Why A Rabbi Honors Holocaust Remembrance Day On A Civil Rights Mission

During this 80th anniversary year of the Holocaust’s murderous peak in 1944, this rabbi will honor Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) by leading a civil rights mission across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama – site of the 1965 Bloody Sunday attack on 600 unarmed, mainly African-Americans marching for equal rights and dignity.  The following week, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., famously marched arm in arm with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Holocaust survivor, across the same bridge in what would become the Civil Rights Movement’s perhaps most iconic moment of interfaith and inter-racial common cause.

 Tracing their steps isn’t the “usual” way to commemorate the slaughter of over 11 million, including six million Jews – victims of humanity’s perhaps greatest inhumanity – but these aren’t “usual” times.  

 Especially as a congregational rabbi from a Holocaust family, I profoundly honor “Never Again” education against Holocaust denialism, and the urgency of hearing and preserving first-hand testimonials while the last of history’s remaining eyewitnesses still live. I deeply know genocide’s social and emotional effects on the second and third generations of survivors. I marvel at the courage and resilience of survivor families and their communities that brought life back to life from the shadow of death and despair. Public commemorations and sustained education campaigns, with these deep truths at their core, are vital – and my congregation will fulfill this important purpose explicitly during our trip with dedicated ritual and reflection during our journey. 

 But during these troubled times, usual methods of remembrance and commemoration will not suffice – especially merely self-directed ones. Among the reasons that prejudice can proliferate into exclusion and violence are the human tendency to privilege “our own,” and society’s many ways of reinforcing silos between people and echo chambers that amplify pre-existing beliefs and attitudes. Cultivating empathy for others precisely not like ourselves, starting with immersion in their worldviews and narratives, is one of the most proven effective inoculations against prejudice, xenophobia and anti-democratic political violence.

 There’s no denying that we all need these “vaccinations,” and we must model seeking them – especially now.

 In that spirit, during the days leading into and through this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, members of my congregation will join me in experiencing the historical and personal power of the Civil Rights Movement across the Deep South. We’ll visit the heart of the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott and learn about what happened when Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus. We’ll visit with witnesses to the racist 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church that killed and maimed children standing up for their civil rights. We’ll learn from clergy in Atlanta and Selma confronting forces of despair, tokenism and counter-xenophobia. We’ll let our hearts break at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which commemorates the many thousands killed by lynching.

 We will do so for many reasons. One reason is that a society standing steadfastly against hate and othering is a society in which all truly can belong. By contrast, hate or diminishment of others in any form ultimately licenses hate and diminishment in every form. As Dr. King put it, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The Holocaust’s utter depravity was possible only because it became tolerable, even laudable, to dehumanize “others” for who they were, how they looked, whom they loved, where they came from or what they believed. So too today, as nearly daily news reports track resurging antisemitism, Islamophobia, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia underscore that these insidious forces are alive and well among us.

 A second and related reason is that it is our collective duty in a pluralist democracy, especially if we ourselves have experienced prejudice and discrimination, to bear witness and make common cause. Torah expresses this duty in terms of empathy borne of experience: ones who have been othered – in Torah’s words, who were “strangers in the land of Egypt” – have a special duty to protect the cause of every putative stranger, outcast and other vulnerable group in society. It’s what we must do because it’s who we must be.

 A third reason is political in the sense of collective action. The Civil Rights Movement testifies to the transformational potential of nonviolent collective action based on sound moral leadership. Few of us can be a Dr. King visioning a “promised land” he himself would not live to reach, or a Mahatma Gandhi who was the moral leader of India’s independence movement, yet all of us can uplift the moral courage to confront deeply embedded societal wrongs with the nonviolent power of human dignity, collective organizing and voting. Even if these means cannot right every collective wrong, they have much to teach us for the important work of today and tomorrow.

 No two collective injustices are the same: the Holocaust cannot be conflated with four centuries of African-American experience, or vice versa. There are real differences between them, and no slogan or site can do either of them justice.  But they share a common testament that our success in building a truly just community, nation and world will require empathy beyond self, collaboration between groups, and commitment to principles that transcend us all.

 Only together can we get it together.  So on this Holocaust Remembrance Day, find me on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama. 


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