Until We Are All Free, None of Us Are

By Rabbi Margie Klein Ronkin, Essex County Community Organization

On January 21, 2020, following the nationwide remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr. we will celebrate the fourth annual National Day of Racial Healing. As a rabbi working for racial justice in a moment of rising antisemitism, I wonder how King might confront the many strains of hatred growing today.

With 13 violent attacks on Jewish communities over the eight days of Chanukah, this is the scariest time in recent memory to be Jewish in America. In response, thousands of people rightly marched against hatred and antisemitism. I am grateful that our community and our allies are ready to stand up. And yet, as a White Jew, I am aware that my community is receiving concern and concrete support that targeted communities of color are not getting.

The legacy of slavery, exploitation, and anti-Black policies is all around us. According to the LA Times, police violence is the leading cause of death among young Black men in America. Black families own one-tenth the wealth of White families. And yet many of us have gotten used to this inequality. Instead of taking to the streets or getting arrested as our civil rights movement forbears did, we observe a depoliticized day of community service.

In a moment when the public spotlight is on the Jewish community, I want to remind people that racism and Jew-hatred serve a purpose – to intimidate us enough that we hide or divide. Race-based slavery in America began as a divide-and-conquer tactic when Black and White indentured servants tried to band together. Enslavers responded brutally by giving Blacks perpetual slavery and giving Whites mild punishments. By doling out small benefits to poor Whites, enslavers prevented class revolution and created what Suzanne Plihcik calls “a multiclass coalition of people who would later come to be called White.”

Similarly, when Blacks and Jews banded together to challenge inequality in the 1950s, the response was McCarthy’s witch hunt. The highly publicized trial of the Rosenbergs and the McCarthy hearings called into question Jewish loyalty in America and effectively scared Jewish activists out of public leadership in leftist worker movements in America.

Today, we are seeing a rise of opportunities for division – Louis Farrakhan’s condemnations, the women’s march, the tensions around Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments. In each instance, I am reminded that racism and antisemitism work when we allow ourselves to be divided.

As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said in his final speech, “Whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, …he kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery.”

In that vein, I am proud to have been part of an effort by Faith in Action and MA Communities Action Network to confront race and antisemitism jointly. By building relationships across race, class, and faith, we have been able to be there for one another through challenging times, and even through moments of tension with one another. In particular, we have challenged White Jews to recognize our privilege as White people and challenged non-Jews of color to learn about antisemitism and not fall into the trap of letting our movements be divided by it.

Together, we are reminding one another that our liberation is bound together. To quote Jewish American author and activist Emma Lazarus: “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”

Rabbi Margie Klein Ronkin is Director of Clergy & Leadership Development for the Essex County Community Organization (ECCO), an affiliate of Faith in Action. She is the founder of Kavod, a Jewish community in Boston committed to building a liberated world for all people.

Image of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taken by Marion S. Trikosko and provided c/o Library of Congress.