How Jews Led The Fight Against Racism

Ninety nine percent of Jews in the world aren’t social activists, but many social activists are Jews. Most Jews just want to lead a quiet life with their friends, family and community, but a large number of those who want to transform the world are Jewish (and much of the time, in my view, the changes they make are for the worse).

The more religious the Jew, the less likely he is to agitate for social change, and the more likely he is to be politically right-wing and respectful of the current social order.

Most Jews in America love America, but many of the most strident voices against America as she is, such as Noam Chomsky and the ACLU crowd, are Jewish.

Howard M. Sachar wrote in his 1993 book A History of the Jews in America:

Nowhere did Jews identify themselves more forth­rightly with the liberal avant-garde than in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. It was an uneven identification. For Jews living in the South, the issue of racial integration posed unsettling questions. They constituted barely one percent of the region’s total population. Among their white neighbors, they had long been accepted as “honorary white Protestants.”

Even Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi was prepared to draw distinctions between Northern Jews and “good” Southern Jews. The latter were circumspect, in any case, unprepared to question the South’s social order.

But in 1954 that social order was challenged head-on. It was then that the United States Supreme Court rendered its judgment in Brown v. Board of Education, striking down racial segregation in public schools. Within the next dozen years, as a series of federal laws and court orders shattered every legal support of racial segregation, Southern Jews faced an agony of indecision. A very small number responded by joining the ardent segregationists. They were entirely atypical of Jews even in the Deepest South.

Black-Jewish Relations in the South

As far back as the 19th century, Jewish storekeepers were virtually the only Southern merchants who addressed black customers as “Mr.” and “Mrs.” and permitted them to try on clothing. By the early 20th century, a few Southern Jews even ventured to speak out against the evils of white supremacy. In 1929, Louis Isaac Jaffe, editorial writer for the Norfolk Virginia-Pilot won the Pulitzer Prize for his denunciation of lynching and the reactionary Harry Byrd political machine.

Julius Rosenwald chairman of Sears Roebuck, contributed more generously in behalf of Southern blacks than did any philanthropist in American history. Rosenwald was Chicagoan, but his munificence was continued by his daughter, Edith Stern of New Orleans, whose Stern Family Fund in later years contributed vast sums to civil rights activities in the South. It was known, too, that Southern Jews privately tended to be more liberal on the race issue than Southern gentiles, and often quietly provided manpower and funds for civil rights causes.

Yet, away from large, modern cities like Atlanta and New Orleans, Southern Jews felt obliged to walk a narrow line. Most were merchants, dependent on the good will of their neighbors. In the Deep South, if they hesitated to join White Citizens Councils, they felt the pressure immediately. “The money dried up at the banks and loans were called in,” recalled a Jewish storekeeper “If you had a restau­rant, linen was not picked up. If you owned a store, the local police could play havoc with you on the fire laws.”

Low Profile

Most local Jews then tended to adopt a low profile on the race issue. At the express wish of their congregations, a majority of Southern rabbis similarly agreed to be restrained. No more than six or seven of them in the entire South worked openly to promote the cause of civil rights. But, of these, Rabbi Julian Feibelman of New Orleans opened the doors of his Temple Sinai in 1949 for a lecture by Ralph Bunche, the black United Nations ambassador, permitting the first major integrated audience in New Orleans history.

At the height of the anti-integration effort, in 1957, Rabbi Ira Sanders of Little Rock testified before the Arkansas Senate against pending segregationist bills. Rabbi Perry Nussbaum of Jack­son, Mississippi, also courageously lent his support to the integration effort, as did Rabbis Jacob Rothschild of Atlanta, Emmet Frank of Alexandria, and Charles Mantingand of Birmingham. Yet these men stood well ahead of their constituencies.

If Southern Jews believed that a low profile would permit them to continue living peacefully, they were wrong. Klan groups exploited the integration crisis to launch acts of anti-Semitic violence. In one year, from November 1957 through October 1958, temples and other Jewish communal edifices were bombed in Atlanta, Nashville, Jack­sonville, and Miami, and undetonated dynamite was found under synagogues in Birmingham, Charlotte, and Gastonia, North Carolina. Some rabbis received telephone death threats.

No one was injured, and local and state authorities in every instance joined newspapers and communal leaders in condemning the outrages and in tracking down, prosecuting, and convicting the perpetrators. Much of the South was urbanizing and modernizing, after all. But an older residue of folkloristic suspicion evidently survived even against veteran, local Jews.

Northern Jews

More than any other factor, it was the participation of Northern Jews in the Civil Rights movement that tapped that residue. These were the people, it is recalled, who were the earliest supporters of the fledg­ling National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1914, Professor Emeritus Joel Spingarn of Columbia University be­came chairman of the NAACP and recruited for its board such Jewish leaders as Jacob Schiff, Jacob Billikopf, and Rabbi Stephen Wise.

Jews also were the earliest supporters of the Urban League, founded in New York in 1911 to help newly arrived black migrants from the rural South. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Amal­gamated Clothing Workers took the lead in organizing “our black brothers” for union membership (over the opposition of the American Federation of Labor national board). And, in the climactic civil rights drives of the 1950s and 1960s, Jewish participation was all but overwhelming.

In the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling itself, the Supreme Court accepted the research of the black sociologist Kenneth Clark that segregation placed the stamp of inferi­ority on black children. Clark’s study had been commissioned by the American Jewish Committee, and it appeared in the amicus curiae brief the Committee submitted to the court. The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Congress also submitted amicus curiae briefs in behalf of the cause. Once the judgment was issued, these Jewish defense organizations continued to file legal briefs in civil rights cases dealing with housing, employment, education, and public accommodation. Many local and state desegregation regula­tions actually were drafted in the offices of the Jewish agencies.

Individual Heroes

Jewish participation in the Civil Rights movement far transcended institutional associations. One black leader in Mississippi es­timated that, in the 1960s, the critical decade of the voting-registration drives, “as many as 90 percent of the civil rights lawyers in Missis­sippi were Jewish.” Large numbers of them were recent graduates of Ivy League law schools. They worked around the clock analyzing wel­fare standards, the bail system, arrest procedures, justice-of-the-peace rulings. Racing from one Southern town to another, they obtained parade permits and issued complaints on jail beatings and intimida­tion.

Jews similarly made up at least 30 percent of the white volunteers who rode freedom buses to the South, registered blacks, and picketed segregated establishments. Among them were several dozen Reform rabbis who marched among the demonstrators in Selma and Birming­ham. A number were arrested. Others were taken into custody for attempting to desegregate a swimming pool in St. Augustine, Florida. One of the demonstrating rabbis, Arthur Lelyveld, was severely beaten in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. A young physician, Edward Sachar, vol­unteering his medical services to the freedom marchers, nearly lost his life as his automobile was forced off a Mississippi back road by local rednecks.

Two young New Yorkers, Michael Schwerner and An­drew Goodman, served in 1964 as voting-registration volunteers in Meridian, Mississippi. One of their coworkers was a young black Mississippian, James Cheney. Together they were waylaid and mur­dered by Klansmen, their bodies dumped in a secret grave. As much as any single factor, it was the nationwide attention given the discov­ery of their corpses that accelerated passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Jews had long since achieved their own political and economic breakthrough. Rarely had any community gone to such lengths to share its painfully achieved status with others.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how the Anti-Defamation League led the fight against racism in America. I believe Jews in England played a similar role, but the only information about it that comes up easily on Google is from this anti-jewish website:

The Zionist Board of Deputies of British Jews formulated the ‘Race Laws’ which now amend the Public Order Act and various other Statutes. The first Race Relations Bill was introduced into the House of Commons by the Labour Attorney General, the immigrant Russian Jew Sir Frank Soskice in 1965. Draconian amendments to the Race Relations Act of 1976 (which, for example, removed from the Crown the need to prove ‘intent’ in prosecutions for ‘Incitement to Racial Hatred’) was passed in the House of Commons with only 132 of the 635 Members being present.

A subsequent series of amendments to the Act were introduced to the House of Commons in 1986 by the Lithuanian Jew Home Secretary Leon Brittan(isky) – now a European Community Commissioner.

You may wonder why all the various amendments to the Race Relations Act have had such extensive backing from the Home Office. Quite apart from the Jewish Home Secretaries and campaigning by pressure groups such as the Jewish Board of Deputies, there is the crucial factor of the behind-the-scenes influence of Jewish Civil Servants – one in particular being Neville Nagler.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Nagler was the head of the Home Office Department responsible for race relations matters. The Jewish Chronicle has boasted of the influence of this Pinner, Middlesex, Synagogue official. It revealed that whenever a Cabinet Minister made a speech on the subject of race relations, notes for the text were always drafted by Nagler. The J.C. also made it clear that Nagler regularly “liased” with top officials of the Jewish Board of Deputies. These reports only confirmed anti-Immigration campaigners’ suspicions as to why the Board of Deputies was so well-informed about their activities, personnel and personal circumstances. The Board often betrayed (through its subsidiary organisations and publications, as well as through the boastful columns of the Jewish Chronicle) knowledge which could only have been gained through official (i.e.: Police / Special Branch / M.I.5) facilities…

Patriots were given further grounds for consternation when it was betrayed in the J.C. early in 1991 that Nagler had retired from the Home Office and had been appointed full-time paid Chief Executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews!

If you sort through the hatred, you can get a feel for the through-line of Jewish efforts in England against racism. I quote the anti-Jewish website above because sometimes you can see yourself more clearly when you read the views of those who hate you.

I emailed Neville Nagler about the above and he replied:

Mr. Nagler replied:

Dear Luke,
Thanks for your email.
I had seen this quote several times before. I used to work in the Home Office, and from 1980–83 was head of the division that dealt with race relations. At the same time I was Treasurer of our local synagogue. It was no secret that I was Jewish, and the Home Office Ministers at the time knew this. My job did require me to draft some speeches for Ministers, but the quotation is an exaggeration: I was certainly not responsible for preparing every speech a UK Government made on the subject of race relations, and the implication that I influenced government policy improperly is of course untrue and unacceptable.

When Jews take on a cause such as anti-racism, they tend to get hated by two groups of people, those who support the cause and those who oppose it.

Jews played a big role opposing apartheid in South Africa. According to Wikipedia: “Many Jews were involved in the anti-apartheid movement, with Joe Slovo, Albie Sachs, Dennis Goldberg, Harry Schwarz and Helen Suzman being among the most notable. Meanwhile, Israel maintained deepening military and diplomatic ties with South Africa between 1967-1990.”

When Pik Botha died in 2006, The Jerusalem Report wrote:

Israel’s decision in September of 1987 to join the rest of the world in imposing sanctions on South Africa left the apartheid regime totally dumbstruck, so much so that its leader at the time, president P.W. Botha (long known as the “Great Crocodile”), sent a secret letter to prime minister Yitzhak Shamir accusing him of stabbing him in the back. “How could you do this to us, after so many years of friendship and alliance?” Botha railed.

Botha, who died Tuesday night aged 90, was a staunch friend of Israel and the architect of the Pretoria-Jerusalem alliance during the dark years of apartheid. He felt so personally hurt by the Israeli sanctions that he wrote directly to the prime minister.

Being a stickler for formalities, like many an Afrikaner gentleman, and also such a loyal friend of the Israelis, Botha didn’t make his pain public, and would not release the “top secret” memo to the media. Israel’s Foreign Ministry only heard about the letter years after the event.

“They were totally confounded, taken by surprise, and really, really hurt,” said Alon Liel, head of the Foreign Ministry’s South Africa desk from October 1986 until 1990, and ambassador to South Africa from 1992-1995. “They never believed we would go that far and join the Europeans in their form of sanctions. They thought we would just make some public declaration and quietly let things go on as they were.”

Haaretz reported in December of 2013:

Although most South African Jews did not actively oppose apartheid, some expats now living in Australia who did rail against the regime spoke out this week following the death of Nelson Mandela…

Robin Margo, a former student leader in South Africa, referenced a paper he presented on Jewish responses to apartheid at the Limmud festival in Sydney this year, saying it was “deeply ironic” that the first half of “Jewish Memories of Mandela,” a 2011 book by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, was dedicated to Jewish activists who were “shunned by the organized Jewish community at the time.”

“People who were shunned then are held up now as virtuous Jews who bring honor to us all,” Margo said.

Professor Colin Tatz, who left Johannesburg for Australia following the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, said the Rivonia Trial of 1963-64 – at which all six whites who were indicted were Jews – stood out.

“Jews were singled out for this particular trial, allowing Justice Minister Balthazar Vorster to declare that Jews were only about three percent of the white population but 100 percent of the country’s ‘saboteurs,’” Tatz wrote in an article to be published in this week’s Australian Jewish News.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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