In conversations on identity politics and the position of Jews within it, I have often thrown in some form of ‘let’s not compare too much with the US’. Since the European context is socially and historically quite different, we should not import uncritically the American discourse into our conversations here. Still, when previewing documentaries for the upcoming event ‘Strange Bedfellows’ which I am co-producing as part of the exhibition in the Jewish Museum Amsterdam ‘Are Jews white?’, I am intrigued by the documentary Shared Legacies.
Shared Legacies (directed by Shari Rogers, 2020) delves into the Jewish-Black alliance during the heydays of the civil rights movement in America. The legacy reveals a closely knit bond between the Black and Jewish communities, personified by the friendship between Martin Luther King and Rabbi Joshua Hershel. An alliance based on values of ‘brotherhood of men’ and ‘none of us is free until all of us are free’. The old testament and particularly the story of Exodus was a returning motif for Dr. King; the close proximity to the (living memory of) the Holocaust infused Jews with a sense of urgency in standing in solidarity with their black fellow women, men and children.
However, after Dr. King was assassinated and Rabbi Joshua Heschel died, a 30 or so years gap ensued in which there was not much dialogue or solidarity. With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the early 2010s, Jews became unwelcome guests to the point of death threats to rabbi Susan Talve who marched in solidarity with BLM in Ferguson. Growing from the conflation of Jews with Israel, Jews were no longer seen by the Black social justice activists as allies. Thirty years of silence had led to the disintegration of a friendship, turning the Jewish community into ‘the Other’.
I watched the documentary being on the lookout for clues that might help me make sense of the opportunities and difficulties of our work at hand. ‘Strange Bedfellows’ typically addresses the Jewish-Black relations in the Netherlands. A relationship somewhat young and relatively unattended to, and in many ways incomparable to the civil rights movement. But inspired by this historical alliance, it seemed to me that standing up for the Black community in its struggle today is a necessary first step. And in order to combat the ‘othering’ which is putting ‘being Jewish’ on par with ‘being white’, we must come to know one another. To build friendships and connections. To share our fears and stand up against those who consider ‘the Other’, Blacks and Jews alike, as inferior. Shared Legacies helps us to understand why this is so important and how we can achieve this.