“Confront injustice,” says rabbi in speech about civil rights movement

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By Amanda Fusting
For the Mitzpeh
@amandafusting

Maryland Hillel welcomed Rabbi Saul Berman Saturday to talk about his experiences in the march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama with Martin Luther King Jr.  Berman shared his personal testimony over lunch and shed light on the vast Jewish involvement within the civil rights movement.

After chatter died down, Berman began by posing a parallel between Moses’ response to injustice and the civil rights movement.

“Moses understood what it meant to confront injustice and not simply walk by it,” said Berman.

Berman shared the details of his time in Selma, shining light on how it is the responsibility of the Jew to promote a “character of justice in the society we live in.”

Berman told the story of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black man who covered his mother with his body to protect her from the police who were beating her. The police shot Jackson and debated whether to even call an ambulance. Jackson died eight days later in the hospital from his injuries. Despite the violence that Jackson, Berman and others faced by police, the protest continued.

“We could not desist from this battle,” said Berman.

Berman argued that the Holocaust happened not just because of Hitler or the Nazi party, but because the other citizens remained silent and allowed this injustice to happen. Berman believed that if he remained silent during the civil rights movement, he would be just as responsible as perpetrators for the mistreatment of African Americans.

“There was substantial Jewish engagement not only in the funding of the civil rights movement but in the presence of the movement” said Berman. He pointed out that the Jewish presence is widely underrepresented in the 2014 movie “Selma”.

During the protest, Berman was arrested and boarded onto a bus to be taken to the police station.

“I’m certain you do not want to be doing this,” said Berman to the police officer during the bus ride.   

“I would rather kill you and burn in hell…” the police officer responded before whacking his stick against Berman’s chair, nearly missing his head.

Students said Berman made the injustices that occurred during the civil rights movement more poignant and real.

“I really appreciated how much nuance he put into his story and the recognition he gave to all of the people involved in the movement,” said sophomore sociology major Devorah Stavisky.

Students attend a lunch and learn with Rabbi Saul Berman about the civil rights movement May 6.  Amanda Fusting/Mitzpeh.

Students attend a lunch and learn with Rabbi Saul Berman about the civil rights movement May 6. Amanda Fusting/Mitzpeh.

After keeping the protesters in jail overnight, the police decided to take them back to Brown Chapel, the meeting place of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Berman decided to walk to the chapel instead of taking the bus because he wanted to honor the Sabbath. The protesters decided to walk with Berman, leaving no man behind.

“It really heightened my perception that the capacity for collaboration emerges in a joint effort when people do things together,” said Berman.

The protesters later marched to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. During the march, Berman said he saw children screaming “Traitor!” at the white people walking side by side with black people.

“There were no warm handshakes, no warm hugs at the end of this,” said Berman.

He emphasized the seriousness of the tragedies that occurred in Selma and identified the toxic, racist way of thinking that existed there.

“His perspective on politics both then and now is really profound and something that is really relevant today,” said freshman business major Sarah Paley.

Berman reminded the audience that it is a Jewish obligation to respond to injustice and inspired the audience with insight into the civil rights movement.

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