Everyone is talking today about the 50th anniversary of the Rev.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” address. And for good
reason, of course. But there was another big speech in Washington that day —
the one delivered by Rabbi Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish
Congress. In fact, some say, before MLK gave a speech for the history books, it
looked like Prinz had stolen the show.
The speech was an eloquent sermon on the need for good people to
speak out — with added power coming from a German-born rabbi who found refuge
in the United States after the Nazis came to power.
Much energy has been devoted to the question of why American Jews
are sooooooo liberal. I suspect that for many, this speech just about sums it
up. The key passage:
It is for these reasons that it is not merely sympathy and
compassion for the black people of America that motivates us. It is above all
and beyond all such sympathies and emotions a sense of complete identification
and solidarity born of our own painful historic experience.
When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler
regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under
those most tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most
urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and
the most tragic problem is silence.
You can listen to the speech here. Full text below:
I speak to
you as an American Jew.
As Americans we share the
profound concern of millions of people about the shame and disgrace of
inequality and injustice which make a mockery of the great American idea.
As Jews we bring to this
great demonstration, in which thousands of us proudly participate, a two-fold
experience — one of the spirit and one of our history.
In the realm of the
spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man,
he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It
is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation
of man’s dignity and integrity.
From our Jewish historic
experience of three and a half thousand years we say:
Our ancient history began
with slavery and the yearning for freedom. During the Middle Ages my people
lived for a thousand years in the ghettos of Europe . Our modern history begins
with a proclamation of emancipation.
It is for these reasons
that it is not merely sympathy and compassion for the black people of America
that motivates us. It is above all and beyond all such sympathies and emotions
a sense of complete identification and solidarity born of our own painful
When I was the rabbi of
the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things.
The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was
that bigotry and hatred are not ‘.the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the
most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.
A great people which had
created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They
remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face
of mass murder.
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, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the
black community but for the sake of the image, the idea and the aspiration of
Our children, yours and
mine in every school across the land, each morning pledge allegiance to the
flag of the United States and to the republic for which it stands. They, the
children, speak fervently and innocently of this land as the land of “liberty
and justice for all.”
The time, I believe, has
come to work together – for it is not enough to hope together, and it is not
enough to pray together, to work together that this children’s oath, pronounced
every morning from Maine to California, from North to South, may become. a
glorious, unshakeable reality in a morally renewed and united America.