Take Two Seats: What’s Really Behind Jewish Anger Over “Selma?” (Guest Commentary by Stacey Patton)

The following is an essay by author and journalist Stacey Patton, which I have decided to publish on my site for a few important reasons: first, because as with all of her work, this piece is hard-hitting, analytically on-point and presents a vital perspective that needs to be heard; and secondly because despite the above, it has been rejected for publication by several other sources. Why? Because according to those who rejected it, the commentary is “anti-Semitic.” As a Jew (not religiously any longer, but I guess socially/culturally and occasionally politically) who knows how quickly many of us are to scream “anti-Semite” at anyone who says anything critical of any Jewish leader, individual (or of course, Israel), I was intrigued. So I read the essay and could not find even one syllable that qualified for the designation. And because many in the Jewish community have been complaining about the “erasure” of Jewish participation in the civil rights movement, as portrayed in the movie Selma — and because I feel that this complaint reeks of hypocrisy and even a kind of group-based narcissism — I decided it was important to publish Patton’s piece here.

By Stacey Patton

It’s not just Chris Matthews, the LBJ loyalists and George Wallace’s son that are unhappy with Ava DuVernay’s Selma; there is a group of Jews that are equally outraged.  Despite claims about historic accuracy and erasure of Jewish leaders involved in Selma and the broader civil rights movement, there is much more to these gripes over a film about African American protests.

Leida Snow’s review, “Selma Distorts History by Airbrushing Out Jews,” in the Jewish Daily Forward, asserts that, “the narrative strategy of the film leads to a glaring omission … the contribution that thousands of white people, many of them Jewish, made to the Civil Rights Movement.”

Snow points out that, while Dr. King is shown embracing a Greek Orthodox priest, and visible among many whites is a Catholic priest and a minister, she “looked in vain for the embrace of a man with a yarmulke, a scene that would reflect the historical moment when Dr. King marched with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a leading Jewish theologian and philosopher widely respected beyond the Jewish community.” Although Heschel was present in the grainy documentary footage at the end of the film, Snow notes that the rabbi was not visible in the body of the film, nor were any other Jews openly recognized.

The omission of Heschel is central to Peter Dreier’s rant, “The Rabbi Missing from Selma,” in the Jewish Journal. He argues that having King and other leaders featured in the front row of the Selma protest, including Heschel, would not have diminished the film’s emphasis on the centrality of African Americans in the civil rights struggle.  However, he adds, “it would have lent the film more historical accuracy, not simply about one man but as a representative of the role Jews played in the freedom struggle.”

Even Heschel’s daughter, Susannah Heschel weighed in via JTA the Global Jewish News Source, stating that, “…for my father Abraham Joshua Heschel and for many participants, the march was both an act of political protest and a profoundly religious moment: an extraordinary gathering of nuns, priests, rabbis, black and white, a range of political views, from all over the United States.”

Interestingly, not all Jewish observers agreed that Selma should have focused more on Heschel or other Jews. Katie Rosenblatt’s response to Snow’s criticism of Selma in The Jewish Daily Forward calls Snow out as “dangerous for several reasons.” Charging that “Snow makes this critique by drawing selectively from American Jewish history,” Rosenblatt states that Snow’s review revises history to ignore the act that the Civil Rights Movement was led by Blacks with a “small proportion of Jews playing significant roles.”

A piece in My Jewish Learning by Lonnie Kleinman and Lex Rofes titled “Selma: It’s Not About Jews and that’s Okay,” refutes Snow’s criticism by pointing out that Selma “could have mentioned Jews. It could have featured inspirational Freedom Summer veterans, as Snow asserts—and just as easily, while we may not like to admit it, it could have featured Jews like Sol Tepper, who wrote dozens of articles for the Selma Times Journal advocating for segregation and was quite hostile towards Civil Rights advocates. Good or bad, Jews could have been included more—but that’s not the focus of this film. This omission is not a ‘distortion.’”

Why is the inclusion or omission of a Jewish person a major point of criticism about a Black-helmed film that focuses on a slice of history to spotlight the African-American struggle for voting rights?

Despite the conflation of “Selma erases Jews” and “Selma erases Jewish rabbis,” the criticism is really about the lack of representation of Jewish clergy or the visibility of religious Jews.  Few of the critics have lamented the absence of Stanley David Levison, which is not surprising given his radicalism and his ties to communism.  Nor has the criticism focused on the erasure of Black Jews, from Sammy Davis Jr. to the unknown foot soldiers.

The questions about “historic accuracy” haven’t focused on the erasure of tensions between Black civil rights activities and their White allies.  An accurate representation of Jewish or White civil rights activists would demand a focus on the very real anti-Black racism, white privilege, and White paternalism that was part and parcel to the history.  Is this the film critics wanted to see?

Or did they want a movie that spotlighted Black anger and grief in response to a nation that cared more about White suffering and sacrifice when White and Jewish lives were lost on the frontlines of the struggle for justice, than about the fact that many Black lives were—and still are—lost every day. The selective outrage reveals that these criticisms are about whiteness and a narrow definition of Jewishness that emphasizes religiosity and its impact on Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement.

And it’s not as if Selma made countless historic choices because of its aesthetic and narrative decisions. Selma is radical not in DuVernay’s decision to make girls and women central to the narrative, but to present King as a fleshed-out human rather than a one-dimensional icon, and spotlight key figures in that chapter of the movement. Likewise, its decentering of SNCC, people like Bayard Rustin and Diane Nash, embody the choices of film and its creators to tell a story that has been erased from both the history books and the cinematic memory.

The real issue isn’t the omission of a well-known rabbi, but rather the lens through which we are accustomed to viewing racial history, politics and culture. So often, in films like Glory, Amistad, Mississippi Burning and countless others, the history of African Americans and the struggle for freedom has been told through interracial narratives that centers white protagonists. Reinforcing stories of “white saviors,” Hollywood has a long history of using African-American history to chronicle and celebrate the contributions of whites to fulfilling America’s “exceptional” promise.  Seeing these things from a solidly Black perspective is often unnerving to non-Black people. It is so strange, so new, and so unfamiliar, that it causes cognitive dissonance for some viewers, especially those who are accustomed to controlling the narrative in film and television.

The most glaring recent example is leading Jewish director Steven Spielberg’s 2012 Oscar-winning film, Lincoln, which focused on the Civil War and slavery, yet ignored Frederick Douglass, who was central to the story and close to Lincoln.

Noting that Douglass’ impact on Lincoln was “nowhere to be found in the film,” Michael Shankwrote in The Root, an online publication of the Washington Post, that omitting the famous ex-slave-turned abolitionist was “a missed opportunity to educate American audiences about the myriad Black leaders that inspired, instigated and were involved in Lincoln’s leadership on the issue of civil rights … Douglass … a friend of Lincoln’s, was an ambassador, educator, landowner, musician, linguist and, among many other assignments, the first recorder of deeds for, and U.S. Marshal of the District of Columbia.  He should have been in the film.”

I wonder if those so outraged about the erasure of Jewish activists in Selma considered the lack of inclusion of Black soldiers within World War I and II films like Saving Private Ryan where these men, despite being marginalized and lynched in America, lost their lives in the fight against Nazi oppression. Or how about the lack of representation of other people of color within Holocaust films? From 1933 to 1945, in Nazi Germany and in German-occupied territories, African Americans and other Blacks from throughout the Diaspora, suffered all kinds of persecution that ranged from being imprisoned in concentration camps, to sterilization, medical experimentation, and murder.  One has to look no further than the silence from the Jewish community of the whitewashing in Exodus to see the depths of hypocrisy and the selective investment in historic accuracy.

Switching to the smaller screen, we can’t forget the numerous times that New York City is portrayed as lily-white in such hit TV shows as Seinfeld, Sex in the City, Friends and now the HBO hit, Girls—all with Jews in decision-making roles. As Cord Jefferson wrote in a 2012Gawker piece taking these and other shows to task, “It’s a failing of contemporary American culture that if there’s ever a discussion about adding a Black character to a show, people immediately think that means a slang-spitting, wise-cracking stereotype. They assume [that] is asking for the show’s creator to change the entire dynamic of the program.”

Hypocrisy should be clear but that still doesn’t explain what’s behind Jewish criticisms about not being granted moral credit for their participation in the Black freedom struggle.

The complaints about Selma not focusing on Jews surely reflect outrage over “Jewish erasure,” yet in the end this is about a “possessive investment in whiteness.” Demanding centrality and visibility, expecting to be included, ultimately reflects a historic process where, as Karen Brodkin has argued, Jews have secured whiteness.  The expectation of centrality, and the ability to demand visibility is part of the history of how “Jews have secured whiteness.”

The privileges of whiteness is to expect to always be central to every narrative and portrayal. Just like the folks who attacked the film’s portrayal of LBJ for not conforming to their agenda, the idea that a film about the Black struggle for voting rights is flawed for not centering Jewish contributions is about the privilege of seeing whiteness as dominant no matter what.

The idea that Selma should have focused on interracial coalitions reflects a discomfort with seeing the Civil Rights Movement and Black freedom struggle being led by African Americans. Yes, whites, a disproportionate number who were Jewish, participated in the civil rights movement.  From the NAACP, to the Freedom Rides and Freedom summer, Jews participated at the frontlines. But the desire to center Jewish involvement, to spotlight participation, reveals a yearning to co-opt the Black struggle as an  “American struggle,” as if something Black-focused cannot possibly be American as well.

Why is the notion of Blacks leading the movement for their own equality so disturbing? It conflicts with the over-arching mythology of Blacks as inherently less intelligent and capable than Whites, less able to think for themselves and act on their own behalf. Notions of Black inferiority undergirded everything from centuries of slavery to the apartheid-like realities of Jim Crow. They are alive today, in everything from the oft-touted “academic achievement gap” to the fact that Black students are routinely disciplined, suspended and expelled from school at much higher rates, to the cradle-to-prison pipeline that feasts on Black bodies and lives.

This is also about Jewish identity. The call for more Jewish inclusion in Selma demonstrates how some Jews want to simultaneously enjoy the earned privilege of Whiteness attained through assimilation while distinguishing themselves as different from ordinary Whites.  It, according to the race scholar David Leonard, reflects a historic anxiety about what Jewishness means as the community has become white.

“For the last forty years, with anti-Semitism waning in the United States, with Jewish securing assimilation and inclusion, there has been uneasiness of what that means for Jewish identity,” notes the professor at Washington State University. “Highlighting Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement is about noting Jewish difference, exceptionality, and our unique contributions to the nation all while downplaying whiteness and its privileges.”

Ava DuVernay is the first-ever Black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe—a great milestone in film history. It is all too common for the stories of African-Americans to be told by people who are not African-American (including two generations of historians who’ve written award-winning books on the Black experience and sometimes did so because it was a less crowded way to secure tenure), and we all have the right to tell our own stories. Telling our own stories is a powerful way for us to fight racism, challenge White supremacy and allow the recognition of Black people, who have been “othered” into near-oblivion in much of contemporary film and TV.

The moves to attack the Black-focused storytelling in Selma are part of the dynamic that led to #AllLivesMatter popping up in response to the grief-drenched hashtag #BlackLivesMatter—the compulsion to marginalize Black people and minimize our truths.

With all these dynamics simmering in the background, what stands out about Selma is that it is written and directed by Black people, and frames history in that context. This causes some people to experience cognitive dissonance, and challenges their sense of superiority and importance. But with a population that is rapidly browning and more works being created by those considered “other,” white anxiety and sense of entitlement is real.

The Oscar snub of Selma is revealing. It is hard not to wonder if it focused on Rabbi Heschel or how the Jewish activists Goodman and Schwerner’s deaths propelled the movement if it would have garnered 1,000 nominations. The virtual protests marked by the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, which called out Hollywood’s perpetual “diversity problem,” challenges filmmakers and audiences alike to see past their own perspectives to appreciate and embrace different voices, diverse views and the counter-narratives that reflect all the inconvenient, messy truths of our nation’s racist past and present.

The Jewish critics should take note; if there is a desire to embrace the civil rights struggle, how about becoming accomplices in the fight diversify the Oscars and Hollywood’s representations; how about getting on the frontlines in the fights against voter disfranchisement, police violence, and the assault on civil rights.

In 2015, when African American voting rights are still threatened, despite the blood that was spilled, the skulls that were cracked, and the dignity that was constantly assaulted, we need a future that reflects what the activists in Selma marched, fought, suffered and died for. That simply cannot happen without some Black-centric storytelling that stands on its own merit without being challenged for not meeting the expectations of every other group. Just as it was demeaning and disrespectful for the cry that #BlackLivesMatter to be dissed by #AllLivesMatter, American history cannot be told without Black history, which necessitates a Black point of view.

Selma was about more than voting rights. It was about our right to be recognized as fully human and understood for who we are—not for everyone with their own agenda who keeps telling us who we are supposed to be, and demanding that Black people be inclusive even while excluding us from nearly all aspects of American life. Demanding our voices be less prominent so that others get their due is a denial of this humanity.

And let’s be clear: as this nation continues its rapid march toward a Black and Brown future, white people are going to have get used to not always being central, dominant, or in charge of how others narrate their own stories. It would behoove our White brothers and sisters to challenge their own presumptions, assumptions and sense of entitlement. After all, they’re going to be the true American “minority” soon, at least as numbers go. We can only wonder how popular culture will represent these realities.

Dr. Stacey Patton is a senior enterprise reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Educationand is the author of That Mean Old Yesterday – A Memoir. Follow her on Twitter@DrStaceyPatton

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