Prinz, Persecution, and the Pursuit of Justice
I’ve been working at the Jewish Women’s Archive since the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2011. In my almost-three years here, I have learned one thing above all else: in order to understand ourselves, to know our past, and to build our future, we must tell our stories. And this past week has been one of my most favorite weeks of story telling as every blog, news agency, and Facebook user has shared anecdotes, historical photos, and reflections of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Last week I highlighted some little-known historical facts about the March, including the involvement of Jews in the event. Since then, I have seen Rabbi Joachim Prinz’s name and words all over the Internet as Jews claim him as our own and passionately take up the legacy of his work for civil rights and social justice.
Of the thousands of Jews who were present at the March, only one gave a speech. In his speech, Rabbi Prinz invoked the narrative of Jewish persecution—one that was close to his experience as a refugee from Eastern Europe—and drew from it a sense of solidarity with oppressed blacks in the United States, saying:
“It is not merely sympathy and compassion for the black people of America that motivates us. It is above all and beyond all such sympathies and emotions a sense of complete identification and solidarity born of our own painful historic experience.”
I believe that the Jewish collective consciousness will always hold the memory of persecution, and for better and for worse, it drives us to identify with and become allies to others who are oppressed. At the same time, the narrative of “we (Jews) have suffered injustice and therefore we understand the plight of oppressed people” is complicated, and I think limiting. Let me try to explain why.
My Jewish experience is not one of victimhood. Unlike Prinz, I have always been able to safely wear my Jewish identity on my sleeve and speak proudly of who I am. And, unlike Prinz, I have been able to choose when and if I want to identify as Jewish. Furthermore, my Jewish identity was built in a community that focused on our strength as Jews, drew from the power of collective action through the lens of Jewish ethics, and that rarely, if ever, invoked a remembrance or narrative of victimhood, persecution, or oppression.
For these reasons, Prinz’s statement of “solidarity born of our own painful historic experience” feels awkward, distant, and inauthentic to me. Additionally, as we move farther away from the Holocaust, and away from a time when Jews were not considered “white” in America, I think we—American Jews—limit ourselves when we tell our story from this perspective.
As an individual, I wonder: How can I draw from those who have preceded me in this work, but do so in a way that feels true to my experience and to who I am? As an educator, I feel it is my responsibility to consider: How can I help my students understand their identities as Americans and as Jews in order to feel empowered to continue the pursuit of justice?
I think the answer to these questions is also found in Rabbi Prinz’s speech. In a less quoted but equally powerful moment of the speech, Rabbi Prinz said:
“America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. Not merely black America, but all of America. It must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of us, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community but for the sake of the image, the idea and the aspiration of America itself.”
When I close my eyes and listen to Rabbi Prinz speak these words, I imagine standing on the Mall in a crowd of hundreds of thousands, the air humming, thick with passion and tension and hope for a better future. His words capture what I believe to be the essence of Judaism: the oneness and the holiness of life. I am struck at the core of my identity as an American Jew.
My experience is defined by the culture of my ancestors as much as it is by the principles on which my home—the United States of America—was founded. As the words of Rabbi Prinz, Dr. King, and John Lewis echo in my ears, I begin to itch all over with the need to continue the work that they began.
As we look back upon these 50 years, as we celebrate the progress we have made as a nation, and as we continue to confront injustice in our society, I encourage you to consider: what do Prinz’s words mean to you now? How will you tell these stories 50 years from now? What can you do to uphold the “idea and the aspiration of America” that will connect you to the legacy of justice work that we have inherited?