Honoring Martin Luther King Jr. as We Recommit Ourselves to the Fight Against Hate

Jonathan Greenblatt
4 min readJan 13, 2023
Benjamin Epstein, director of the Anti-Defamation League, stands on Martin Luther King Jr.’s right in this photo with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, taken June 22, 1963. (Photo Credit: Abbie Rowe/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

Forty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday was designated as a national holiday. ADL strongly supported the designation then and believes in the importance of honoring Dr. King’s memory now. Dr. King’s teachings inspire us each day as we strive to achieve our mission of stopping the defamation of the Jewish people and securing justice and fair treatment to all.

To this day, many Jews take great pride in the deep friendship between Dr. King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. At ADL, we cherish the relationship between ADL National Director Ben Epstein and Dr. King as they who stood together in the Rose Garden at the White House, walked together in Selma and fought many battles against racism and antisemitism. This was part of ADL’s deep history of engagement in the civil rights movement, a commitment shared by so many from the Jewish community. And yet we know that this work is not something frozen in time — it is an ongoing, unending project of collaboration between the Black and Jewish communities.

As Dr. King taught, the struggles of one people must be a fight for all people. Our legacies and our futures are deeply intertwined. ADL’s founders knew this to be true, and it is this truth that drives our work today. But this is more than a mission statement: it has been proven time and again by the violence of those fueled by hate.

In Dr. King’s time, in addition to the many bombings of Black churches, synagogues like The Temple in Atlanta were attacked for their advocacy against segregation and for racial equality. It remains true today that Jews are targeted for their actual or perceived support for Black people and other marginalized groups. The deadliest antisemitic attack in the United States, the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, was allegedly motivated by Jewish support for immigrants and refugees. The online rantings of the Buffalo shooter, who purposefully targeted a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood last year, revealed his hatred for Black people and Jews.

The fight against hate cannot be waged alone. It must be a joint project. This is a core lesson of the civil rights movement. We take up the causes of others for many reasons: there is strength in numbers; our power is multiplied; it is the right thing to do. We recognize that taking up the causes of others also directly advances the needs of Jews: we know that Jewish identity is manifold and strive towards a more just, inclusive future for Jews of Color and other Jews who hold marginalized identities. Doing so also thwarts those who hate and seek to do us all harm. Those motivated by hate desire to isolate their targets and make them feel alone. That is where they draw power. When communities join together in solidarity, we gain safety — and power.

During hard times, when we feel threatened, it can be challenging to remember the full words of the first century Jewish sage Hillel: “If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” The first part is the easier work — we know we have to demand what our communities need to be safe, to be free, to enjoy the rights and pursue the opportunities that will make our children’s lives better than those of their parents.

That second part is the challenge — when we are feeling vulnerable and alone, the tendency is to turn inward and become insular. That can be dangerous, both to our own communities and to those with whom we should and do partner. That isolation separates us and weakens us, turning us away from shared values and goals. It focuses our attention too narrowly and provides fuel to those who already seek to other and devalue the community. And it deprives others who are targeted and vulnerable of the allyship and support they need and deserve.

Dr. King’s ability to bring together partners from across the ideological spectrum has always been an ideal to which American Jewish communities have aspired. There is a tendency to think about that time as something locked in a moment in the past, but we have the opportunity every day to do that holy work that Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel were doing together. That’s the third part of Hillel’s challenge: the answer is now; it must be today.

This is why we’re so committed to the work we’re engaging in with partners representing Black and Brown communities, immigrants, LGBTQ+ communities, interfaith communities and others. Our shared advocacy around hate crimes data, fighting hate online and securing our communal gathering spaces demonstrates the power of collective action. Our joint educational efforts in our schools and workplaces underscore the need for allies and partners. And our coming together at the most painful moments, when a community has suffered tragedy at the hands of someone fueled by hate, provides support and strength when it is needed most.

Following the horrific shooting in Buffalo this past spring, we joined with the National Urban League, the National Action Network, the League of United Latin Ameriucan Citizens and Asian Americans Advancing Justice to call on the White House to host a summit against hate. The White House held the United We Stand Summit in September, and as a follow-up together with our partners we have created new coalitions focused on our solidarity in the fight against hate and the drive to keep our communities safe.

On this day as we honor the memory and accomplishments of Dr. King, we must recommit ourselves to the work of securing justice and fair treatment to all. It’s on us to recreate those moments and images of inspiration anew, working with partners in the ongoing struggle against the hate that threatens all of our communities.

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