Columnist J.M. Sorrell: Allies and accomplices

J.M. Sorrell



Published: 02-06-2024 4:02 PM

As we celebrate Black History Month, I am reminded of moments filled with grace and solidarity between allies who respond to particular tragedies and accomplices who walk the walk throughout long-term justice movements. Empathy and an internal ethical compass move people to support others whether or not they understand their cultures and identities. This is the highest form of love — with altruism as its own reward.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walked the walk with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. at notable marches and events for the years leading up to King’s assassination. He came from a devout community in Poland and was helped out of Warsaw just before the Nazis invaded Poland. Most of his family perished in the Holocaust. King and Heschel often lectured together, and their friendship was transcendent. Heschel said, “Racism is unmitigated evil” and “We worry more about the purity of dogma than about the integrity of love. … What is lacking is a sense of the monstrosity of inequality.”

After the Oct. 27, 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, allies of all kinds showed up to support congregants, survivors and families of the 11 murdered by the avowed white supremacist. The shooter targeted Tree of Life because one of their three congregations helped immigrant refugees, and he believed Jews were facilitating the demise of the white race through their humanitarian work. Included in the deaths and injuries were several elderly Holocaust survivors.

Pittsburgh rallied with their Stronger than Hate movement, and it remains active today. Black, Muslim, Christian and Asian-American Pittsburghers took part in vigils and events shortly after the tragedy. Wasi Mohamed had already begun work on a “welcoming Pittsburgh” undertaking when the massacre took place, and he jumped into action to raise money from Muslim community members to cover all funeral costs for the victims.

Pittsburgh is a sports-crazy city. The Steelers and the Penguins joined the Stronger than Hate movement. Zach Banner, a Black offensive tackle, took it upon himself to get educated about antisemitism, and he became an important accomplice. A documentary film, “Repairing the World: Stories from the Tree of Life,” shows how communities came together in Pittsburgh to create a sustainable movement to fight racial and other forms of injustice. Schools got kids engaged in difficult discussions, and people started to express that crossing bridges became more normal through shared moral responsibilities. After the murder of George Floyd, the Pittsburgh Jewish community stood with BLM activists in the spirit of Tikkun olam — Hebrew for the directive to take part in repairing the world.

Ally work is ongoing and circular more than it is linear. I tell heterosexual friends I expect them to decry homophobia. As a white woman, I have a responsibility to fight racism. This is natural when kindness is more important than being willfully detached or when leading with your conscience is the imperative over following the group.

After the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre in Israel, shockingly large-scale antisemitism and historical ignorance eclipsed compassion and sorrow as a response to the atrocities. I am heartened as I consider two brave allies — one Arab Muslim Israeli and one Palestinian rights activist — who simultaneously believe in freedom and justice while holding Hamas accountable for their oppressive and corrupt governance over the last 17-plus years in Gaza and for being terrorists who bluntly state they want nothing short of the obliteration of Israel. From the river to the sea means the genocide of Jews and the end of Israel’s pluralistic democracy. Hamas has effectively turned the majority of their citizens into Jew-haters, blaming them and westerners for all that is wrong in the world.

Sophia Salm Khalifa’s interview is available on YouTube. Bassem Eid’s column is in Newsweek. You can find it here: “My Fellow Palestinians: It’s Time to Get Rid of Our Leaders and Accept Israel’s Offers for Peace,” ( Eid very clearly lays out the long history of Arab attacks on Israel and the numerous Palestinian rejections for peace and a two-state solution.

Most Israelis want to get rid of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right brutes. At the same time, Hamas began a war when they carried out their massacre. They have been firing rockets at Israel for years. At this point, why would Israel trust a solution of peaceful co-existence? Better leaders all the way around must do something very different in this moment.

This month I find myself asking, “What would Rabbi Heschel and Reverend King do?” As with Pittsburgh, they were stronger than hate.

A white country music guy hero worships a Black lesbian songwriter/performer. Luke Combs consistently thanks Tracy Chapman for inspiring him as a child. His cover of Chapman’s “Fast Car” has yielded him accolades and awards. Watching them perform the song together at the Grammy Awards brought tears of hope.

J.M. Sorrell is a feminist who was born in Pittsburgh. She believes that allies are infinitely diverse in purpose and description.