Next month marks the 20th anniversary of the Capitol Hill Black/Jewish Relations Congressional Conference, co-hosted by representatives John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), that I organized out of the office of Representative Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.).
It is an event that has impacted my life as has no other and was held just weeks after the nation was horrified by the events in Sacramento, where vicious anti-Semitic hate crimes were perpetrated against three synagogues that were firebombed by white supremacists Benjamin and Tyler Williams, while a thousand miles away in Jasper, Texas, 49-year old James Byrd Jr. was dragged to his death, tied to the back of a pickup truck by white supremacists. This called for a reinvigoration of the historic black/Jewish relationship so that we could mount a joint responsiveness to hate and the hate crimes it provokes.
The groundbreaking event invited black members of Congress to meet with the presidents of major Jewish organizations with an eye toward establishing serious relationships. Media was not allowed in the room, so that dialogue could occur without reservation, and so that progress toward re-establishing a foundation of trust for collective action could be achieved. This was not going to be just another photo op.
At the time there were 34 members of the caucus; 24 of them arrived for the 8 a.m. bagels-and-lox breakfast. The session, scheduled to last an hour and a half, was difficult to break up after almost double that time. There were commitments to follow up and continue what began that morning.
We stand now, hearing once again about the announcement of a black/Jewish caucus in the halls of Congress, as if it were a first. We see the public pronouncements already; even before the group’s formal launch Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) is joining with the likes of Linda Sarsour to call Representative Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) a host of provocative names, looking to sow the seeds of anti-Semitism.
What is inherently even more shameful is the of lack of outcry by her colleagues, particularly by those who can be monumentally successful in this endeavor if they are seen as honest and sincere about the realities facing them.
Twenty years ago, the conference understood that there were issues between the communities. As they met, Jewish leadership held its breath, waiting for potentially challenging statements — but they never came. The importance of the moment was well understood, the need for us to try to cooperate and stay the course. And that’s what happened. The participants understood that they stood for something more important than their next social media sound bite, and they were willing at least to come to the table in a respectful manner.
When I hear anti-Semitic statements from the likes of Louis Farrakhan, I instead choose to remember the moment Georgia’s Representative John Lewis, the famed civil rights leader, put his hand on my shoulder when I first approached him about the conference concept. He said to me, “Son, we might have all gotten here on different ships but we are all in the same boat.”
History often forgets to tell us that he left the organization he created, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Commission, when its next generation of leadership wanted to eradicate Jews from its board. And while he is now a founding member of this new caucus, I will not forget that he was the first member to agree to co-host a similar endeavor 20 years ago as well.
I chose to focus on the leadership that looks to bring us together.
Twenty years ago, the conference was not about creating media attention. It was about working collectively to fight radically growing hate crimes against both of our people. I have had enough of unity press conferences. If this new caucus is to have credibility, it too needs to engage in a true assessment of the current hate trends aimed specifically against the black and Jewish communities. And it needs to have the courage to fight back — even, if necessary, against Representative Omar.
Listening to the words spoken at the private conference 20 years ago made me believe in the enormous possibilities of such intercommunal human rights alliances, and led me to dedicate my professional life to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which is a clear leader in the fight against hate. Over the past few years, the Wiesenthal Center worked arduously to repave the well-traveled road that would increase the Jewish community’s alliances with the national and local black communities, for our collective benefit. From holding educational forums on our communities’ activist joint history on Dr. Martin Luther King Day with New York State Assemblyman Walter Mosley to working with the Bergen County NAACP, Bergen County Urban League, and Bergen County Sheriff Anthony Cureton to bring together black and Jewish students and teach mutual understanding, to my incredible colleague creating the Space to Talk About Race program in Chicago alongside the famed Pastor Mitchell Johnson, to more than six million people over the last 25 years who have learned about our nation’s civil rights era and leadership through programs such as the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles’s annual Black History Month events, the Simon Wiesenthal Center has stood proudly on the front lines. I find myself so fortunate to be a part of these efforts.
Let us hope that this new caucus will do the right thing and inspire another generation of a collective activism that has the courage, the tenacity, and the sheer determination to boldly stand up to the bigots, racists and anti-Semites.
Michael Cohen represents the Second Ward on the Englewood City Council and he is the eastern regional director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.