A partnership that dates back to the beginning of the civil rights movement is being reinvigorated following recent changes to voting laws in North Carolina.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has joined the N.C. NAACP to launch a nonpartisan initiative called “Nitzavim: Standing Up for Voter Protection and Participation” to educate and register voters across the state in preparation for the November elections.
RAC’s director, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, and state NAACP President Rev. William Barber II will help kick off the effort Thursday evening at Temple Beth Or on Creedmoor Road, where volunteers will receive training for helping register North Carolinians to vote over the weekend.
Nitzavim, translated from the original Hebrew, means “we are standing up,” according to Pesner.
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“We feel called to stand together across lines of difference,” he said.
Barber said in a press release that efforts to limit voting rights have broad implications for access to affordable health care, living wages and equal protection under the law.
“Voting rights are under attack in North Carolina and across America,” Barber said. “We stand together, as people of faith, to defend the right to vote.”
In 2013, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that a provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that required states to seek federal approval for changes in their voting laws was unconstitutional. Within days, North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature passed House Bill 589 which reduced the number of days people could vote early, eliminated same-day registration and voting, prohibited people from casting a ballot outside their precinct and required voters to show an ID before voting.
A three-judge panel on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down House Bill 589 in July, concluding that the law targeted African Americans with “almost surgical precision.” On Monday, Gov. Pat McCrory announced that he will ask the U. S. Supreme Court to reconsider the decision, arguing that it “renders every voter ID law in the country vulnerable to invalidation as intentionally discriminatory.”
“Allowing the 4th Circuit’s ruling to stand creates confusion among voters and poll workers and it disregards our successful rollout of Voter ID in the 2016 primary elections,” McCrory, a Republican, said in a news release. “The 4th Circuit’s ruling is just plain wrong and we cannot allow it to stand. We are confident that the Supreme Court will uphold our state’s law and reverse the 4th Circuit.”
Pesner said it would be “a big mistake” for the court to reinstate the law, no matter the positive intentions of its advocates.
“Voter suppression laws disproportionately affect minorities despite the motives,” Pesner said.
Pesner said the Voting Rights Act, a law which has been renewed with bipartisan support for decades, was “shredded” in 2013. Since then, his Washington-based organization has been committed to regaining lost ground.
“Voting is a sacred American act,” Pesner said. “We want to make sure that the judge rules rightly against [HB 589].”
The Jewish community has been closely linked with the civil rights movement since the 1960s. Kivie Kaplan, a Jewish civil rights activist, marched with Martin Luther King during the protests against segregation in Selma, Alabama, and later served as the president of the NAACP for nine years until his death in 1975.
“[Kaplan] challenged us as a Jewish community to be at the center of the civil rights movement,” Pesner said.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were both drafted in buildings owned by Jewish leaders. Since then, the Torah has been a central fixture in civil rights marches. This tradition continued on the Journey for Justice, an 860-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to Washington, D. C., during the summer of 2015 to protest the 2013 ruling and the subsequent voting restrictions that followed.
Speaking in Washington at the conclusion of the Journey for Justice, Pesner said that the partnership between black and Jewish people can be traced back to ancient times when the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt.
“This coalition is not new. This coalition is not even 50 years old,” Pesner said. “This coalition is 5,000 years old.”
He spoke on this subject again on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday on March 7, 2015, in Selma.
“Wherever people have struggled for civil rights and social justice, the Jews have marched together because for 5,000 years we have been the children of Israel whose war story is we were freed from Egypt,” Pesner said. “So we remember what it is to be slaves, and so we remember our legacy is to free the captive, to welcome the stranger, to love the widow and the orphan.”
Gavin Stone: 919-829-8937