WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump has united us, after all.
He brought together the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Jews.
This modern-day miracle was on display Monday, at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the Mall, 54 years to the day after the great man gave his greatest speech. There, clergy of all varieties, but mostly rabbis and black ministers, came together in common cause against the despicable anti-Semitism and racism Trump has unleashed, most conspicuously in Charlottesville.
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Sharpton has been a controversial figure in the Jewish community for decades, earning criticism during the Crown Heights riot in Brooklyn in 1991 and when he called a Jewish landlord in Harlem a “white interloper” before a deadly attack on the man’s store in 1995.
But that was long ago, and a rehabilitated Sharpton, who has privately expressed regrets to Jewish leaders for his past actions, made Jews the centerpiece of his Thousand Minister March for Justice on Monday. The civil rights leader, joined by Martin Luther King III, stopped in at a pre-march prayer session held by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and addressed the assembly of 300 rabbis, cantors and lay leaders.
Sharpton told the Jews that “we could not commemorate this day and face the challenges today without standing together as Dr. King stood 54 years ago.” Invoking those murdered in the Freedom Summer of 1964, he went on: “We should never forget that it was Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner that died together – two Jews and a black – to give us the right to vote.”
Sharpton spoke of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with King at Selma, and he addressed the more recent ill feelings. “We have had days good and bad, but from this day forward … we’re going to make sure we do our part to keep this family together,” he said. “When we can see people in 2017 with torches in their hands, talking about ‘Jews will not replace us,' it’s time for us to stop praying to the cheap seats and come together.”
Some of the rabbis shouted “amen.”
Jewish leaders applauding Al Sharpton? Who knew? “Miracles out of a mess,” proclaimed Reconstructionist Rabbi Malka Binah Klein of Philadelphia. It’s tragic that it took Trump’s bigotry and the spectacle of Charlottesville to remind Jews and African-Americans of their shared vulnerabilities. But it played out movingly at Monday’s march, which was in planning long before the violence in Charlottesville.
Rather than 1 million men, Sharpton asked for 1,000 ministers, and got somewhat more than that among the 3,000 who assembled. Rabbis swayed and clapped to hip-hop and gospel music. There were skullcaps of every color and size, mainline Protestant ministers in white collars and colorful shawls, black evangelicals in bright choir robes, black-robed monks, Buddhists in saffron, a Sikh in a yellow turban. There were Black Lives Matter signs and posters with verses of scripture.
As if by way of greeting, a white-and-green chopper from the Marine One fleet buzzed low over the crowd during the opening prayer. Speaker after speaker, regardless of color or creed, denounced the person who rides in that helicopter, and more than one faulted Jerry Falwell Jr. and other white evangelicals for the “sin of silence” in the face of the hatred Trump has stirred.
A cantor led the crowd in the Hebrew song “Hine Ma Tov” – how good it is for brothers to live as one. A black Jewish woman in a tallit – a Jewish prayer shawl – spoke, and a rabbi blew a shofar. A black Catholic nun spoke.
“God’s majestic creation,” observed Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, head of the Religious Action Center. From the Nazis in Charlottesville, Pesner said, “we learned that anti-Semitism and white supremacism are intertwined. They are dual threats that call us to act and confront them together and directly.”
African-Americans responded with cries of “Yes!” and “All right!” to the rabbi’s preaching.
Jonah Geffen, a conservative rabbi from New York, in white robe and tallit, liked what he heard from Sharpton. He pronounced him “a totally different man” from the Sharpton of old.
Joining Sharpton’s march was Jesse Jackson, of “Hymietown” fame. But there is no time to dwell on old slights when neo-Nazis are at the door. “We don’t have a person to lose,” King told the Jews at their prayer meeting Monday morning. “We are brothers and sisters.”
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.