Growing up as an active member of Jewish youth groups and continuing my involvement through Jewish campus groups at UCLA, I have always been fascinated by the history of Jewish activism in America. Practically every American Jewish institution these days takes pride in our community’s strong involvement with the Civil Rights Movement. They will point to the pictures of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Martin Luther King, Jr., the disproportionate amount of Jews involved in the struggle for civil rights in the South and the American Jewish Congress’ leading role in organizing the March on Washington. But let’s face it: after decades of rising up the social ladder, the Jewish community’s role in social justice movements has greatly diminished.
There are a number of internal and external factors that have led to where we are today. Previous generations of American Jews lived in working-class neighborhoods where they were often neighbors of African-Americans, Latinos and other minorities. Today, Jews have largely moved out of these working-class neighborhoods, as is evident in the history of the Jewish community in Los Angeles. Boyle Heights, a working-class neighborhood in East LA, used to be the center of the Jewish community in the city; in the 1950s, it was a diverse neighborhood of Jews, Latinos and other immigrant groups. Jewish and Latino ties were so strong that they formed organizational alliances to support city council candidates who promised to empower both communities. However, in the decades since, Jews have largely moved to West LA and the San Fernando Valley. The once-strong relationship faltered as the physical distance between Jews and other minorities widened.
Another factor in the Jewish community’s drift away from social justice movements is the growing polarization surrounding Israel. While the major Jewish communal organizations have shifted much of their focus from domestic issues to advocating for Israel, support for the Jewish state amongst underprivileged minority groups has decreased. Concurrently, the popularity of pro-Palestinian groups has grown and Israel’s government has drifted rightward. At UCLA, the Jewish community was, from the 1960s to the 1980s, an active part of the progressive, minority-based “Third World Coalition” on campus but has since become largely disconnected from marginalized minority groups. Indeed, anyone who was at the USAC divestment hearing in 2014 can remember the stark divide within the room, with Jewish students and their mostly white allies on one side and a coalition of Muslim, African-American, Latino and Filipino students on the other.
Donald Trump’s surprising ascent to the presidency should bring about a sweeping change to these trends. The wave of racism and xenophobia that swept Trump to power is antithetical to the values we hold from our tradition and history. Jews have never fared well in societies where fear of the stranger is dominant. Our centuries-long history of persecution has taught us the great dangers of scapegoating a minority group for economic problems, as Trump has repeatedly done with Mexican-Americans. We also know the dangers of forcing a religious group to go through a government registry, which is precisely what Trump has advocated to do for Muslims. Unsurprisingly, exit polls demonstrate that less than a quarter of Jews voted for Trump, amongst the lowest numbers for any religious or ethnic group in America.
If we are to act on the values we preach, the Trump presidency must bring about a revival of Jewish activism. When the rights of minorities are under threat, Jews should be at the forefront of those protesting out on the streets and in the legislature. The Anti-Defamation League has already come out in opposition to the appointment of Stephen Bannon as Chief Strategist of Trump’s administration, on the grounds of his connections to racist white nationalist groups and past anti-Semitic comments that include calling Jews “whiny brats” and decrying the large number of Jews at his daughters’ school.
Unfortunately, many other large Jewish communal institutions like the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) have stayed silent, despite the fact that they have taken political stances on other issues many times, especially with regards to Israel. According to a study done in 2013 by the Pew Research Center, 56% of American Jews say that working for justice/equality is an essential part of what being Jewish means to them, ranking just below “remembering the Holocaust” and “leading an ethical/moral life” but above “caring for Israel” and “being part of a Jewish community.” We must hold these communal organizations to task when they fail to uphold our values, as over 500 young Jewish activists did last week by protesting the appointment of Bannon outside the Zionist Organization of America’s annual gala in New York in response to the organization inviting Bannon to speak at their gathering. This is a good start to grassroots Jewish resistance, but the movement must continue to grow in order to be an effective form of opposition.
The coming years present an opportunity for us to return to our cherished history of social justice activism and solidarity with persecuted minorities. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that he was “praying with his feet” when he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s. Our community today must revive this form of prayer and rededicate ourselves to the struggle for civil rights and social justice.