For American Jews, the birthday of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is an occasion to recall the impressive Jewish contributions to the movement for African-American civil rights — from the Jewish Freedom Riders such as Schwerner and Goodman, to the rabbis who marched with King, to the Jewish attorneys who spearheaded the NAACP’s legal battles against discrimination.
It may surprise some to learn that one of the earliest Jewish protests against racism in America was lodged more than half a century before Rosa Parks and Bull Connor — by the militant Zionist leader Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
The year was 1910. Jabotinsky was just beginning to emerge as one of the most dynamic young leaders in the Russian Jewish community and the early Zionist movement. His articles in the Russian and Jewish press were attracting a following and provoking debate.
As an essayist, philosopher, and poet, Jabotinsky cast his eye on a wide array of topics, beginning with Jewish affairs but often ranging much further. On July 18, 1910, in the pages of the Russian periodical Odesskie Novsoti, he fixed his gaze upon a remarkable event in far-off America.
His article was titled “Homo Homini Lupus,” or “Man is As a Wolf to Other Men,” an allusion to a Roman proverb about human cruelty. The excerpts that follow were provided by Jabotinsky scholar Yisrael Medad, of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center.
The event that seized Jabotinsky’s attention was a July 4 boxing match in Reno, Nev., between Jack Johnson and Jack Jeffries. Johnson was the reigning heavyweight champion of the world, and only the second African-American to hold that title. Jeffries, who was white, had been heavyweight champion previously but had refused to fight Johnson and retired. Now, in 1910, Jeffries came out of retirement for what was billed as the Fight of the Century. Throughout the country, excited crowds gathered outside the offices of local newspapers, to hear the blow-by-blow read aloud from the teletype machine.
What shocked Jabotinsky was what happened after the fight. Johnson knocked Jeffries down twice, and in the 15th round, Jeffries threw in the towel. Within hours, white mobs were attacking blacks in more than 50 cities around the country. At least 20 people were killed in the riots.
“Since it was the black man that won and there was a suspicion that other blacks in the land would feel proud, the white citizens of the great republic could not tolerate this,” Jabotinsky wrote. “They sought to quash black pride and fell upon blacks in a proportion of 50-to-1, smashed heads, trampled people and acted cruelly even to women and children.”
He quoted press reports describing how in some cities, African-Americans “were ripped to pieces and hundreds were injured and crushed.” In the South, “where the difference between blacks and whites is more strongly pronounced, the number of blacks that were hurt probably has reached several thousand.”
Jabotinsky emphasized that the violence had not occurred in a vacuum. It took place against a backdrop of systematic discrimination and mistreatment. “In the United States, the most free republic on earth, there are ten million citizens suffering a shocking lack of rights simply because of the color of their skin,” he wrote.
Jabotinsky was outraged that although nearly 50 years had passed since slavery was abolished, there remained a pervasive inequality that was more severe than “anywhere else in the cultured world, even if also we included in this flexible definition Russia and Romania. … Theaters are closed to the black man, as are hotels, railway cars, and schools. He is assigned special railway cars and narrow, separate compartments on trains. Schools for black children are cheaply constructed, inadequate, and dirty. The political rights of the ‘free and equal’ black citizen are non-existent.”
Moreover, voting procedures in the South had been rigged to keep blacks from participating. “This system is fixed, permanently, and is practiced before the entire world. The president and congress know about this and no one would even think to shrug his shoulders for such is the system, accepted as it is as part of matters of state,” Jabotinsky wrote.
Jabotinsky also noted the irony that many white men, “even the most extreme of the south, place their children without compunction in the care of a black nanny and will eat heartily in a restaurant with that nanny next to him feeding his child. But if a black woman would enter there and sit at a table in the corner opposite, as an equal, the white man will raise a ruckus. He will gather around a crowd, announce a boycott of the eatery, break some windows and will assault the uppity black woman. This is not a physical aversion, but a conscious refusal to recognize the member of the other race as a person.
“So very wise was the philosopher who proclaimed Homo Homini Lupus, that a man acts towards his fellow-man worse than does a wolf,” Jabotinsky concluded. “For in America, there is plain and simple hate of one race against another — a devious hate, right before our eyes, arbitrary, without reason and without cause.”
(Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, D.C., and co-author, with Chaim I. Waxman, of the “Historical Dictionary of Zionism.”)