your son and daughter… and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow in your midst.

Always remember that you were slaves in Egypt. You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the orphan. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt. 

But as Bill Cohen pointed out today, more recent experiences of discrimination also create empathy

Cohen, the keynote speaker at the 33rd annual Portland breakfast honoring the slain civil rights leader, shared memories of discrimination he felt and witnessed growing up in Bangor as a half-Jewish boy with black friends. . .

Cohen, whose father was Jewish, said while pitching in a Little League game as a youngster, a fan once threw a beer can at him and yelled, “Send the Jew-boy home.” He later discovered he couldn’t get a job at a seaside resort because the owners didn’t like Jews, he said.

“That’s nothing compared to what people of color have endured,” Cohen admitted, “but it gave me a sense of what discrimination felt like.” [source]

Cohen’s empathy and commitment to social justice arose, in part, because it gave him “a sense of what discrimination felt like.”

Other experiences, of being bullied, of feeling somewhat different, can also spark empathy.

But let’s be clear about this.

Empathy isn’t always the reaction to being hurt. And people can empathize without personally experiencing discrimination.

There are people who are hurt who, instead of empathizing, go on to hurt others. Those abused sometimes become abusers, as those bullied sometimes become bullies.

Thus hurtful experiences are not enough to be translated into empathy and to care for others, whether those hurt are injured by individuals or systems. Somehow one’s individual pain has to go beyond felt injury if it will impel a commitment to social justice.

It could be that, for many Jews, experiences of discrimination, the broader Jewish experience and theological teachings are conducive to encouraging Jews to be involved in rights struggles. However, not all Jews have those commitments.

And of course many others involved in promoting rights come to this from their own contexts and experiences. These may be religiously based or secular.

What of the most courageous, such as people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust? According to their statements, captured in interviews by political scientist Kristen Renwick Monroe, they were driven by a deep moral ethic and a view of themselves as people who simply do the right thing.

Our actions for justice need not be as courageous as those rescuers, but even the slightest such commitments are driven by some combination of ethics and empathy. Once sparked, whatever first promoted such actions becomes part of our very being.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives.