What’s More Jewish Than Civil Rights?

By Leah Michalove | Special for the AJT

At the age of eight, I most fervently believed that Martin Luther King Jr. Day was a Jewish holiday. After all, we got off from school just like for Sukkot, had an assembly just like for Simhat Torah, and spent many hours in class discussing the holiday’s history and significance, just like Yom Ha’azmaout! Surely this holiday, one for which I went to synagogue and sat through d’vars on Tikkun Olam, social justice and civil engagement, was one of those chagim for which I had just forgotten the Hebrew name.

In the intervening years of course I realized that Jewish law does not call for MLK day, but still I ask: what could be more essentially Jewish than the civil rights movement? If the text teaches us that we must pursue justice, and history teaches us that discrimination against the one will inevitably lead to injustice for us all, how can we respond but as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel did in Selma, as our parents and grandparents did here in Atlanta, and even in Washington DC, praying with their feet? What could be more Jewish?

And so I was deeply disturbed to read about segregated busing, not in an archive of issues solved and shelved, but as a current event. It seems Moshe Ya’alon, Defense Minister of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Jerusalem, has failed to learn the lessons our community fought to teach over sixty years ago. Last week, Mr. Ya’alon announced plans that would effectively segregate buses headed into the West Bank from Israel. Palestinians would who commute from the West Bank to Israel for work would have to return home through a separate checkpoint than Israelis with the same commute, leading to separate vehicles and routes for Jewish and Palestinian commuters. The Defense Minister claims security concerns as his rationale, but the IDF has officially denied the existence any real threat. In fact, Ya’alon’s policy constitutes a surrender to pressure from a powerful right-wing settler movement, a movement determined to discriminate against and exclude Palestinians. Settler leaders have led a long campaign demanding segregated buses and refusing to share transportation with Arabs. And despite a national outcry spanning from the youth wing of the Labor Party to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Ya’alon seems intent on ethnically dividing public transportation over the Green Line. What could be less Jewish?

As American Jews, and particularly as Southern Jews, we stand confronted just as we did when our neighbors could not eat beside us in a restaurant, just as we do when our mothers and sisters and daughters cannot wear their Bat Mitzvah tallitot to the Western Wall. For while segregation is hardly Jewish, decrying injustice surely is. We wield an incredible power, the power to remind Ya’alon, Netanyahu, and the Israeli far right that as long as they claim leadership of the Jewish State, they are accountable to the Jewish people. And while most of us cannot march on Jerusalem, cannot stand on the steps of the Knesset and demand that justice roll down like waters, we can make sure this coalition knows that our patience for discriminatory and anti-democratic policies wears thin.

As the inheritors of the legacy of Jewish civil rights, we are compelled to pursue justice and democracy, and to hold those organizations and governments who seek to represent us truly accountable. The AJC, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, and other major groups claim to represent us but have so far remained silent on Ya’alon’s new policy. It is our responsibility to remind them – by letter, by email, by phone, by donation – what it means to pray with your feet, even as those feet stand 6500 miles away from a segregated bus speeding out of Jerusalem.

Leah Michalove is a Middle Eastern Studies major at Emory University, a student organizer for J Street U, and a fourth-generation Atlantan.