Today, I’d like to talk about two things that happened in 1957. In 1957, Golda Meir was the Foreign Minister of Israel. And she decided that it was important for Israel to reach out to Africa with its agricultural technology.
When we think about it, this is pretty amazing. Israel was only nine years old at the time, barely able to defend itself. And, yet Israel made the decision early on in its history that it was to be much more than a haven for Jews fleeing persecution. To fulfill its true destiny, Israel had to be an or la’goyim, a light unto the nations, a nation that would be concerned not only with its own survival, but a country that would help other peoples to flourish.
The timing of this decision was also significant. At the very moment when the European countries were winding down their colonial adventures and their exploitive relationship with the third world, Israel was reaching out in a different way, to help, to encourage and to nurture.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, something else was happening in 1957. Dr. Martin Luther King, jr. gave a famous speech called “The Birth of a New Nation.” The new nation was Ghana which had recently secured its independence from Great Britain.
And, in this speech, Dr. King linked the end of colonialism in Europe with the end of segregation in America in two ways. First of all, he spoke about the freedom of Ghana as another expression of the Exodus from Egypt, just as the African-American liberation from slavery and march towards civil rights was a new expression of the Biblical story.
Secondly, Dr. King said that in both cases, the way the battle for freedom is fought matters a great deal. He pointed out that on the night of the State Ball in Ghana, Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah was dancing with the Duchess of Kent. The once slave was dancing with the lord on an equal plane. And, that was possible, because there was no bitterness. King said, “These two nations will be able to live together and work together because the breaking aloose was through nonviolence, and not through violence.”
And, Dr. King went on to say, “the aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of beloved community.…Let us fight passionately…for the goals of justice and peace….but…never with hate and malice…always with love….so that when….the walls of segregation have completely crumbled in Montgomery…we will be able to live with people as their brothers and sisters.”
This is a remarkable vision, far ahead of its time. I want to come back to this in a moment. But, what I want us to notice right now is that in 1957, Israel was reaching out to Africa, American Jewry was becoming significantly involved in the Civil Rights Movement in America. And, Dr. King was preaching that it was essential that the freedom movement within America and around the world needed to be fought without hate and without malice, because the ultimate goal is not victory, but human transformation and human relationship.
All of this began to unravel around the same time, around 1973. In the aftermath of the 1973 war, almost all of the African nations that had such close ties with Israel broke relations with Israel. Only two years later, in 1975, the UN came out with its infamous “Zionism is racism” resolution and Africa supported it.
On the other side of the world, relations between the Jewish community and the black community began to fray. The notion began to take hold that Jews are on the side of the oppressors, not the oppressed, both in Israel and in America. Key African American national leaders made anti-semitic statements. There was tension between the Black and Jewish communities over school control and affirmative action. And, Dr. King’s legacy of nonviolence and beloved community fell into disfavor in significant segments of the black community.
I don’t want to exaggerate the problems in the relationship between the black and Jewish communities. Even in the roughest years, the Black Congressional Caucus continued to be highly supportive of the State of Israel. And, things have gotten better since the early ‘70’s. But, damage was done to the relationship. Trust was eroded. And, we have never really sat down and talked about it with each other.
I think now is an opportune moment to have that conversation. Here is why. Israel is once again reaching out to Africa in a major way. Part of this is about economic opportunity. Part of it is that Israel needs friends and allies in the world. But, I believe the greatest part of it has to do with Golda Meir’s vision of Israel and the Jewish people in 1957—to be an or la’goyim, a light unto the nations, a people who encourage others to flourish.
So, when I was at AIPAC a few weeks ago, I heard Israeli Yossi Abramowitz speak about how his company Energiya Global is bringing cheap electricity through solar power to millions of people in Africa who don’t have it. I heard Sivan Yaari of Israel’s Innovation Africa speak of bringing clean water through solar energy to remote villages in Africa. I heard Ambassador Gil Haskall say that all the surveys say that Israel is one of the most popular countries in the world in Africa. And, the reason is that Israel brings not only much coveted water technology, but just as important, Israel brings a message of hope to African farmers—that economic development has nothing to do with the color of your skin—that if Israel can grow vegetables in the arid desert, Africans can, too.
All this is wonderful news. But, I had to ask. I had to confront the elephant in the room. I said to Yossi Abramowitz: Ma Nishtana? Why should this time be different? Israel has been this route before, but was very disappointed, if not betrayed in 1973. To me, Yossi’s answer to my question is not as important as the fact that Israel is very bent on trying again.
And, that makes me think that this is the right moment for Jews and Blacks to try again on this side of the ocean. And, I’ll give two reasons for this. First of all, Charlottesville has thrown us together again. Where there is a rise in racism, there is bound to be a rise in anti-semitism. Once the genie is out of the bottle, we can’t control who is going to get hurt. So, it makes sense for us to work together.
But, maybe even more importantly, America needs the vision of Dr. King more than ever before. In the Exodus story, which is central to the identity of both of our communities, we read of the plague of darkness. And, the Torah says, ‘lo ra’u ish et achiv.’ The darkness was so thick, that ‘a person could not see his brother.’ And, the rabbis comment: This was the problem of Egyptian society. The Egyptians did not see the Jews as their brothers.
Remarkably, the Torah continues to insist that the Jews see the Egyptians as their brothers. The Torah says that by the end of the story, Moses had become a hero to the Egyptians. In other words, the Torah does not see the Egyptians as monsters. In fact, one of the goals of the ten plagues was to transform the hearts of the Egyptians. And, for most of Egypt, that worked.
This is vintage Dr. King. And, this is what’s missing in America right now. Lo ra’u ish et achiv. We are not seeing each other as brothers and sisters. We are not fighting the battle for freedom with love, as Dr. King preached. We are so full of hatred towards the other side, that all we care about is victory. We have abandoned Dr. King’s vision of transforming human hearts, of creating new relationships across difference. We are not giving thought to what we will be left with when the battle is over, because if we did, we would fight very differently.
Yet, Dr. King’s vision is still within our grasp. This is the perfect time for the Black community and the Jewish community to say ‘ma nishtana’—how different we are from each other! And, yet, we can be friends. And, yet we can be close. And, in healing our own relationship, we can establish a template for healing the rest of America, too.
James Baldwin once wrote: “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But, nothing can be changed until it is faced.” So I’d like to change my translation of Ma Nishtana. “Ask not, ‘why should this time be different?– but how could this time be different?
What have learned since 1957? And, how can we today bring each other one step closer to Dr. King’s as yet unrealized vision of the beloved community? These are the questions we should be asking each other at the Seder this year, if Passover is to be not only the holiday of our past, but the holiday of our better future.