Quest for Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern American

By Marc Dollinger | Go to book overview
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“Hamans and Torquemadas”: Southern and
Northern Jewish Responses to the
Civil Rights Movement, 1945–1965

IN 1963, at the height of the civil rights movement, Rabbi Richard Winograd, interim director of the B'nai B'rith Hillel Foundation at the University of Chicago, journeyed to Birmingham, Alabama, to protest racial segregation. While local African-American leaders hailed the rabbi as a man committed to high moral ideals, the Birmingham Jewish community opposed Winograd's effort and criticized him for his much-publicized venture. “I had the feeling,” the rabbi explained in reference to two great villains in Jewish history, “that we somehow were the Hamans and Torquemadas” to southern Jews. 1

While one might expect a spiritual leader to admonish his southern coreligionists for their stand on civil rights, Winograd refused. “I was not fully convinced,” he explained, “that we had a right to place the Jewish community of Birmingham in a more dangerous position than we are willing and able to place ourselves.” From a moral point of view, the rabbi believed, “The scales were very even.” Instead of lamenting southern Jewish recalcitrance, Winograd pained over “the circumstances which had led to pitting Jew against Jew.” 2

Winograd understood that in the South, public support for black equality threatened to undo generations of peaceful coexistence between southern Jews and their white neighbors. Liberalism did not offer southern Jews any hope of civic protection. Jews south of the Mason-Dixon line lived in a climate of fear and intimidation. Synagogue bombings, threats of economic boycott, and violence directed against civil rights workers convinced most southern Jews to follow less confrontational strategies. A 1961 poll, for example, revealed that 40 percent of southern Jews considered the Supreme Court's Brown v. the Board of Education ruling “unfortunate.” A majority of southern Jews believed that desegregation was moving too quickly and criticized “Yankee agitators” and “northern dogooders” for interfering. While northern Jews fought to secure a federal anti-lynching bill and end segregation in education, housing, and employment, southern Jews hid themselves from view, challenging their rabbis


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