What would Heschel say?

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Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, second from right, marches with Martin Luther King Jr., center, and other civil rights leaders from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, second from right, marches with Martin Luther King Jr., center, and other civil rights leaders from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965.

When the Movement for Black Lives published its platform this month, many Jews were shocked that, in addition to its call for the end of systemic racism against African Americans, the platform demanded an end to U.S. aid to Israel.

Support for Israel made the United States complicit in the “genocide” against the Palestinians. Israel, the platform asserted, is “an apartheid state.”


With its harsh denunciation of Israel, the platform placed the many American Jews who sympathize with Black Lives Matter in a quandary: If the movement is so hostile to Israel, must Jews choose between the Jewish state and Black Lives?

Jewish organizations have had their say, ranging from outright rejection to calls for continuing dialogue. We wondered, what would Abraham Joshua Heschel say?

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Heschel, a Conservative rabbi who died in 1972,  is perhaps most famous for his activism in the civil rights movement and the iconic photograph of him marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Selma to Montgomery, Ala., march of 1965.

Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, a Jewish studies professor at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, said her father hated when people used words improperly, and he would have objected to the Black Lives Matter’s accusation that Israel is guilty of genocide.


“My father would have been appalled as he always was by lies, and he would have been appalled that the Black Lives Matter platform would seek to alienate and close the door on the closest ally the African American community has,” she said. “I also think it is terribly self-destructive for the Black Lives Matter movement. He would have said that black lives matter even more than that political platform or the people who wrote that platform.”

Civil dialogue is the way to understand these complexities than slogans, according to Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac. It was part of his goal on Aug. 14 when he delivered a sermon at First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Landover. In it, he highlighted the experience of marginalization that Jews and African Americans have faced, referring to the incident at the Olympics in which the Lebanese team refused to allow the Israelis on their bus.

“So I am here to tell you that we Jews know what it is like and what it means to be denied a seat on the bus,” he told his listeners, in an allusion to civil rights worker Rosa Parks’ famous refusal to give up her seat for a white man on a Mongtomery, Ala., bus in 1955.

Weinblatt’s father, Samuel, attended King’s March on Washington in 1963. The younger Weinblatt said Heschel was a role model to him because of his ability to combine compassion with and activism in his writings and teachings. Weinblatt, too, thinks Heschel would subscribe to the goals of Black Lives Matter, but would call the movement out for its anti-Israel language.

“I think what Heschel would say is, ‘We need to work that much harder to make sure the voices of love are louder than [those of] hatred and divisiveness,’” Weinblatt said. “’We shouldn’t stand on the sidelines and allow the anti-Israel pro-Palestinians to hijack this movement.’”

It was a combination of Heschel’s teaching and his social justice activism that touched Adas Israel Congregation Rabbi Emeritus Jeffrey Wohlberg, who studying with Heschel at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. Wohlberg, who now lives in Atlanta, said there is no question that Heschel loved the Jewish state.

“I think his deepest of emotions and philosophic commitments would have been supporting the modern state of Israel whether he agreed with current political positions or not,” he said. “At the same time we all know he was committed to human rights, which led to him speak out and act publicly.”

Wohlberg said Heschel would have attempted to communicate the importance of both of these passions in today’s world.

“I’m sure he would have been caught up with trying to reach as, he did with Dr. King, a level of public understanding and expression that would have spoken for both of those concerns,” he said.

Among Heschel’s writings was “Israel: An Echo of Eternity” in which he discussed the 1967 the Six-Day War two years after Israel’s victory. Edward Kaplan, a professor of romance studies at Brandeis University and one of Heschel’s biographers, said after the war Heschel went to Israel to walk the streets “as if the Bible were being written again.”

He said, “If you look at [“Israel: An Echo of Eternity”], you have this extremely passionate, spiritual attachment to Israel. He quotes at length from [dovish] Abba Eban, who was the Israeli representative to the U.N. during the war. Heschel would be oriented toward a peaceful solution.”

Kaplan noted that Heschel was “more subtle and more learned than most of us,” because of the historical experience he had of being born in Poland, educated in Germany and then fleeing the Holocaust by coming to the United States in 1940. Kaplan said that Heschel’s identification with blacks during the civil rights years came from the anti-Semitism he witnessed in Europe.

Today’s debate over the killing of unarmed black men would have raised “religiously urgent questions,” said Rabbi Shai Held, who teaches at the Mechon Hadar yeshiva in New York and has also written about Heschel.

“He was very wary of situations where some people had all the power and others were very vulnerable,” Held said. “Were Heschel alive today, he would insist that Jews ask the question about the moral and religious damage caused by subjugating another people,” he said, referring to the Palestinians.

Held thinks Heschel would have had similar feelings about the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that while he would not have regarded the occupation as “genocide,” he would have been “insisted that the occupation has done great damage to Israel.”

“I don’t doubt that the Jewish people had a claim on the land, but I think he thought that subjugating another people [Palestinians] is wrong,” Held said. “And subjugating them in the long term damages both the oppressor and the oppressed.”

But the key in all of this may be time. Susannah Heschel said that when she was growing, up she observed a gradual shift in the American Jewish community’s attitude toward her father’s civil rights activism. Initially, the support came from rabbis who had fled religious persecution in Europe. She observed a similar trend when her family began speaking out on behalf of Soviet Jewry.

So will Jews again be able to feel they can comfortably support both American social justice and the legitimacy of Israel? Heschel’s daughter thinks so, but only if Jews continue to speak their conscience.

“My father said the opposite of good is not evil, the opposite of good is indifference,” she said. “You don’t give up. You keep talking. And my father kept talking.”

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1 COMMENT

  1. If Rabbi Held believes that Jews protecting themselves from genocidal Arabs is “subjugating” them, he should stick to theology, on which he has some expertise, and stay out of secular matters, on which he has none. Rabbi Heschel escaped from Europe to survive, his only choice. The Jews in Israel defend themselves to survive, a much better alternative and one that should receive our admiration, not the scorn of those seeking only to further their own self-image.

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