We Are Marching in the Light of God*

We were honored that I Shall Not Be Silent was screened at Dartmouth College on January 24th. Prof. Susannah Heschel of the Department of Religion hosted the screening, and Prof. Donald Pease of the English Department and Prof. Vaughn Booker of the Department of Religion shared reflections after the film. Executive Producers Andre Hunter & Kelly Fowler Hunter sponsored this event at their alma mater.

In the shadow of a demagogue’s ascension to the presidency of the United States, and in the glow of the Women’s March on Washington only three days earlier, we saw our own film anew. Everyone in the room felt and openly acknowledged the direct pertinence of the film – the history of Nazi Germany, Jim Crow America and the resistance to both embodied by Rabbi Prinz – to the moment we find ourselves in now.  The anti-intellectualism that prevails in the current administration resonated as we watched the historical footage of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbel’s proclaiming "The time of excessive Jewish intellectualism has come to an end.” And the footage of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Prinz proclaiming the prophets’ call for justice pulled at us like never before.

Professors Booker and Pease uncovered layers of meaning in the film that taught us something new about our own piece of work. Professor Pease noted that when 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," he spoke not only to the crowd, but perhaps even more directly to the President, John F Kennedy, who had been slow to use federal power to guarantee equal rights. Pease lauded the courage that was required of Prinz, King and the other March leaders – and all the marchers -- to speak truth to power. It’s a courage we must emulate today.

Professor Booker observed that the footage of the March on Washington depicts a story of male leadership, when in fact African American women played a critical role in organizing not only the March but also the civil rights movement on the ground. In an age when people couldn’t organize on Facebook, women mobilized the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement. Though we may not see African American women in the iconic photographs of civil rights leaders, a deeper dive into history places them front and center in the picture.  

In 1963, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote,

“Surrender to despair is surrender to evil. It is important to feel anxiety, it is sinful to wallow in despair. What we need is a total mobilization of the heart, intelligence and wealth for the purpose of love and justice.” (The Religious Basis of Equality of Opportunity)

The Women’s March on January 21st ushered in a movement across our country of people taking to the streets to fight for democracy and for one another. This movement, just beginning, closely aligns with the prophetic vision of the religious leaders who marched before us.

 

Note:

To learn more about African American women organizing for civil rights, Prof. Booker recommends:

Charles Marsh, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. University of California Press, 2007.

Barbara Savage, Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion. Belknap Press, 2012.

 

*From the lyrics of a South African Zulu hymn, Siyahamba: We Are Marching.

 

 

 

 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. - Messenger of Peace

On a beautiful Autumn day here in New Jersey last week, students, politicians and civic and religious leaders were among those who gathered in Newark on October 14th, to unveil an 8 foot tall bronze statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Those of us who live in Essex County have a new local destination: the statue, perched in front of the Essex County Hall of Records on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The statue will be an invitation to consider the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, and an opportunity to reflect and consider his legacy.

In January 1963, Dr. King attended a service at Rabbi Prinz’s congregation, Temple B’nai Abraham in Newark, as the featured guest speaker for that evening. Deborah Prinz, Rabbi Prinz’s youngest daughter, was one of the speakers at last week’s dedication of the Dr. King statue. In her remarks, she quoted the speech Dr. King delivered to her father’s congregation. “Religion is always in danger of saying we should wait on God to act.  And so you wait on God to act. Well, I subscribe to another kind of religion, a religion that says God will act, but he will only act when men act. . .  A religion that says, stand on your feet and I will speak to you.”

Most of us familiar with Dr. King’s civil rights work know that, consistent with this quote, he did “stand on his feet” time and time again, as he led bus boycotts,  stood in picket lines,  spoke and preached to audiences around the country, and stood in peaceful protest.

Last week’s ceremony took place exactly 51 years after Dr. King was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize on October 14, 1964.  This was the same year that the U.S. civil rights bill was passed and signed into law.

As I listened to the inspirational messages from last week’s speakers in Newark, with the sun shining bright, but with the awareness of waves of violence taking place around the world and the pressing issue of gun violence in our country, I was struck by Dr. King’s commitment and resolve to choose the path of peace and non-violence as a form of protest and activism.

Both Dr. King and Rabbi Prinz were lovers of their respective faiths, and this belief fostered their decision to fight for freedom and equality through love, peace and respect for all people.  Their example is worth remembering today, perhaps more urgently than ever before.

Fires in Every City

As I watch the events in Baltimore, I keep hearing phrases from the historical footage in I Shall Not Be Silent. I hear John F. Kennedy: "The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city. Where legal remedies are not at hand, redress is sought in the streets. We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and a people." I hear Rabbi Prinz: “What we are concerned with is the soul, and the heart, and the moral health of the nation.” These words were spoken over fifty years ago.

After screenings of I Shall Not Be Silent, many people ask us what they can do to embrace Rabbi Prinz’s legacy. How can they make sure not to be silent in the face of injustice? I reply that each of us can think about what is happening that we believe is most harmful to the “moral health of the nation,” as Rabbi Prinz put it, and then find ways to correct that injustice.

People often ask why we made this film. I'm glad that the film preserves part of the historical record of Jewish activism for civil rights. But that is a fringe benefit. Actually, we made the film to help all of us learn how to stand in solidarity with people who are suffering, how to work for a true democracy with liberty and justice for all. It’s true that many Jews were involved in the civil rights movement, Rabbi Prinz being a primary example. But Rabbi Prinz would be the first to state that the work is far from finished, and that our pride in the work of our elders must spur us to action.

If the work were complete, these words, written by Rabbi Prinz to Martin Luther King, Jr. after Newark’s violent summer of 1967, would not be so tragically relevant today. “All of us know painfully of the indescribable despair among the people living in the ghettos . . . people waiting for America to fulfill its promise to restore them to a full life of dignity.”

It is up to us to fulfill the promise, to continue the work—in memory of our elders, for peace and justice for all our neighbors, and to ensure that our children inherit a more just democracy. Rabbi Prinz is not here to lead us, but we can still hear his words: “America must not become a nation of silent onlookers.”

 

 

Note: To begin exploring what you can do, here is a small selection of organizations to start with:

http://bendthearc.us

http://www.jfrej.org

http://www.rac.org

'Cowboys and Indians'

In February of 1954, Rabbi Joachim Prinz delivered a sermon in which he recalled an experience from 1933, in Nazi Berlin. Prinz was invited to attend a clandestine meeting with Protestant ministers and Catholic priests. That night, Prinz was the only Jew in the room, and the hostile music of storm troopers marching and singing outside intruded into the meeting. Prinz was asked to deliver the opening prayer, and he opened the Bible to a random page, finding the 23rd Psalm. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.” Prinz said in his sermon that as he prayed with the ministers, he felt a sense of brotherhood. Everyone at the meeting acknowledged that Hitler was attacking not just the Jews, but religion itself. However, according to a note in Prinz’s memoir, Rebellious Rabbi, only one Christian in that room later openly opposed the Nazi regime.

James Baldwin debates at Cambridge, 1965

James Baldwin debates at Cambridge, 1965

In February of 1965, the writer James Baldwin debated journalist William Buckley on the topic, “The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro” at Cambridge University. Before a gathering of all-white students, Baldwin shared what it was like to, as W.E.B. DuBois had put it, discover “the veil” of race, to become aware of one’s own otherness. Baldwin reminisced about playing Cowboys and Indians as a child. All the kids wanted to be the Cowboy. “Bang, bang, shoot ‘em up!” But at a very young age, Baldwin realized that he was not the Cowboy, but was trapped in the role of the Indian. He said,

It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6 or 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians and, although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.

Prinz had experienced that shock, too. In Germany as a child he, too, had come to the realization that he was the Indian. From a highly assimilated family, he had committed to Judaism and Zionism at a young age, to his father’s great consternation. When the Nazis rose to power and Hitler was elected, Prinz was psychologically prepared, for, unlike many German Jews, he had already accepted and indeed embraced his otherness within German society. But many Jews were not prepared to be “the Indian,” the Other. As a young rabbi in Berlin, sermonizing and teaching, Prinz conveyed the beauty and the value of Jewish identity and urged German Jews to emigrate because they had no future in Germany, and for his outspokenness he was arrested repeatedly.

In 1958 (after having been expelled from Germany and immigrating to the United States twenty-one years earlier) Rabbi Prinz was elected President of the American Jewish Congress and met the young minister rising to the leadership of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. Over the following years, Prinz would invite African American leaders such as King, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Roy Wilkins to meetings of the American Jewish Congress. It was as if Prinz was again attending that meeting with the Christian ministers in Berlin, but now his role was reversed; he was in the role the Christian ministers had occupied. Prinz understood that, though he had been in the role of the persecuted and powerless in Germany, in America his whiteness placed him in a new role. The question was, what would he do with it? Prinz’s response was to attach himself unequivocally to the cause of justice and equality, to use his privilege for a higher good.

Throughout our history, Jews have played both roles. As I travel with I Shall Not Be Silent and speak with audiences, it seems to me that we don’t always recognize what role we are truly playing. We are so accustomed to being “the Indian” that we have trouble recognizing when we are “the Cowboy.” Part of Prinz’s genius was knowing what role he was playing, and, no matter which role it was, using it to work for justice, equality and peace.

Sources

Best Jewish Sermons of 5714, edited by Saul I. Teplitz, The Jonathan David Co, 1954.

Joachim Prinz, Rebellious Rabbi: An Autobiography—the German and Early American Years, edited and with an introduction by Michael A. Meyer, Indiana University Press, 2008. 

“The American Dream and the American Negro,” New York Times Magazine, March 7th, 1965. 

The Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday, 2015

Years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin (the great African American activist and close associate of both King and Joachim Prinz) spoke at a gathering in honor of Rabbi Joachim Prinz. We found a recording of Rustin’s speech on an old cassette tape in Prinz’s collection at the American Jewish Archives; as far as we know, it has never been published. Rustin meditated on the relationship between African American and Jewish narratives, and his words provide a fitting reflection for Jewish groups that are gathering to remember Martin Luther King, Jr and what his legacy asks of us. Here's a selection from what Rustin said:

Martin Luther King’s greatest sermons always said, “Fear not; for as sure as Moses liberated the Jews from Egypt, you, too, will be free.” I shall never forget the night that Martin spoke in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London to the greatest group of ladies, lords, ladies, commoners, workers, that had ever gathered in that cathedral, so that there were 5,000 outside that could not get in. And the Canon of the cathedral said to Martin, “How are you sure that you will win this battle?” And Martin said, “As sure as Moses delivered the children of Israel, we shall be free.”

Over and over again, the freedom that we have proclaimed has not been based on the Christian New Testament; it has been based on the Jewish experience. Can you wrestle with angels? Yes; because the Jews wrestled with angels.

Now, for this very reason, the relationship of Blacks and Jews in this country is not something that is political, or social. It is the basis of a common philosophy that ultimately God will not be fooled, nor will God fool you.

(singing)

Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land,

Tell old Pharaoh,

to let my people go.

Thus saith the Lord, old Moses said,

Let my people go.

If not, I’ll strike your firstborn dead,

Let my people go.

Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land,

Tell old Pharaoh to let my people go.

"And as surely," Rustin said, "on the basis of that experience, that God freed the Jews, he will free us [African Americans]. The Jews are the harbinger of freedom—not because Jews deserve it, but because God revealed to them the Commandments, and revealed to them the writings in the Torah. There is no escape. You are central; you will remain so. There is no escape from being what history has made the Jewish people."

American Jewish Congress member holds sign at Montgomery March, 1965. Photograph, American Jewish Historical Society, 1965.

American Jewish Congress member holds sign at Montgomery March, 1965. Photograph, American Jewish Historical Society, 1965.

In Jerusalem, July 2014

As I anticipated presenting the story of Rabbi Prinz to audiences at the Jerusalem International Film Festival this past July, I did not know what the reaction would be. When Joachim Prinz: I Shall Not Be Silent had its Israeli premiere in Jerusalem, it was a time of great uncertainty, tension and sadness but one that was also just another day in Israel.

Walking in Jaffa one night with Israeli friends, I admired a magnificent sunset above the water, while across the sky was a nearly full moon. And then suddenly there was the reverbation from an intercepted missile. High in the sky, between the setting sun and the rising moon, was a new sight: the cloud of smoke as the rocket dissipated into thin air. I was shaken by the sight. The ten days I spent in Israel were unlike any I had experienced before. I kept hearing Prinz’s words in my head, and they filled me with sadness: “For in the end, war will prove to be destructive, not only for the vanquished, but also for the victors.”

After screening the film, I discovered that reaction to the film was the same as that in Newark, NJ, particularly among young people. “How did we not know of this man?,” our 25 year old friend Liad remarked, insisting that we contact Israel public television Channel 8, so that thousands of Israelis could learn about Rabbi Prinz’s story. Liad was particularly struck by Prinz’s idea that “neighbor” is a moral concept signifying our collective responsibility for one another, as he considered his Israeli Arab and his Palestinian neighbors today.

Liad’s words are the best possible reaction to the film that we could have hoped for in Israel. Young people in Israel today are open to Prinz’s words. They are looking for new models of leadership and found his message inspirational.

Prinz became a Zionist as an adolescent. At that time in his life, the promise of a Jewish homeland meant everything to Prinz who, as a German Jew in the 1920’s and 30’s, felt his German national identity slipping away. Zionism offered the promise of belonging, of community and of hope. As a rabbi in 1920’s Berlin who was popular with young people, Prinz inspired young Jews to work towards a democratic state of Israel in Palestine. Once the state of Israel was declared in 1948, he remained a devoted ally until the end of his life. How meaningful that today, young Israelis find relevance in his story. Once again, Prinz is able to inspire younger generations to consider their role in upholding the future of Israel as a democratic state that lives in peace with its neighbors.

Our Dream

Photographs courtesy of Fred Stucker Photography and the Rutgers Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience

Photographs courtesy of Fred Stucker Photography and the Rutgers Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience

On April 30, 2014, the documentary Joachim Prinz: I Shall Not Be Silent played to a capacity audience at the Newark Museum's Billy Johnson Auditorium. It was an  exceptional learning moment for today’s Newark. In spite of a daylong downpour, a cross section of the community showed up, with virtually every demographic sector represented. Most noteworthy was the high school contingent, who, along with undergraduate and graduate students, filled at least one third of the hall. They came from American History High School, St. Benedict's Preparatory School, St. Vincent Academy and the Bard Early College School. What for them was obviously a revelation was equally a delight for the adults in attendance.

I Shall Not Be Silent, by R Squared Productions, reveals the dramatic story of a courageous religious activist, who served as rabbi of a Newark congregation from 1939 to 1972. Prinz’s passion for justice compelled him to speak out against bigotry over the course of five decades, starting in Berlin under the Hitler Regime, later as an outspoken leader of the US civil rights movement and beyond. Prinz preceded Dr. Martin Luther King at the 1963 March on Washington, when he gave a riveting speech that was an indictment of apathy in the face of racism, comparing it to the silence of Germans during the rise of Nazism. 

The film documents Prinz’s life and career: urging Jews to leave Germany before World War II, collaborating with Dr. King in the civil rights struggle and advocating for the emerging State of Israel. It features extraordinary footage depicting 1930’s Berlin and discrimination against African Americans in the US, as well as interviews and appearances by Congressman John Lewis, Professors Clement A. Price and Michael Meyers, Senator Cory Booker and President Barack Obama. The free screening at the Newark Museum was the first presentation of the movie to an audience truly diverse in age, race and religious background. It was arranged by the Rutgers Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience and co-sponsored by the Newark Black Film Festival and the Victoria Foundation.

After the film, directors Rachel Fisher and Rachel Pasternak joined in a panel discussion with former NJ Assemblyman George Richardson, founder of the Newark Urban Coalition, who worked with Rabbi Prinz in Newark during the sixties and seventies. The panelists entertained thought-provoking questions, including remarkably insightful ones from high school students. “Why haven’t we learned about Rabbi Prinz in our studies?” “How did people react to the things he said and did?” One student noted that Prinz’s story was part of her history, and she had a right to learn about it. Panelists’ enlightening responses reflected on the larger message of Prinz’s life and challenged young and old to follow his example, drawing applause and admiration from the audience. 

Rachel Pasternak summed up a sentiment that seemed to be shared by all who attended when she said, “This moment was our dream when we chose Rabbi Prinz as the subject for our film.”

How the Film Got Its Name

When the war in Gaza flared up this summer, the editorials did too. A piece by Shmuel Rosner in the NY Times, for example, told American Jews to hold their tongues about Israel in no uncertain terms. 

Rabbi Joachim Prinz and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. (Photo courtesy of The Jacob Rader Marcus Center American Jewish Archives)   

Rabbi Joachim Prinz and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. (Photo courtesy of The Jacob Rader Marcus Center American Jewish Archives) 

 

The question was raised: As Jews who care about the survival and the moral life of the Jewish people, is our obligation to speak out when we disagree with Israel’s policies or to remain silent? Emily Bazelon and Ruth Margalit engaged in a sensitive and nuanced dialogue about this question in Slate. Rabbi Prinz had something to say about this question. When we combed through Rabbi Prinz’s archives, we found voluminous correspondence on Israel and its relationship to American Jews. Prinz’s friends and colleagues, not to mention strangers, repeatedly challenged his statements about Israeli government policies and actions and Rabbi Prinz responded, over and over again.

A letter that Prinz wrote in 1975 at the age of 73, captures his passion about speaking out—and that gave us the title of our film, Joachim Prinz: I Shall Not Be Silent. After Prinz publicly supported a NY Times editorial opposing pre-emptive war by Israel, Charlotte Jacobson (then the head of the World Zionist Organization) challenged Prinz in a private letter. Here’s his response, edited for length:

Dear Charlotte,

. . . . I have always been, and still am, against any war as a solution to the problems of the Near East. I believe that neither victory nor any other military triumph will solve the situation. It is true that many people in Israel share my view. It is equally true that there are considerable groups which have called for a pre-emptive war.

. . . .I felt it that it was not enough for the public to know that the New York Times was against a pre-emptive war. The Jewish community of America could play an important part in preventing any war in the Near East, or at least do whatever it could in order to express its views against such a war.

My reasoning was for the world to understand that the existence of world Jewry, including American Jewry, is dependent in the profoundest sense upon the existence of the State of Israel, its life, its security and its creativity. . . .

I do not believe either the Jewish communities or the big powers have the right to dictate either to Israel or to the Arabs what [the conditions for peace] should be. I . . . call upon all people of good will, Jews and non-Jews, to unite in the “cry for peace.”

I have for a long time called for a national debate on Jewish problems, and particularly the problems of Israel. I have been silent on many foreign policy issues although I disagreed with them violently. I have tried for many years to convince Golda and the government that the Palestinian entity has to be taken seriously. I met with derision, ridicule and insult. Now it is too late. I am an old Zionist but one who has never believed that the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora is one-sided, and that we must not express ourselves freely on issues about which we feel deeply. . . .

I am still very much alive and I have no intention to remain silent. . . . Even if I have to leave every Jewish organization, I shall feel free to express myself whenever my conscience calls for it. 

. . . We are not yet a muzzled community. We can still speak. Those of us who love Israel and are convinced that our lives in the Diaspora will be meaningless and empty without Israel, will remember the Biblical adage, “For the sake of Zion, I shall not be silent.”

                           With warm personal regards, I am

                                                                        Yours,

                                                                        Joachim Prinz