Jews for Urban Justice: Part 1

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by Ilana Rossoff, Reference Services Research Intern, Center for Jewish History

This post is part of the Jews and Social Justice Series. To view all posts in the series, click here.

Jewish tradition emphasizes that Jews do justice and resist injustice. In past times of abundance, when the Jewish community has strayed, prophets have spoken out publicly to reawaken our people to their true heritage.” —from “A Declaration,” Jews for Urban Justice collection

Jews for Urban Justice—a small radical organization in Washington D.C.—was one of the few to attempt to hold Jewish community institutions and prominent individuals accountable for their direct and indirect complicity in the oppression of others, particularly racial minorities in D.C. According to Michael Staub in Torn at the Roots: The Crisis of Jewish Liberalism in Postwar America, Jews for Urban Justice was “the first radical Jewish group of the 1960s” [1] as is reflected in its unique take on Jewish community and social and economic justice. Ultimately, its work expanded to building power, education and community among radical Jewish youth throughout the D.C. area.

According to Staub, Jews for Urban Justice began when a group of young Jewish political activists grew disillusioned with the shortcomings of the social service work of the major Jewish institutions in D.C. Having attempted to work within these organizations for a short while, they decided that someone needed to address D.C.’s problems in a direct manner. They embarked on an information-collection survey to document and study the social work programs of Jewish community groups. 

The introduction to their 1968 survey explains that the group was initially “alarmed over the increase of anti-Semitism within the ghettos [poor black communities]” and were interested in looking into its causes. “The group decided that some of the causes included: Jewish merchants who used unscrupulous practices in their businesses, Jewish ‘slumlords’ who continue to collect rent for unsafe and unhealthy housing, and Jews who practice residential segregation” [2]. They were shocked to find the lack of action taken by Jewish institutions to address the role that certain Jewish individuals and institutions played in maintaining social injustices. “Even more shocking were the occasional statements released by Jewish groups that made a mockery of mitzvah (moral imperative), tzedek (justice), and chesed (loving-kindness), the very principles they professed to uphold” (italics added) [3].

Thus, they committed themselves to confronting the Jewish community members who used such practices in their business lives and the Jewish communal institutions who remained silent about it. Tentatively calling themselves “Jews for Urban Justice,” in 1967 they began leaf-letting outside of synagogues on Yom Kippur with information on how some members of the Jewish community perpetuated racism and called on people to add to the list of self-reflective questions for atonement: “Have you discriminated against another human being? Have you remained silent? Have you ‘just followed orders’?” [4].

Members of the community were outraged, and the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League at the time sent JUJ founder Michael Tabor an incensed personal letter stating that “to engage in such activity on this day is a violation not only of all religious ethics but prostitutes the very purpose you profess to serve” [5]. Undeterred, the leaf-letting campaign continued for the next few years, and the resolve to confront Jewish complicity in oppression head-on—even with a touch of dramatic effect—strengthened.

In its first couple of years, Jews for Urban Justice organized several programs dealing with Jewish communal institutions, Jewish youth and larger social justice movements. In 1968 they released their study on Jewish institutions entitled  “A Report on Social Action and the Jewish Community.” It found that, particularly in situations where a synagogue or organization had members who were landlords or business-owners with exploitative practices, clergy or other leaders of the institution would not advise those members because their intervention would be deemed inappropriate.

With such responses, JUJ initiated campaigns that would bring support from Jewish communities to existing campaigns against social oppression. In compliance with the grape boycott called for by the United Farm Workers’ labor rights campaign, they approached synagogues and asked that their sukkahs not be adorned with, nor their wine made from, California grapes. After many letters and meetings throughout 1969 and 1970, all synagogues complied, to their knowledge and research. JUJ targeted Giant food chain as it was a major carrier of California grapes and asked the CEO, who was Jewish, not to sell grapes from California. Because he refused, they staged educational actions outside Giants stores and were accused of trying to sabotage the shelves of grapes inside the stores [6].

Additionally, JUJ compiled a study of the ways in which mortgage speculation inflated the costs of home loans for African American people and perpetuated existing financial discrimination against African American families. It concluded that one of the more egregious supporters of speculation was Guardian Federal, and though it was not the only institution of its kind, they said that because its board was comprised of mostly Jews, “it should be in the forefront of pressing for the good of the community rather than leading in its rape” [7]. They reached out to sympathetic Guardian Federal shareholders to use their place in the shareholder meeting as a proxy, so that organizers and people affected by mortgage speculation could speak during the meeting to challenge the company’s practices. In the end, however, this did not lead to a major change of policy by Guardian Federal.

In my next post, I will continue this close look at the work of Jews for Urban Justice.

Notes:

[1] Michael Staub, Torn at the Roots: The Crisis of Jewish Liberalism in Postwar America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. Page 153.

[2] Introduction, A Report on Social Action and the Jewish Community, February-March 1968. Folder: Community Survey, 1968, Jews for Urban Justice collection, American Jewish Historical Society archives here at the Center. The Electronic Finding Aid to the archival collection can be found by clicking here.

[3] Jews for Urban Justice Statement of Purpose, Folder: Statement of Purpose, Membership Form, and Membership List, Jews for Urban Justice collection, American Jewish Historical Society archives here at the Center. (Finding aid.)

[4] Open Letter to Members of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, 1967. Folder: Yom Kippur 1967, Jews for Urban Justice collection, American Jewish Historical Society archives here at the Center. (Finding aid.)

[5] Letter to Michael Tabor by Jason R. Silverman, 1 November 1967. Quoted in Staub, Torn at the Roots, page 157.

[6] Memorandum, Giant Food Inc. 12 31 December 1969. Folder: Grape Boycott, Jews for Urban Justice collection, American Jewish Historical Society archives here at the Center. (Finding aid.)

[7] Fact Sheet: Mortgage Financing in the City and Jewish Community, November 1969, Folder: Banking Project, 1969-1970, Jews for Urban Justice collection, American Jewish Historical Society archives here at the Center. (Finding aid.)

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