Mandela, the Jews, & the Future: WHICH Jews?

Heschel School honors Mandela, 1990, NYC -- almost alone among Jewish organizations

Last week, the NY Times ran an article called “In The Day a Newly Freed Mandela Came to New York” which glorified New York City’s welcome to Nelson Mandela in 1990.

But the Times overlooked an empty chair at the welcome table.  Not a single “mainstream” Jewish organization in New York was willing to meet with Mr. Mandela during that 1990 visit.
That was because he had criticized the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

There was one small Jewish school, named for Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and committed to his prophetic values, whose faculty and students marched in the ticker-tape parade. You can see them in the photo provided us by Rabbi Jonah  Geffen, who was then himself a young student at the Heschel School. (To expand the photo,  click on it.)

Aside from the Heschel School? -- Only a hastily gathered ad hoc group of progressive Jews -- of whom more in a moment.

As for the line-up of “official” Jewish organizations --  their absence was a rejection of the broadest human ethical standards, as well as a denial of the prophetic tradition at the heart of Torah from the resistance to Pharaoh forward.

Perhaps more important, it was not only a blemish upon the New York Jewish community 23 years ago, but raises some continuing profound questions about the stance of the American Jewish community today.

For the same reasons Jewish “officialdom” shunned Mandela’s pursuit of peace and justice 23 years ago, today it is shunning the search for peace and security today –- peace and security for and among Israel, Iran, and the USA today.

At the end of this letter, The Shalom Center and I are asking you to act on behalf of the Torah’s command to “seek peace and pursue it.”  To walk step by step along the path that we honor Mandela for learning to walk.

Back in 1990, some 50,000 people waited at Kennedy International Airport and along the motorcade route. About 100,000 crowded the streets in Brooklyn as Mandela approached a high school for an appearance; 400,000 packed the Canyon of Heroes in Lower Manhattan as the ticker-tape parade passed by; and 200,000 jammed the ceremony outside City Hall.

But New York's Jewish organizations were absent — except for the Heschel School.

In response to this failure of official Jewry, an ad hoc group of progressive Jews emerged, and not only responded to Mandela but went on to create a vigorous organization, "Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ)."

JFREJ remains vital and important in NYC. It has, for example, been deeply involved in the struggle to end the NY Police Department’s racially oppressive practice of “stop and frisk.”  

Outside New York as well, the strand of prophetic Judaism continues to grow.  The Shalom Center, of course, which opened in 1983, continues to define ourselves in exactly those terms, trying to live up to that vision –

  • in the activist path of the ancient prophets like Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah;
  • in the ancient rabbis ---  Akiba, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel , Rabbi Yishmael the High Priest, and seven others  who were tortured to death by the Roman Empire for teaching and doing Torah;
  • in Rabbi David Einhorn who in the 1850s was driven out of Baltimore by his own congregants because he called for the abolition of slavery;
  • in Martin Buber and Abraham Heschel, who in the 20th century struggled against both oppression of the Jews and oppression by the Jews.

But the “sha shtill” syndrome – “Keep quiet!” – still affects some major elements of American Jewish life. Not only did the New York Times fail to mention this space that the official Jewish world left empty in 1990; so did the Forward, America’s leading Jewish newspaper. 

The Forward  honored Mandela’s memory and celebrated the warm relationship that emerged –- but only after the end of Apartheid --  between him as President of South Africa and the South African Jewish community.

The Forward even published an article by Judge Richard Goldstone, one of the few Jewishly focused South Africans who struggled against Apartheid, reminding us that till Apartheid collapsed most of the organized Jewish community there supported it or stood silent. 

But the Forward failed to mention, let alone analyze, the 1990 failure of the American Jewish community.

And it is the analysis that is important. For the past is not only the past; it is really the present and future as well.

What is the analogous issue today? Not Mandela, of course: since he succeeded in leading the transformation of South Africa by peaceful means, official American Jewish organizations today are glad to honor him. 

Today the analogous issue is Iran.

That is, the possibility of a peaceful arrangement with Iran’s new government that makes certain Iran’s nuclear research is for civilian and peaceful purposes, while step by step ending sanctions against Iran and welcoming Iran into the peaceful circle of international community. 

The grass roots of flesh and blood American Jews support the diplomacy that is reaching for that kind of peaceful settlement.

But some powerful American Jewish organizations are actively opposing it, and others are standing silent.

Why? Because the Israeli Prime Minister has publicly and fiercely attacked the negotiations, poured contempt on the new Iranian president, and continues to talk of war – though his own military and intelligence-apparatus leaders publicly say this policy is daft.

In the US, the question now comes down to whether American Jews inflame and support  -- or oppose -- Congressional efforts to impose still more draconian sanctions on Iran. Most US diplomats think that such sanctions would signal to the Iranians that negotiations will never satisfy an America anxious not to make peace with them but to destroy them. So worse sanctions instead of fuller negotiations would lead to a greater chance of war.

Yet some of the most important American Jewish organizations – AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, even the Jewish Council on Public Affairs  –-  choose to follow the Prime Minister of Israel rather than either the best Israeli military/security planners or the Torah’s command to “seek peace and pursue it.” Of course, in a democracy they have the right to be wrong, foolish, and destructive. – But is it wise?

Because of them, it is important to support the 118 Rabbis and other Jewish clergy who have called for a policy of “Step by Step toward Shalom with Iran” – shalom for Israel, for the US, for the region, and for Iran.

This statement was initiated by The Shalom Center, but these Rabbis represent something deeper, older, newer, ever renewed – the Prophetic impulse that rises in every Jewish generation. They are today what JFREJ was in 1990 – an ad hoc Jewish group emerging when the “official” Jewish world has failed to carry forward the Jewish mission.

We appeal to our Jewish members and readers to support these rabbis in their practical wisdom, their pursuit of shalom rather than one more immoral and self-destructive war. We ask you to click to -- and join 118 Rabbis, Cantors, and other Jewish clergy to sign the statement: “Step by Step toward Shalom with Iran.” We will make sure this statement reaches some key members of Congress and the broader public.

Nelson Mandela was not always committed to the path of nonviolence, peace, and reconciliation. He grew into that path.

If we truly honor him, we should also be growing into that path.

Please click now: 


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