American Jewish History: A Long Tradition of Social Justice

Rabbi Melanie Aron

August 20, 2004

When, about two weeks ago, The Washington Post and the New York Times reported the arrest of Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism, on the steps of the Embassy of Sudan in Washington D.C. no one was terribly surprised. The current death toll in the Sudan is estimated at 50-100,000 people with over a million additional individuals displaced from their homes and hundreds of thousands at risk of dying over the next several months. Prominent individuals and organizations have recognized that the complexity of the situation does not excuse our inaction, and groups such as the Committee on Conscience of the American Holocaust Memorial Museum have declared a genocide emergency. Jews and Jewish organizations have already been involved in this issue for several years, participating with other organizations in an anti-slavery campaign. Some Jewish groups have even attempting to buy southern Africans out of the slavery imposed upon them by their northern neighbors, an effort which tragically and despite our good intentions, made the situation worse.

In keeping with our summer theme of the 350th Anniversary of Jewish Life in America, I wondered how far back one could trace the tendency of the Jewish community to be involved in issues of social justice, even issues that don’t primarily involve Jews.

Certainly most of us are aware of Jewish involvement in the struggle for civil rights in the 1950’s and 60’s. The Civil Rights act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were physically drafted at the Religious Action Center, on a table that sits there still today in a place of honor. Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who were killed in the South while working on voting rights, were Jews, as were Saul Alinsky, the famous organizer, and Abbie Hoffman, counter culture leader. Jews were active participants in the social change of the last century, but Jewish activism goes back further than that.

The great Eastern European immigration, the one and a half million new American Jews who arrived between 1890-1914, brought with them leftist ideologies and the experience of working class struggle. They organized the International Ladies Garment Workers union and a dozen other trade unions. They were active also in the American Socialist and Communist parties. You may recall from my earlier sermon on Jews in the Republican and Democratic Parties, that in the election of 1920 almost as many Jews voted for the Socialist candidate Eugene Debs as for the Republican, 38% as compared to 43% of the Jewish vote, with the Democratic candidate trailing with only 19%.

When we think of the Eastern European immigration we think of Emma Goldman and David Dubinsky, and many other immigrants and children of immigrants who led the struggle for social justice. The Reform movement was caught up in this effort as well, with speeches and resolutions, delegations to Washington and even a reference to miner’s rights in the Yom Kippur afternoon service in the old Union Prayer book. But American Jewish activism goes back even before the period of Eastern European Immigration.

Often we think of the German Jewish immigrants, who arrived on these shores between 1830-1880, as the settled merchants some of them became, more likely to be involved in philanthropy than in protests. However, we should remember that many fled to the United States after participating in the failed revolutions of the 19th century. As one historian noted- “Because they had recently fought for their own freedom in Europe, many of these immigrants sympathized with the plight of the black slaves.” Though the American abolitionist movement was heavily Christian and sometimes anti-Semitic, there was still notable Jewish involvement.

Let me briefly tell you about three Jewish abolitionists. One was a woman, Ernestine Rose. The daughter of a Polish rabbi, she was called “queen of the platforms” because of her speeches in favor of abolition. Already a rebel in her family from the age of 5, she ran away from an arranged marriage, recouping the money from her dowry. She supported herself selling room deodorizers, this in the 19th century, meeting personally with the Prussian King, and traveling to Belgium, Holland, France and England. When she eventually married a fellow radical of her own choosing, she and her husband came to America, and Ernestine Rose took on the anti-slavery cause. Following the Civil War, Ernestine Rose remained an activist and is often remembered for her work for women’s rights, particularly the right to vote and the right to own property.

Another interesting Jewish abolitionist was August Bondi. Bondi had been a member of the revolutionary student movement in Vienna before fleeing to America following the unsuccessful revolution of 1848. He settled in Kansas and became active in the Free State movement. As you may recall, the Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854 decreed that in 1855 the settlers in Kansas would decide by vote whether Kansas would be free or slave. We may think that our upcoming election is hotly contested and polarized, but its nothing compared to that election. Pro-slavery and anti-slavery proponents poured into the state. It seemed as if the anti-slavery faction had the numbers to win the vote, but on election day, 5,000 heavily armed pro-slavery Missourians poured into the territory, overwhelmed the polling stations and took the ballot boxes, with the result that a pro-slavery legislature was elected. Disgusted by what he saw happening, August Bondi joined John Brown in his raid on the Border Ruffians in 1856. Bondi was in the company of two other Jewish men at that time and his letters recounting his experiences recall them speaking in German and Yiddish. He writes: “ Nu, sie jetzt,” his compatriot Theodore Weiner said, “ how are you doing,” and I responded “sof odom muves, the end of man is death, meaning, we’re doomed.” Actually the three of them survived the battle, and Bondi continued to support the anti-slavery cause. He enlisted in the Civil War and served in the Kansas cavalry. After the civil war he remained in Kansas serving in local government, on the school board, as a judge, and as the local postmaster. He took his daughter to neighboring Leavenworth where there was a rabbi, when she got married, and a rabbi from Kansas City came to his home town of Salina to bury him when he died.

Finally, if one wants to talk about Jewish social activism before the Civil War, one must mention the famous story of Rabbi David Einhorn. Rabbi Einhorn was an early German Reformer. His positions were too radical for the congregations in Bavaria and when he took a post in Hungary, the government closed his congregation down. Einhorn came to America in 1847 and remained uncompromising in his approach. He opposed the philosophy of Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise, who at the time was attempting to unify the American Jewish community. Einhorn did not believe in compromise for the sake of good relations. Never one to mince words, Einhorn was very outspoken in his sermons against slavery, causing problems for his congregation Har Sinai in Baltimore, Maryland, a slave state. The story is told that in 1861 a mob threatened to tar and feather him, and so he was forced to flee north to Philadelphia. You should know, though, that there are those who feel that the lay leaders of the congregation were actually relieved that the mob provided them with an excuse to get rid of their difficult and demanding leader.

Of course, the involvement of Jews in social justice is not just about leaders. Tikkun Olam is a strongly held value even among less religious Jews, and the involvement of many was critical to the great campaigns of earlier decades. Similarly, today, in the struggle for those at risk in the Sudan, Rabbi Saperstein is important as a symbol, but equally important were the 1,000 letters in his hand expressing the support of individual leaders of our movement. This coming Wednesday August 25th is a day of solidarity for those in the Sudan, I invite you to speak out as well.