The image has become iconic: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., standing arm-in-arm as they marched for civil rights in Alabama in 1965.
It has become a brilliant symbol of the strong alliance between African Americans and Jews.
But as we prepared last month to attend the African-American and Jewish Community Leaders Mission, we hoped that it wouldn’t be the only image we would see of our communities in holy friendship.
We were fortunate to be among the small group of leaders from six different communities who gathered in Philadelphia under the auspices of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs for three days (Oct. 1-3) of learning, listening and shared exploration.
Our goal was to chart a course for renewed partnership around anti-poverty and civil rights advocacy.
We naturally and appropriately started with a history lesson. Jews are rightly proud of the Jewish role in fighting for civil rights.
Jews represented a disproportionate number of whites involved in the struggle and stood with African Americans to found and lead our country’s essential civil rights organizations, most significantly the NAACP.
But in the years since the civil rights movement, something went wrong; our relationship went awry. As communities, we have become distant, even sometimes hostile, intolerant and foreign to each other.
We have felt that distance and distrust as we have worked to develop professional alliances, partnerships and friendships in our hyper-segregated and poor city.
Our agenda in Philadelphia included visits to important historical sites for both communities. We met Mayor Michael Nutter and learned about two ambitious projects to bridge the gaps between people, NewCORE and Operation Understanding.
We toured Jewish and Christian sites providing social services to people in need. We looked deeply at the problem of poverty and hunger in America.
As we sat, toured and talked with our colleagues, our hearts expanded and contracted. We were struck by the starkness of our ignorance about each other. Somewhere in the last 50 years, we stopped listening to each other.
Black-Jewish relations froze with the romantic image of Heschel and King. That point was sharply illustrated by a pastor in our group who said, “I don’t want to sound like an angry black man, but I need to be able to tell my own story. Don’t tell me about who I am.”
In the last several decades, we slipped into each other’s shadows and played to each other’s greatest fears. To African Americans, Jews became white people with power — oppressors. To Jews, blacks became angry and dangerous — criminals.
Though there are people in both communities who have continued to do important work, we have endured flashpoints of conflict, sparks of anti-Zionism and racism, which have led us away from each other. We can do better.
If we are to repair and sustain this historic relationship, we must ask essential questions:
What do we mean when we talk about the “black community” and the “Jewish community?” Who represents each of us?
We cannot meet with individuals we know, to one degree or another, and commission them as official representatives of their communities.
Where is our point of connection? What draws and binds us to each other?
Some may see it as a moral imperative, one that may have foundation within the religious community. Though faith delivers a model that has worked in the past and continues to be a binding instrument, it can sometimes bring the opposite of a desired outcome.
How can we make the relationship not only intentional but also lateral? A renewed relationship between the African American and Jewish communities must not be built on a sense of obligation, so how do we confront the reality that many issues that affect the black community do not necessarily resonate in Jewish communities? How can we work together as partners and avoid all forms of paternalism?
We need to stop resting on images from the 1960s and create new opportunities to understand each other. We need to learn how to transcend fear and distrust by listening attentively, with curiosity and selflessness. In the words of a wise colleague, we must learn to understand the other as they understand themselves.
The bottom line is that we are better when we stand shoulder-to-shoulder, learning from each other, leaning on each other and defending each other. Both marginalized peoples, we both drink from a well that nourishes us with stories of liberation and aspirations to return to our promised lands.
And we cannot diminish the power of bigotry. When things get tough, we both get slammed.
It’s been 50 years since King’s “I have a dream” speech in Washington, and his language is still powerful. “They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
We will continue to seek ways to walk together, here and now, in the reality of Milwaukee in 2013. It’s time for us to develop new ways to listen to each other, so that we might learn to tell our own stories and to share them with others.
Rep. Mandela Barnes represents the 11th Assembly District of Wisconsin. Elana Kahn-Oren is director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.