Dr. Heschel Advises Fellow Jews Not To Stop Pursuing Justice For The Blacks – The Chicago Sentinel, 02.12.1971
This is a newspaper article from the Chicago Sentinel in 1971 summarising Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s speech at the annual meeting of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). In his speech, Heschel encouraged Jewish support of the black cause and came out strongly against the “rude and murderous rhetoric of black demagogues,” which, he believed, desecrated the Black cause. However, Heschel stated that the Jews must understand that these voices are a result of “agony and despair.” He warned the audience not to allow the Black Power movement to stop them from advocating for Black civil rights. Heschel went on to say that guarding against defamation is a Jewish concept. Jews, according to Heschel, have learned that “words kill” and that the Holocaust started with “a few cheap jokes.” He accused Jews, like other whites, of being guilty of prejudice against the Blacks and urged Jews to be active in the struggle for human rights due to their own experience as a minority and Jewish texts and values. He ended by calling upon the community to be “like the woodpecker who uses his head and keeps pecking away until he has finished his job.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel was a Jewish philosopher and professor of ethics and mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s academic centre. Rabbi Heschel, who is referred to in this article as Dr. Heschel, specialised in Hassidism, Jewish philosophy, and Kabbalah. He attempted to return the ethics and morals of the prophets to the halachic Judaism. As stated by Robert M. Seltzer:
"Heschel aimed, through his writing and teaching, to shock modern people out of complacency and into a spiritual dimension."
Heschel was born in Poland, as he recalled in his speech where he stated that he knows “what it means to live in a country where you are despised.” He fled from Poland to England in 1939 and later immigrated to America in 1940. His experience of the Holocaust and the murder of his mother, sisters, and many other family members shaped his view of the world. He was extremely influential in the US Civil Rights Movement and was an activist for Black right; a famous photograph documents him marching together with Martin Luther King at Selma in 1965. After the march he wrote that he felt as if his marching feet were praying. Heschel was also strongly opposed to the Vietnam war and gave an anti-war speech at a church immediately after Martin Luther King saying: “I conclude with the words of Dr. King. The great initiative of this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.” Another sphere of Heschel’s activities was interfaith dialogue, and one of his famous quotes – later a title of one of his books – was “no religion is an island.”
The US Civil Rights Movement strived to end legalised laws of racial segregation and discrimination against the Blacks in America. The movement centred around the leadership and philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr and included campaigns of civil resistance and nonviolent protest. Many liberal Jews identified with the Civil Rights Movement and with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as one of its most notable supporters. Not all of the Black communities accepted this direction, for example, the Black Power Movement that was very active at the time of the speech reported in this article. Black Power, which was prominent in the late 1960s, advocated for black pride and superiority. They opposed the Civil Rights Movement for its non-violent approach and cooperation with the white establishment, a stand that Heschel argued in his speech damaged the Black cause.
Heschel gave this speech at a Bnei Brith Anti-Defamation League event. This organisation was created in the 1910s by Sigmund Livingston, an attorney from Chicago, “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people, and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.” Since then, it has worked to promote racial equality and end discrimination. The ADL also fights anti-Semitism and promotes Israel advocacy.
What is this?
Describe the event that the article refers to.
When did it take place? Where? Which organisation hosted it? Who was the main speaker?
Summarise the main points of the article.
What was Rabbi Heschel appealing for?
Why did he think the Jews should support this cause?
What was his opinion of the Black extremists?
Reading Between the Lines
What was the situation for the Blacks in the United States in the twentieth century?
How did the Black community react to their situation?
What was the attitude of the liberal Jewish community to the civil rights campaign?
The title of the article is “Dr. Heschel Advises Fellow Jews Not To Stop Pursuing
Justice For The Blacks
According to the speech, were all the Jews supporting the campaign for equal rights? Why was this the case?
Heschel referred to “the rude and murderous rhetoric of black demagogues.”
Who was he referring to?
The article contains two references to the Holocaust.
What are they?
Why do you think Heschel referred to the Holocaust?
Rabbi Heschel was not the only Jewish leader who supported the Civil Rights Movement. Watch this video to learn about some others. Were they influential? In what ways?
Abraham Joshua Heschel attempted to appeal to his Jewish audience by speaking about Jewish values. What values did he see as Jewish?
What makes a value a Jewish value?
Can you think of other Jewish values?
Have you ever experienced or witnessed social injustice?
If so, did you have the strength to speak up in that situation? If not, do you think you would have such strength? Why or why not?
How can we make it easier for people to speak up against discrimination?
Recreate Heschel’s speech using this article.
Choose your favourite quote from this speech or other Heschel sources and create a poster or stickers with your chosen quote.
Imagine you were a member of the audience at the ADL meeting.
What questions do you have for Rabbi Heschel?