Abraham Joshua Heshel, Adolf Hitler, African Americans, Angels in America, Basketball, Bill Russell, Blacks, Booker T. Washington, civil rights, Donald Sterling, Israel, Jews, Julius Rosenwald, Louis Brandeis, Martin Luther King Jr., Martin Peretz, NAACP, NBA, Prejudice, racism, Red Auerbach, Selma, Tony Kushner, Zionism
As I mentioned in the post below, this week marked the anniversary of Hitler’s death, and I think there’s no better way to observe the occasion than to hail the outsized contributions of that race he so wanted to grind to dust. In a week that’s been shot through with chatter about latent prejudice in our own society, I think it’s worth restating our solidarity with all ethnic and racial minorities, and reminding ourselves for the thousandth time that racism is, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said to his friend Martin Luther King, Jr., “man’s gravest threat to man — the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.”
Or for zero reason. The irony of the word we so often use in this context — discriminate — is that it is precisely what racists don’t do. They cannot recognize distinctions between one person with a certain skin tone — or last name or accent — and another. Dr. King saw this with impeccable clarity. In one of my favorite anecdotes about him, King was having a dinner at the Cambridge, Massachusetts home of Marty Peretz, when, from the other end of the table, a brash young student started mocking Zionists. King snapped up from his conversation and said, “Don’t talk like that! When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism!”
King’s stridency here reflected more than his ability to distinguish between Jews and Zionists, and more than a faithfulness to the Jewish story and the metaphors he often employed in relating the emancipation of American blacks from slavery to the ancient Israelites’ journey out of Egypt to the promised land. It was also a function of the respect he had for his Jewish friends – like Peretz and Heschel – who, using the stories of the Hebrew prophets as their clarion call, were spurred to march alongside him for civil rights. As the not-particularly-diplomatic Roy Cohn says to his black nurse in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, “Jews and coloreds: historical liberal coalition, right? My people being the first to sell retail to your people; your people being the first people my people could afford to hire to sweep out the store Saturday mornings. We all held hands and rode the bus to Selma…” The underlying solidarity here is critical, and it stretches deeper than King and his allies in the civil rights movement – to Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, to Louis Brandeis and the NAACP, to Red Auerbach, the greatest NBA coach of all time, and Bill Russell, one of its greatest players. It’s a tradition worth celebrating, and it isn’t changed by the vulgar private words of one NBA team owner.