Photo Credit: Jewish Press

During the last few decades of the 20th century, many American black organizations, including the Black Panthers and the Student Nonviolent Cooperating Committee, denounced Israel as “genocidal,” proclaimed the need for all blacks to unite behind the Arab cause against the Jewish State, and accused black leaders who supported Israel of being traitors to their own people. One black leader, Stokely Carmichael, even said, “The only good Zionist is a dead Zionist.”

Although many American blacks sadly remain vehemently anti-Israel, it is very important to acknowledge our friends in the black community and their contributions to the welfare of Israel. Two such often-unheralded friends who frequently and publicly spoke out in favor of Israel and Zionism were Rosa Parks and Bayard Rustin.

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Rosa Louise McCauley Parks (1913-2005) – “the first lady of civil rights” – was an American activist who became an international icon of resistance to racial segregation for her critical role in the Montgomery bus boycott when, on December 1, 1955, she refused an order by a bus driver to relinquish her seat to a white passenger.

Iconic signed photograph of Parks seated on the bus.

Her celebrated act of resistance was far from the first; in fact, nine months earlier, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin became the first person arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. Parks earned renown because the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) chose her to serve as plaintiff in its test case for a court challenge after her arrest for civil disobedience in violating Alabama segregation laws.

However, while Parks’ case lagged in the state courts, the Alabama federal district court in Browder v. Gayle, 142 F.Supp. 707 (Ala. 1956), ruled bus segregation unconstitutional, and Parks was not a plaintiff when the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that decision later that year. It wasn’t until the 1964 Civil Rights Act that all public accommodations nationwide were desegregated.

Parks, however, did become the leading figure in the Montgomery bus boycott and she played a key role in organizing and collaborating with civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., earning her the title “the mother of the civil rights movement.” Among other honors, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, and after her death she became the first woman to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda.

In the November 8, 1993 correspondence exhibited here, Parks writes:

Thanks for your kind letter expressing your appreciation for my stand against racial segregation. I think the actions and speeches of skinhead Nazi people are a serious threat to freedom of all of us who believe in peace and justice.

Later in life, Parks frequently and vociferously spoke out against skinheads – who typically manifest neo-Nazi beliefs regarding Jews – and the Ku Klux Klan, whom she blamed for “keeping the flames of prejudice flickering” and for much of the continuing racism in America.

Her concern about the skinhead threat was such that she filed suit against LaFace Records and OutKast, a rap music duo who recorded “Rosa Parks,” a song in which they misappropriated her good name (“Ah, ha, hush that fuss, everybody move to the back of the bus…”). Parks argued that if OutKast were permitted to use her name in this revolting manner, “the Ku Klux Klan, skinheads or any race supremacist group can exploit the names of others.”

However, in Parks v. LaFace Records, 76 F. Supp. 2d 775 (E.D. Mich. 1999), a federal court ruled against her, finding that this type of hateful speech is precisely what is protected by the First Amendment, “which would be a poor refuge for free expression if public figures could censor the use of their names whenever they found the speech to be distasteful.”

Though Parks’ heroism on that Montgomery bus has become the stuff of legend, not as well known is her strong support of Israel as a Jewish state and determined opposition to anti-Israel boycotts. In 1975, she joined a list of over 200 black leaders organized as the Black Americans to Support Israel Committee (BASIC) in signing an open declaration of admiration and respect for Israel.

BASIC was born just after the Arab League recognized the PLO as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” and after the United Nations passed its shameful Resolution 3379 equating Zionism with racism. Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin responded in a column that “Zionism is not racism, but the legitimate expression of the Jewish people’s self-determination…. From our 400-year experience with slavery, segregation, and discrimination we know that Zionism is not racism.”

Throughout his life, Rustin remained a champion of Israel who manifested ultimate faith in Israel’s democracy. He expressed great antipathy for Arab governments and for the PLO, which, he said, used Israel as a facile excuse to divert the attention of the Arab masses away from their own treachery and political failures: “Marx once said that religion is the opiate of the masses. In the Middle East, Israel is the opiate of the Arabs.”

Rustin characterized anti-Semitism as “history’s oldest and most shameful witch hunt,” and he was particularly disturbed by black anti-Semitism, which he publicly acknowledged: “We cannot sweep it under the rug…it is here, it is dangerous, it must be rooted out.” Such statements earned him the enmity of many in the “Black Power” movement, which he bitterly criticized for its anti-Semitism and Israel hatred. He faced vicious accusations from the radical left, who called him an “Uncle Tom” who had been “bought out by Jewish money.”

He argued to often unreceptive black audiences that, unlike the Arabs, Jews had never been slave traders; that, unlike the Arab nations, Israel was sending financial aid and providing important technological expertise to black African countries; and that, even today, Arab countries oppress their own black citizens. In contrast, Jews had always stood side by side with the black civil rights movement, and Israel was a strong and progressive democracy.

Rustin also condemned the PLO as “an organization committed to racism, terrorism and authoritarianism” that actively promoted hatred of Israel so that Palestinian leaders wouldn’t be answerable to their people for their failure to do anything to ease their poverty and misery. In response to an increase in black support for the PLO, which was anathema to him, he published an article in the New York Times called “To Blacks: Condemn PLO,” in which he argued:

First, we risk causing serious divisions within our own ranks [by supporting the PLO]; second, we risk the forfeiture of our own moral prestige, which is based on a long and noble tradition of nonviolence; and third, we risk becoming the unwitting accomplices of an organization [committed] to the bloody destruction of Israel – indeed of the Jewish people.

Original newspaper photo of Rustin.

When the Ford administration held up the delivery of important aircraft to Israel and began to speak of a “reassessment” of American policy toward the Jewish State, Rustin snapped into action, quickly setting up a meeting with Jewish leaders to discuss which leaders of the American black community could be invited to begin an effort to come together in Israel’s defense.

When he held a press conference in New York on September 11, 1975 to announce the formation of BASIC, he was joined by Roy Wilkins, NAACP Executive Director, and Eleanor Holmes Norton, then NYC Commissioner of Human Rights, both strong supporters of Israel.

Rustin decided to publish an advertisement in the New York Times to proclaim the birth of BASIC and to spread its Zionist message and, after raising an ambitious $13,992 to pay for the ad – no mean sum at the time – the ad appeared in the November 23, 1975 edition of the Times.

Signers included well-known personalities, including business and labor leaders, academics and attorneys, politicians, clergymen, and sports and entertainments figures. Famous signers included Parks, Hank Aaron, Arthur Ashe, Roy Campanella, Count Basie, and Ralph Ellison.

Tellingly, two leading black public figures refused to put their names to the ad: Jesse Jackson, a well-known anti-Semite, and John H. Johnson, the publisher of several leading black publications, including Jet and Ebony. (Johnson explained that he feared being murdered by black Muslims were he to publicly sign on to such a pro-Israel statement.)

In the outstanding New York Times ad, the signers began by noting that throughout the long struggle for racial equality, they have been guided by a commitment to democracy; opposition to all forms of racial, religious, and sex discrimination; and the belief that the denial of equal rights to any minority threatens every minority and, indeed, democracy itself. They went on to list seven conclusions regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict.

First, they unambiguously condemned the anti-Jewish blacklist and, citing their own great suffering from such hatred, proclaimed their refusal to sit idly by while Palestinians and Arabs bring their bigotry and intolerance to America. They characterized as “repugnant” the attempt by the Arabs to use the oil weapon to boycott businesses that deal with Israel or have Jewish owners.

Second, they expressed a fundamental belief that blacks and Jews share common interests in democracy and that Jews have always been the strongest supporters of the black struggle for civil rights and equality.

Third, expressing great admiration for Israel’s impressive social achievements; for its securing of religious and political freedoms and civil liberties for all, unique in the Middle East; and for its highly advanced social welfare systems, social idealism, creative innovation, cooperative spirit, and freedom of religion, they unequivocally and enthusiastically joined with other Americans in “reaffirming the rights of Israel to exist as a sovereign state.”

Fourth, they castigated the Arab countries for their use of oil as a weapon, arguing that the adverse impact of Arab price-gouging falls disproportionately upon American blacks and that massive increases in oil prices has had a disastrous effect upon black Africans, to whom the Arabs give lip service regarding their commitment to African solidarity. Israel, on the other hand, “small and isolated as it is,” has “done much to aid the economic development of Black Africa through creative technical programs.”

Fifth, while expressing support for an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict through mutual acceptance and reconciliation, they noted that Israel unfailingly demonstrated the desire to make concessions for peace, but the Arabs have refused to accept Israel as a legitimate and independent sovereign nation.

Sixth, while expressing deep support for the Palestinian right to self-determination (Rustin and BASIC were always very careful never to use the term “independent state”), they made clear that such support could not come at the cost of Jewish independence and statehood and not at the cost of yielding to “economic blackmailers” or “terrorists who would force their own ‘solution’ at the point of a gun.”

They held the Arab regimes responsible for allowing the Palestinian people to wallow in abject poverty and blamed the leaders of the “so-called Palestinian Liberation Organization” for acting only in their own self-interest. Characterizing the PLO as “a terrorist group,” they cited with contempt, among other Palestinian atrocities, the murder of Israeli athletes at the Olympic games, the airplane hijackings, and the massacre of innocent civilians at the Tel Aviv airport.

Seventh, they proclaimed their intention to continue to work hard to achieve a true peace between the two belligerents and to help launch an era of cooperation and good will between Israel and the Palestinians.

Shortly after the ad appeared, Rustin wrote to Prime Minister Golda Meir to advise her that more than 800 people had already filled out the attached mail-in coupon to President Nixon demanding that he provide aircraft to Israel. He became a close friend of Golda’s, who once made him her famous chicken soup to help him recover from a bad cold.

On September 9, 1975, Rustin formally registered BASIC with the IRS as a social welfare organization, listing seven purposes for the group: (1) to foster better understanding of Israel as a democracy; (2) to sponsor exchange visits of American blacks and Israelis; (3) to publish literature; (4) to make speakers available to black audiences who are knowledgeable about Israel; (5) to work for improved understanding between Israel and black Africa; (6) to work for Middle East peace; and (7) to refute anti-Israel propaganda. Nonetheless, in a great travesty of justice, the IRS denied tax-exempt status to BASIC.

BASIC undertook a broad outreach program, including sponsoring joint black-Jewish receptions for visiting Israeli officials; funding black speakers at Jewish conferences; organizing study trips to Israel for black leaders; and awarding a scholarship for study at The Hebrew University.

Rustin’s work for Jewish and Israeli causes seemingly had no bounds. He was appointed by President Carter as a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Commission and as chair of its “Committee on Conscience” and, among other activities, he put pressure on the Ethiopian government to permit the black Jews of Beita Israel to leave Ethiopia for Israel.

He was a frequent and active participant in demonstrations supporting Soviet Jews and, after one of his many visits to Israel, he participated in writing a report concluding that Israel’s 1982 incursion into Lebanon was a legitimate act of self-defense and not a violation of international law.

Sadly, at the end of the day, Rustin, Parks, and BASIC essentially failed in their mission. Two years after the New York Times ad, statistics showed that only 14 percent of American blacks supported Israel, and hatred for Israel and anti-Semitism among black extremists continues today unabated.

Nonetheless, we must never forget the extraordinary assistance that Israel has historically received from its supporters in the black community and we must always remember to acknowledge gratefully the support we receive today from our black friends.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.