As America mourns the death of Congressman John Lewis, the Jewish community mourns alongside its fellow Americans.
John Lewis was a rare individual who was able to transform our society and American at large: A task requiring bold, strong and aggressive leadership.
These leadership characteristics certainly describe the tools by which he could accomplish such change, yet he was able to meet his objective in the most peaceful manner possible, a victory stronger than any other. That specific attribute is a reflection of his sincerity and larger-than-life ability to inspire an entire country.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, America first began grappling with the institutionalized racism that was in place. John Lewis was a young man who saw his brothers and sisters facing severe discrimination on a daily basis. John Lewis was one of the “Big Six” leaders of the civil rights movement, working closely with his mentor, Martin Luther King Jr. He was instrumental in the social discourse and political maneuvering that led to the passing of the monumental Voting Rights Act.
However, I believe John Lewis would have acted the same way and provided the same quality leadership even if it were not his people facing such discrimination. His advocacy was truly universal.
John Lewis was a staunch friend of the Jewish community. He even co-lead the effort to award a Congressional Gold Meal in honor of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose effect on the Jewish community he likened to Martin Luther King Jr.’s effect on his. Lewis was reported remarking: “I am sorry to say that I never got to meet the Rebbe. I know I would have liked him. I know Dr. King would have liked him.”
Support of this measure is sufficient enough of a window into the true universality of John Lewis’ hopes for freedom and equality. However, even more compelling than his otherwise inexplicable adamant support, is his support of such an effort alongside his ideological nemesis, Republican Newt Gingrich. John Lewis made it clear that this was no accident, that appreciation of those who improve the world through loving “the other” transcends all other affiliations.
“Some people will say that we agree on almost nothing, nothing at all. But there is at least one thing on which we do agree. That is the awarding of this medal.”
A comparable example of the universality of John Lewis’ advocacy is his support of Soviet Jewry. Supporting those from identities other than his own nationality is an amazing achievement, but supporting those who may not be from his identity in a nation halfway across the world is truly the full breath of freedom.
At a rally for Soviet Jewry in 1987, he said, “Our message — the message of the Black community — is one that is very simple. We are saying to President Reagan, ‘Mr. President, tell Mr. Gorbachev to open the doors, open the gates, and let the people out.’ I say that as long as one Jew is denied the right to immigrate, as long as one Jew is denied the right to be Jewish in the Soviet Union, we all are Jews in the Soviet Union.”
John Lewis believed in an America that could not only ensure freedom for those within its borders, but for every single human being around the globe.
In 1995, John Lewis refused to attend the Million Man March, promoting African-American unity, because of its organizer, Louis Farrakhan. A leader of the Nation of Islam, Farrakhan has been recorded many vile anti-Semitic remarks. When questioned on his absence from the event, John Lewis answered, “I cannot overlook past statements by Louis Farrakhan — and others associated with the Nation of Islam — which are divisive and bigoted.”
John Lewis understood that unity through division is not unity at all. Even when it came to the cause for which he fought his entire life, if hate toward the Jewish community was involved in an aspect of it, he could not support that aspect.
He understood that bringing together people of all backgrounds was the only way to make long-lasting change. There are very few individuals who haven’t been able to replicate, let alone capture, in words the heart he possessed. He was respected because he exuded sincerity and authenticity.
For him, it wasn’t political. For him, it was trying to create a world that reflected the intent of our Founding Fathers.
Yes, we have deep and current problems in this nation. But fighting them alone is not the answer. And in the spirit of John Lewis — who saw the need for real human connection along tremendously important civil rights policy — we should work on not only fighting for institutional change, but diving social change. Political change often seems alien and far off, but John Lewis was a perfect example of how our daily actions — irrelevant of the bigger political picture — can directly lead to tangible change.
The author is chief executive of The Friedlander Group, a public policy consulting group based in New York City and Washington, D.C.