By Jeremy Appel
This year’s Edmonton Virtual Jewish Film Festival kicked off on May 2 with an online screening of Shared Legacies: The African American-Jewish Civil Rights Alliance, which was accompanied by a panel discussion moderated by NDP MLA David Shepherd.
As its title suggests, the film focuses on the collaboration between Jewish and African-American community leaders in the fight for African-American civil rights, as exemplified by the relationship between figures such as Rep. John Lewis and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
The message of the panel was that while no two oppressions are alike, they all have commonalities that can bring different groups together in pursuit of justice.
“We can’t compare moral atrocities, but there is perhaps the possibility to use the individual experiences to build empathy,” said Shepherd.
The panel was composed of Shepherd and University of California Davis sociology Prof. Bruce Haynes, who are Black, and film director Shari Rogers and Brooklyn-based activist Zach Schaffer, who are Jewish.
Rogers, who also works as a clinical psychologist, said the purpose of her film is to depict the “ability to empathize with the other, to have compassion for fellow human being.”
The director pointed out how Jewish people have an ability to pass as white that Black people do not.
“My last name is Rogers, but my father-in-law is Rosenberg. We were able to cut off our last name to blend in, whereas Black folks can’t do that,” she said.
Shepherd added that while many Jews are perceived white, there has been a disturbing increase in anti-Semitism in recent years, coming from the far right “and other areas.”
Haynes, who wrote a book entitled The Soul of Judaism: Jews of African Descent in America, says the COVID crisis has hit Black communities especially hard, which has understandably caused many African-Americans to focus on issues facing their own community.
“In so many ways, the Black community is overtaxed and trying to deal with immediate problems of the numbers of people who were displaced over the past year due to COVID, or deaths in families, or dislocated family members who are homeless,” said Haynes.
The Georgia Senate elections in January, in which Democrats John Ossoff, a Jew, and Raphael Warnock, an African-American, won, shows promise for the future of Jewish-Black relations, he added.
“That’s where I see potential. It has to be organic, it has to be on the ground,” Haynes said. “What’s needed is action, what’s needed is access to resources, what’s needed is desegregation of our housing (and) access to housing for poor people, and I might add, jobs that pay a living wage.”
Schaffer says the experience of American Jews in the current age is fundamentally distinct from that of African-Americans, but there is still common ground.
“Meritocracy worked for us. We were included, they let us into the country clubs, and a lot of the systemic and institutional prejudice that we were able to overcome in many ways has continued for the whole Black community,” he said.
“As we’ve progressed, I don’t have an immediate visceral experience of oppression as a caucasian Jew the way my father, who was born in 1954, does, and certainly my grandparents.”
Schaffer says his Zionism has occasionally become an issue with some in the Black activist community, who see parallels between their struggle and that of the Palestinians. But when that has occurred, other Black activists have stood with him as an ally, regardless of his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Showing up and being there works,” he said. “When you actually get out there and build community and proximity … the relationship can overcome all of that.”
Those still looking to register for the EJFF, which goes until May 11, can do so for free. Click here to register.
Jeremy Appel is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.