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More on “Selma” and Progressive Jews

Joel Shatzky
March 14, 2015

by Joel Shatzky

AI RECENTLY SAW the film Selma and read the very comprehensive and moving response to it at the Jewish Currents website by Al Vorspan concerning the absence in the movie of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was pictured in an iconic 1964 photo marching in the front line with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Bunche. Vorspan revealed the dimension of Jewish participation in all aspects of the civil rights movement and even ventured to say that without the support of American Jews, the movement might have faded away before it could make a substantive contribution to civil rights.

As an educator aware of the political impact of images, I should add my reaction to this significant omission in this otherwise laudable film. Of course, when one chooses to revisit the historical past, there can be many disagreements about “historical accuracy” — in this instance in the depiction of the relations between Dr. King and President Johnson. But whatever negative criticism there might be in this regard, it is an argument among historians. The issue of the disappearance of Jews from the narrative of Selma might have a far-more reaching impact.

I would not presume to the authority of someone like Vorspan, but I was involved as a member of CORE in the Bronx and participated in the voter registration drive in Greensboro, NC in the early 1960s. I happened to be in a chapter of CORE that was run by African Americans, in which white members were the ground troops. Still, I don’t doubt that instances of paternalism by liberal Jews were a source of irritation and dismay among some black activists. Such incidents as the UFT strike against community control known as the Ocean-Hill Brownsville strike or subsequent black-Jewish conflicts in Forest Hills or Crown Heights have contributed to a cooling of what once were very positive relationships, at least between activists within the two peoples.

That said, I believe that the one brief image of Rabbi Heschel walking on the front line of the third Selma-to-Montgomery march could have made a positive impact and aroused the curiosity of school-aged learners, both white and black. It might have even promoted a “teaching moment”: the image, brief as if might have been, of someone who is identifiably Jewish, might have made a very positive and welcome contribution to the strained relationships between African Americans and Jews. It’s unfortunate that this opportunity was not taken.

Joel Shatzky is the “Educating for Democracy” blogger at the Huffington Post and writes regularly on education and other subjects for our magazine.