“This is the world as it is. This is where you start.”
–Saul D. Alinsky
When Jack Greenberg died this past week, we put to rest a legend… a liberal icon that had committed much of his life to the pursuit of justice for African Americans and others of color whose lives were pre-ordained not by the content of their heart but the tone of their skin. As a young man, well before the epic case of Brown v. Board of Education, Greenberg understood there were certain struggles that transcended the time and place of our breathe… events that decided where we were to travel and why… and what would become of us and still yet others to follow. To most, that Greenberg was a Jew was but a mere footnote, a coincidence of life. It mattered much less than his, or our, value as human beings who understand that we are defined not by the tattoos of culture or religion but by our collective steadfast commitment to principle and the pursuit of justice.
Sadly, as it turned out, late in life and apparently with relative ease, Greenberg found comfort in parsing out justice between African American share-croppers in Mississippi and their battered Palestinian brothers and sisters in Haifa and Rafah. Tragically, he is not alone.
Greenberg was an attorney and legal scholar who served as Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund from 1961 to 1984, succeeding the legendary Thurgood Marshall when he became the first African American appointed to the United States Supreme Court. Having argued some forty cases before the Supreme Court himself, Greenberg went on to spend much of the remainder of his life as an academic, teaching at such prestigious law schools as Columbia, Yale, Harvard, CUNY and Princeton. Later, he became Vice Dean at Columbia Law School and Dean of Columbia College. Along the way he served as a consultant to the revolutionary government in South Africa as it crafted its new race and religion blind constitution.
No doubt a man of consistent personal principle when it came to the battle for race blind equality in the US, to the surprise of more than a few, in 1982 Greenberg crossed a picket-line of protesting black law students upset he had been chosen over a black professor to co-teach Julius L. Chamber’s class on race law at Harvard Law School. Chambers was a renowned African American civil rights leader, lawyer and educator.
Years later in his final days at Columbia, Greenberg crossed a different kind of picket line when he signed onto an anti BDS faculty letter which lauded Israel as a “… thriving democracy” that protects “…the individual rights of all citizens, including Arabs as well as Jews.” So what was there along the way that stanched the fires of a lifetime of liberal commitment to equality and justice for African Americans that, for Greenberg, ultimately transformed the face of Israeli Apartheid to a fairy tale with Bull Connor suddenly recast as but a misunderstood guarantor of full freedom and fraternity for us all no matter what our skin tone.
For decades, Jack Greenberg stood as a titan in court and classrooms across this country and abroad fighting against racial oppression and violence in search of equality and justice for all, it seems, but Palestinians. Able to see up close the evil of apartheid whether de facto in the US or de jure in South Africa Greenberg and many others Jews simply could not muster up the courage to challenge a Zionist vision that moved quickly and proudly from victimized to victimizer in its creation of the worst apartheid state of all.
In many respects, Greenberg’s blink at Palestinian reality parallels the separation of a once healthy relationship between some in the Jewish community and black activists of an earlier generation who struggled for civil rights in a country which, like Israel today, was segregated by many of the same walls and violent divides that keep Palestinians as little more than indentured servants… but enslaved on a far crueler and deadlier modern-day plantation.
In the years after World War II there was a warm working relationship between the leadership of the Jewish and African American activist communities as they struggled together to undo generations of racial inequality. No doubt this period of harmony laid the groundwork for what was to come during the civil rights battles of the South and ultimately contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
However, when it comes to civil rights and justice there is a romantic, almost savior-like, fancy that pervades much of the dialogue in today’s Jewish community in the United States. Even when confronted with the sheer horror of collective punishment that Palestinians suffer throughout the occupied territories and in Israel itself, many in the community are quick to point to the Jewish role in the civil rights movement in the South as an all too convenient diversion from an uncomfortable but necessary dialogue. It’s not new. Paternalism never is.
In fact, for decades it has usurped an objective discussion about the battle for civil rights in the US and the role that American Jews and whites in general played within it. In this sculpted light, those who today justify Israeli war crimes typically point to a long and powerful role they suggest their community played in pursuing justice in the South, years ago, and the sacrifices some paid for it along the way.
To be sure, during the US civil rights struggle, at times Northern rabbis and Jewish students flocked to the South and stood shoulder to shoulder with black women and men who were bitten, battered and buried throughout Jim Crow which hung on, for dear life, to its history of racial supremacy dressed to the nines in white sheets against the shadow of burning crosses. Yes, at times, courageous rabbis were beaten and sixteen Jewish leaders were arrested while marching at the behest of Dr. King in St. Augustine, Florida, in June 1964. It was to be the largest mass arrest of rabbis in American history. Of course, others fared far worse… buried in earthen dams’ in the swamps of Mississippi as so much examples to those that might take the long journey from the comfort of the North to the battlegrounds of the South.
Yet, to some, the story of the embattled black led civil rights movement of the 60’s has taken on an almost surreal life of epic proportion that to this day gives great unearned comfort and credit to many liberals who ignore the plight of Palestinians that has raged on and open for 68 years for all to see. Indeed as noted by famed political scientist and Queens College Professor Emeritus Andrew Hacker:
“It is more than a little revealing that whites who travelled south in 1964 referred to their sojourn as their ‘Mississippi Summer’. It is as if all the efforts of the local blacks for voter registration and the desegregation of public facilities had not even existed until white help arrived… Of course, this was done with benign intentions, as if to say ‘we have come in answer to your calls for assistance’. The problem was… the condescending tone… For Jewish liberals, the great memory of that summer has been the deaths of Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and… almost as an afterthought… James Chaney . Indeed, Chaney’s name tends to be listed last, as if the life he lost was worth only three fifths of the others.”
Today this myopic history drives Zionists who, with unflinching support, duck personal accountability for a ruthless Israeli society because of some enlightened ancestors who long ago said no, but whose children today build more proficient and larger earthen dams throughout the ghettos of Gaza and the villages that dot the West Bank in Palestine.
Years ago, people of colour drew the unmistakable connection between oppression at home and that abroad. Although giants such as Garvey, W.E.B Du Bois and King each spoke in their own way of the need to understand that “discontent” worldwide is but a manifestation of the universality of our “quest for freedom and dignity,” nowhere is the oneness of our struggle better stated than through the magical voice of Malcolm X: “The only way we’ll get freedom for ourselves is to identify ourselves with every oppressed people in the world. We are blood brothers to the people of Brazil, Haiti… Cuba… yes, Cuba too.” If Malcolm were alive today that list of kinship would no doubt be headed by our family in Palestine.
As we soon move into a period of “new” foreign and domestic policies and entanglements we would be wise to draw from the vision of these seers who full well understood that without freedom for all there can be freedom for none… that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Recently, in the United States, we have seen a rebirth of a community of resistance among a generation of young activists, black and white, women and men, who have learned this lesson well as they connect police violence at home with military violence abroad. In communities all across this country our children are once again taking to the barricades to confront the slaughter of black people at the hands of militarized police throughout the United States at the same time that they demand an end to the, soon to be, seven decade old occupation of Palestine and move the concerns of LGBT individuals into the light of day. So, too, women of resistance are no longer relegated to the role of quiet support as they step up to become the very public face and movers of a host of new decentralized and diverse groups who refuse to coalesce around a single movement, issue or leader.
Where once stood Jack Greenberg today stands Black Lives Matter. Where once, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund took on Jim Crow, today Palestine Legal and the Muslim Legal Fund of America litigate to support BDS and to confront the very real and ugly spectre of systemic Islamaphobia. While the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee led sit-in protests to challenge Southern segregation, today groups such as We Charge Genocide, Assata’s Daughters, Project NIA and Lifted Voices confront its still lingering vestige in urban and rural communities from coast to coast. And while Standing Rock may signal for some but a challenge to a break-down in healthy environmental and economic priorities, to many others it is much more than that… a call to arms to challenge age old policies rooted in political arrogance and racial supremacy.
Although attributed to various human rights activists and political leaders ranging from Irish lawyer and politician John Philpot Curran to Thomas Jefferson to American abolitionist Wendell Phillips, the incantation of “eternal vigilance is the price of freedom” remains never so relevant or powerful than it does today.
With Election Day fast approaching, it seems yesteryear’s rhetoric has once again metastasized to become the reality of today as the march of hatred and violence has reappeared in a very public and ominous fashion with threats against people of color, women, Muslims, progressives and political leaders becoming very much the norm among tens of millions of alienated Americans who see the likely loss of one populist fraud to another as a needed trigger for “insurrection.”
To see weapons as political speech… to hear calls for coups and assassination… demands for “lots of bloodshed”… plans to make “Mexicans, Syrians… people who can’t speak American… a little nervous,” … to hear law enforcement call it “pitchfork and torches time”, with pride… or see a post of a journalist with a bullet in her forehead, a Jewish star on her chest and the message, “don’t mess with our boy Trump or you will be first in line in the camp”, is to walk back down ugly time worn paths where the innocent were lynched because of colour by those who saw brutality as a noble vindication of ignorance.
For those of us who have, in the past, confronted this dark and evil reach, once again we must remain vigilant to ensure that the echo of some does not swallow the call of all. To our children who refuse to go silently unto the night, it is you who now stand before us to protect a proud tradition of resistance and justice that knows no limitation born of flag, border or anthem.
Fortunately, what Jack Greenberg missed you have not… oppression abroad and oppression at home are differences without distinctions.