John Lewis Was a Champion of Black-Jewish Ties. We Must Build on His Legacy | Opinion

Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon and Georgia congressman who died last week at 80, was a lifelong champion of the relationship between Blacks and Jews. While the relationship had never been perfect—far from it, with stress fractures and moments of pressure testing it through the decades—Lewis' unwavering support for the Jewish community was remarkable and no small footnote in his otherwise remarkable career.

Lewis will be rightfully remembered both for his contributions to the civil rights movement and for his leadership as the "conscience of Congress." And he also will be remembered in the Jewish community for his partnership and his passion for fighting anti-Semitism and all forms of hate, and for tirelessly working to bridge divides.

Over decades, the Jewish community has shared common cause with Rep. Lewis on so many issues. The relationship was galvanized on that fateful day in Selma, Alabama, on March 21, 1965 when Lewis and 12 others linked arms and walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Lewis was there, alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, to face down a phalanx of state troopers waiting on the other side—just two weeks after Lewis had been viciously beaten, on "Bloody Sunday," by police trying to march across the same bridge.

Lewis' outreach to Jews wasn't about politics or pragmatism. Rather, it was grounded in a deep sense of kinship with Jews rooted both in biblical teachings and his formative experiences as a child growing up in the rural South.

Lewis' memories of early, direct encounters with anti-Semitism helped to shape his lifelong affinity for the Jewish community. As he later wrote in his memoir Walking with the Wind, Lewis remembered hearing anti-Semitic barbs that stung him to the quick. "I felt a kinship with the children of Israel," he wrote. "I could see that their struggle was very similar to ours."

In other words, Jews and Blacks shared a common enemy in those who were seeking to divide America.

Later, when he became a member of Congress, Rep. Lewis was a stalwart defender of issues of importance to ADL and the broader Jewish community. He was a strong supporter of Israel and opposed efforts to boycott the Jewish state. He worked to ensure passage of federal and state hate crime laws. He fought against rollbacks in voting rights and advocated for updates to civil rights laws. On these and so many other issues, Rep. Lewis could be relied on to not only use his bully pulpit, but his moral authority to ensure that the job got done.

And so significantly to the Jewish community, he was always the first to speak out strongly and unreservedly against anti-Semitism. This was true even when the source was from within the African-American community. Time and again, Rep. Lewis joined hands with the Jewish community, among others, on important issues of human rights.

His outspoken support for Soviet Jewry in the 1980s was one such defining moment of support and solidarity. During his first year in office, Mr. Lewis advocated strongly for the release of Soviet Jews. As a speaker at the December 6, 1987 rally to free Soviet Jewry in Washington, he boldly proclaimed that "as long as one Jew is denied the right to immigrate, as long as one Jew is denied the right to be Jewish in the Soviet Union, we are all Jews in the Soviet Union."

Congressman John Lewis
Congressman John Lewis Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images

In 1995, Rep. Lewis took a courageous stand by steadfastly refusing to join the Million Man March organized in part by Minister Louis Farrakhan, an unrepentant anti-Semite, in the process withstanding much criticism from within his community. He made clear that while he supported the March's overall goals, he could not countenance sharing a stage with Farrakhan, whose long history of anti-Semitism and central role in the event made it a nonstarter.

Over the years, some criticized Lewis for working too closely with Jews, saying that he was cynically courting the Jewish vote. He simply shrugged it off. Having emerged out of the early civil rights movement as an acolyte of nonviolent protest, Lewis realized that there was sheer power in numbers. He saw the benefits in fostering close bonds to other minority groups, particularly Jews. Lewis likewise felt profound gratitude to those Jewish activists, rabbis and community leaders with whom he crossed paths during the pivotal early years of the movement.

With the anti-racism rallies now taking place across the country, Lewis marveled at the progress that was being made as a new generation of activists took to the streets. I'm sure it wasn't lost on him that among those activists, once again, are Jews—and, indeed, some are Jews of color.

To honor his memory, we must strive to continue to work at the Black-Jewish relationship, even at painful moments when anti-Semitism rears its ugly head—as it did last week in the tweets of a few Black celebrities venerating Farrakhan. And we in the Jewish community continue to support the nationwide, Black-led civil rights movement campaign for dismantling systemic racism.

I believe that our communities can continue to come together and work toward the fulfillment of Dr. King's dream of a world free of racism and hate. I can't help but think that Lewis would have wanted us to see this through. As we celebrate his life and mourn his loss, I hope we can commit to fostering this storied relationship so that we—as Blacks and Jews working together—can bear the fruits of his work.

Jonathan A. Greenblatt is CEO and national director of ADL (the Anti-Defamation League).

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.