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MLK and the message of the prophets

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, coming up this Monday, I share with you a great piece written by my friend and colleague R. Ken Brodkin from Congregation Kesser Israel of Portland, OR. That is followed by “To Defend Objectivity and Restore Liberalism” an article by Jeff Jacoby, addressing an issue that is very close to my heart, and in my opinion crucial for the future wellbeing of our country. I’m referring to the importance of a commitment to following the facts wherever they might lead regardless of which side of the political tug-of-war they might strengthen. 

Martin Luther King's Jewish Hope
By R. Ken Brodkin

The first time I went to Georgia was more than 20 years ago while I was dating my future wife. She suggested we visit Stone Mountain Park near her childhood home outside Atlanta. The name of the site was vaguely familiar. 

As we climbed up the bare rock, I suddenly remembered where I recognized it: Stone Mountain was one of the heights Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referenced in his “I Have A Dream” speech. On that August day in 1963, King declared before 250,000 people, “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain in Georgia!”

Today, the site lies at the center of a national debate about the validity of Confederate monuments. The landmark features an enormous sculpture of three Confederate leaders: Robert E Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Jefferson Davis. The Ku Klux Klan held annual gatherings there for 50 years, complete with cross burnings, which continued in King’s time.

King summoned that site and many other heights in his iconic speech. From the snow-capped Rockies, to the Alleghenies, to Lookout Mountain in Tennessee, King believed that one day freedom would ring “from every hill and every molehill in America.”

This week, we will mark MLK Day. In our times of racial tension and division, we reflect on King’s vision of a future when all Americans – regardless of their skin color – will “sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

Today, that vision is more urgent than ever. As Americans reel from last week's unprecedented mob attack on the US Capitol, King's unifying message of hope and optimism beckons us. He taught us that it is possible "to hew a stone of hope from a mountain of despair."

Martin Luther King Jr. was raised in Atlanta, Ga. He was the son of a Baptist minister, the Reverend Martin Luther King Sr. As a boy, he not only heard his father preach – he witnessed him protest. Once, while buying a pair of shoes in Atlanta, the boy’s father refused to sit in the back of the store, asserting that he would never accept the system of segregation.

Although Martin questioned religion in his youth, he went on to become a minister. From his pulpit, he saw and experienced the travails and injustices afflicting American blacks. King believed that all people deserve justice. A great supporter of Israel, King once observed that opposition to Zionism is tantamount to anti-Semitism.

When King stood at the Lincoln Memorial during his “I Have A Dream” speech, he spoke about “the sweltering summer of injustice.” Like many who had come “fresh from narrow jail cells,” King personally experienced tribulation. Yet, he believed that “the bank of justice was not bankrupt.” What was the source of his optimism?

On one level, King believed in the promise of America. He believed that the Declaration of Independence made the promise of unalienable rights to blacks as much as to whites. He believed that his dream was the American dream. But King also reached further back in history for his vision.

As a child, he memorized verses of the Bible. He was inspired by Jewish prophets like Isaiah, who continually advanced the hope for Tzedek and Mishpat (righteousness and justice). King was stirred by the vision of Amos, who foresaw a time when justice will “roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

This hope – a hope rooted in Jewish scripture – was a vision King advanced until his final day. King was murdered on April 4, 1968. The night before, he spoke at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn. In his final speech, he decried the racial injustice in the city.

While King knew that difficult days lay ahead, he invoked the image of Moses, telling his listeners that he, like Moses, had been to the mountaintop and seen the promised land. While he couldn’t predict that he himself would cross the Jordan, King knew that “we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”

King was a devout Baptist, yet, as Jews, we can learn from King’s insight into our prophets. King evoked their message of justice as he inspired his generation.

King taught us to hope and that words – prophetic words – have the power to shape our world. Without any position of authority, King's vision became the basis for the landmark civil rights laws enacted in the 1960s.

Climbing that day at Stone Mountain, my wife recalled a time when Jews did not feel comfortable at the park. When her family frequented the site as she was growing up, her brother and father wore baseball caps to remain inconspicuous as Jews. That day, looking at the Atlanta skyline from atop the mountain, I thought back to how King struggled for his community – and for ours.

This MLK Day arrives in the shadow of an attack on the US Capitol. As we look toward brighter days for our republic, let us learn from the legacy of a leader who believed deeply in the promise and hope of America. After all, Martin Luther King Jr. climbed to the top of the mountain. From its height, he showed us the promised land.


Martin Luther King's Jewish Hope
By Jeff Jacoby

One of the most distressing phenomena of recent years is the denigration of objectivity by wide swaths of the media and academia.
It was always the case that principled neutrality — a commitment to following the facts wherever they might lead and regardless of which side of the political tug-of-war they might strengthen — was more of an honored value than a rigorously enforced policy. But playing it straight used to be held out as the ideal. Even if that ideal was frequently honored in the breach — even if human nature all too often led reporters, editors, professors, or researchers to spin their findings in ways congenial to their ideological predispositions — it used to be accepted at least in theory that truthfulness and impartiality were fundamental to the missions of journalism, teaching, and scholarship.

No more. Now objectivity is not only not honored in the breach, it is widely disdained. The change had been coming on for a while, but in the Trump era it became open and unabashed.

"For years, I've been among a chorus of mainstream journalists who have called for our industry to abandon the appearance of objectivity as the aspirational journalistic standard," reporter Wesley Lowery proclaimed in a lengthy New York Times essay last June. He called for "reporters instead to focus on being fair and telling the truth, as best as one can, based on the given context and available facts," and argued that journalists should not pledge to keep their personal opinions out of their reporting.

For example, he wrote, "moral clarity would insist that politicians who traffic in racist stereotypes and tropes — however cleverly — be labeled such with clear language and unburied evidence. Racism, as we know, is not about what lies in the depths of a human's heart. It is about word and deed. And a more aggressive commitment to truth from the press would empower our industry to finally admit that." In other words, it isn't enough to straightforwardly report what a politician says and allow readers and viewers to draw their own conclusions. A disfavored politician should be referred to explicitly as racist, or as a liar, so that there's no ambiguity about the conclusion the newsroom wants its readers and viewers to draw.

As Lowery noted, his isn't a solo view: "a chorus of mainstream journalists" have been clamoring for the explicit rejection of objectivity.

"Objectivity is dead, and I'm okay with it" wrote journalist Lewis Wallace in an online essay one week after Donald Trump was inaugurated in 2017. "Neutrality is impossible for me, and you should admit that it is for you, too." Far from dispassionately reporting the facts without taking sides, Wallace insisted, journalists should go out of their way to incorporate their politics into their reporting:

We will be called politically correct, liberal, and leftist. We shouldn't care about that nor work to avoid it. We don't have time for that. Instead, we should own the fact that to tell the stories and promote the voices of marginalized and targeted people is not a neutral stance from the sidelines, but an important front in a lively battle against the narrow-mindedness, tyranny, and institutional oppression that puts all of our freedoms at risk.

If you have been reading a major daily newspaper or watching one of the main network or cable news stations for more than a few years, none of this will come as a revelation. The same is true if you have subscribed for more than a few years to the popular science journals, or if you follow what is taking place on college campuses . The displacement of objectivity as an ideal in scholarship and fact-finding is by now an entrenched element of elite opinion. That is especially the case when it comes to issues of group identity — those involving race, gender, ethnicity, and class. To mention just a single egregious illustration, one of the museums of the Smithsonian Institution promoted a document last summer that listed "objective, rational linear thinking" as one of the "assumptions of whiteness and white culture."

Yet objectivity still has its defenders, and not only on the right.

In an essay introducing Liberties , a new quarterly journal of arts and politics, the renowned critic and editor Leon Wieseltier makes an impassioned case for "steadiness in the midst of turbulence" and argues that while subjective emotions and the acknowledgement of others' pain are important, they must not be allowed to take the place of facts and sober deliberation. "Objectivity," Wieseltier writes, "is the sturdiest ground of justice, and the despisers of objectivity are playing with fire."

Feelings are a reedy basis for reform. After all, the other side also has feelings — which is how we wound up with the revolting solipsist in the Oval Office. In a democratic society, reform comes about by means of persuasion, and the feelings of others may not do the trick. I may not feel what you feel. I will not be convinced that you are right by the fervor of your feeling that you are right. I need reasons to agree with you, that is, appeals to principles, to rational accounts of preferences, to terms and values larger than each of us which, unlike feelings, we may share.

Without objectivity, without the practice of detachment that makes genuine deliberation possible, without tearing ourselves away from ourselves, justice in our society will mean only what the majority, or the crowd, or the media (all of them fickle) want it to mean. . . . Our system of disagreement will continue to be degraded into a system of umbrage, in which a dissenting opinion may be dismissed as "tone-deaf." Empathy, where it exists, will be remorselessly selective and most often reserved for one's own kind. (Down with himpathy! Up with herpathy!) We will remain stalled in our excitability. But none of the questions that we are asking as a society can be answered with a scream or a scowl.

Some of what I have written here will please progressives. Some of it will please conservatives. I call it liberalism.