Monday, July 13, 2009

NAACP at 100 as seen from Jerusalem

Out of Africa

In the American ideal, leaders who cling to power through deceit and the silencing of dissent are on the wrong side of history, to paraphrase a line from President Barack Obama's inaugural address.

This was essentially the message Obama brought with him as he and his family spent a day over the weekend in Ghana.

The president is of Kenyan descent on his father's side; the First Lady is the great-great-granddaughter of a slave.

In Ghana, the couple and their daughters, Sasha, eight, and Malia, 11, passed through the "Door of No Return" at Cape Coast Castle, where African slaves were "warehoused" in dungeons, sometimes for weeks on end, before being shipped to a life of bondage in the New World. Obama said the 17th-century fortress was "reminiscent of the trip that I took to Buchenwald. It reminds us of the capacity of human beings to commit great evil."

Though the White House kept the itinerary of the visit low-key, thousands of Ghanaians, many wearing souvenir T-shirts and waving American flags, lined the streets and crowded on rooftops to catch a glimpse of Obama.

Ghana was selected for the visit because it is one of the few stable democracies on the continent.

Obama met with President John Atta Mills and addressed parliamentarians and dignitaries at Accra's convention center, saying: "We must start from the simple premise that Africa's future is up to Africans… The West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants."

He drew applause when he added: "No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top, or the head of the port authority is corrupt. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery."

OBAMA returned to the US just as delegates of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) were gathering in Manhattan to mark the group's centenary. An impetus for the NAACP's founding was the revulsion liberals felt toward the vile practice of lynching; another was shock over the anti-black rampages in Springfield, Illinois, in 1908.

The NAACP's founders and early activists included legendary African Americans, among them W.E.B. Du Bois, joined by socially committed Jews, including Henry Moscowitz, Joel Spingarn, Julius Rosenthal, Lillian Wald, Emil G. Hirsch and Stephen Wise.

Over the years, Jews also contributed to some of the key legal victories achieved by the civil rights movement. For instance, Jack Greenberg assisted Thurgood Marshall in the watershed US Supreme Court case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, and succeeded him as counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

When the black power movement achieved ascendancy in the 1960s-1970s, and violent Jew-hatred became a regular occurrence in urban America, what divided Jews and blacks became stronger than that which united them. The two communities were further driven apart because Jews mostly opposed racial preferences in employment (affirmative action) - even to compensate for institutionalized discrimination.

Meanwhile, the NAACP went through a period of racial chauvinism, reaching its nadir with the brief appointment, in April 1993, of Ben Chavis as executive director. He was and remains a follower of the notorious hater Louis Farrakhan.

TO A welcome and remarkable extent, tensions between African Americans and Jews have receded in the 21st century. It seemed only natural that Obama should receive 78 percent of the Jewish vote, and that two of the president's closets aides would be Jewish.

Today's NAACP, led by Benjamin Todd Jealous, has recommitted to the values of its founders: "We are from our origin a multiracial, multiethnic human rights organization."

And so long as prejudice, sometimes spilling over into outright hate, remains intrinsic to human nature there will be work for advocates of civil rights.

The US civil rights movement and our Zionist enterprise, 6,000 miles away, share a passion for the Promised Land. For Zionists, it is a tangible place; for African Americans it is more of an destination. As both secure their hard-won achievements, they need to strive to remain faithful to their founders' ideals.

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