Just and Righteous Causes

Rabbi Ira Sanders and the Fight for Racial and Social Justice in Arkansas, 1926-1963

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James L. Moses
  • Fayetteville, AR: 
    University of Arkansas Press
    , December
     2018.
     232 pages.
     $34.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781682260753.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In 1956, Martin Luther King Jr. emphatically stated: “the local Jewish leadership, has been silent. Montgomery Jews want to bury their heads and repeat that it is not a Jewish problem” (119). This image of Montgomery Jews as being indifferent and passive players during the Long Civil Rights era, has characterized the persona of Southern Jewry. In Just and Righteous Causes: Rabbi Ira Sanders and the Fight for Racial and Social Justice in Arkansas, 1926-1963, James L. Moses attempts to change the reader’s mind by demonstrating that southern Jews were not monolithic in their actions. In fact, there were southern Jews who were very active in the Long Civil Rights Movement. Moses’ portrayal of Rabbi Sanders as a civil rights activist is nothing short of a love letter expounding Rabbi Sanders’ work and legacy during this era. Moses traces Rabbi Sanders’ life—from the time of the Great Depression to the 1980s—carefully illustrating his journey as a Rabbi of the largest reform congregation in Arkansas, president of the School of Social Work, and a distinguished civil rights activist. Humble to the end, despite his numerous achievements, Rabbi Sanders last words were “Call me Rabbi” (165), revealing to the reader that he felt everything he accomplished, even wearing many hats of engagement, was simply his obligation as a rabbi.

Moses’ book intertwines the story of Rabbi Sanders with the Long Civil Rights period, explaining how Little Rock was more progressive than other parts of the south. For instance, Little Rock had desegregated its library and businesses earlier than Alabama. Moses explains that southern Jewish communities did not live in a bubble, they were very aware of what was happening to African Americans. He does not inundate the reader with facts about Jewish life in Little Rock, or create a laundry list of Sanders’ accomplishments. Instead, he carefully crafts Rabbi Sanders’ life into a well-constructed narrative, expounding his virtues, his views on segregation, and the promotion of race relations. 

The inclusion of Rabbi Sanders’ relationships helps the reader to make a personal connection with him. Rabbi Sanders’ love for his wife provides a window into his humanity as he exclaims “I’ve loved you all the time, but I couldn’t let you know too much because I could not be jilted” (22). His relationship with Mrs. Mitchell, a pregnant African American domestic worker, is also heart-warming. Rabbi Sanders, showing his compassion for all people, invites Mitchel inside the synagogue when he sees her sweltering from the hot sun, this during the time of segregation, when such a gesture would have been unexpected (111). Moses demonstrates that Rabbi Sanders and Mrs. Mitchell had a “cordial friendship” that began in the 1950s and lasted throughout the rest of his life (111). 

Rabbi Sanders always had great empathy for human beings, despite the restrictions of segregation, which prevented him from doing what was morally right. For instance, it greatly pained him when he could not help Ms. Thompson, an African American student who, due to segregation laws, was forced to leave the Social Work school he headed. At a time when whites and blacks could not sit together, Sanders even refused to move from the back of the bus to the front. Rabbi Sanders involved himself in many public matters, such as birth control access for all, the integration of Social Work School, African American workers rights, and the desegregation of the library and public schools. Yet, it is the small personal moments of compassion Moses shares about Sanders that allows readers to see how humble the rabbi was as a person. Moses portrays him as a man that promoted justice for all, not just in his private life but also by fighting for African Americans in his public persona. He was never afraid to take a stand, often placing himself in a divisive environment.

Perhaps the most moving aspect of Moses’ portrayal of Rabbi Sanders was in his devotion to Judaism, his congregation, and his love for Israel. Rabbi Sanders spearheaded nineteen bond drives for Israel. Sanders truly epitomized Rabbi Hillel’s famous statement “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I?” During the Great Depression, Sanders, espousing “I stand willing to accept a second reduction in my salary,” twice took a major cut in pay so the synagogue could stay afloat. He had been making $12,000 a year, which was then reduced to $10,000 (59). Even in his retirement, Sanders remained devoted to the synagogue. In fact, Sanders was the congregation’s longest-serving rabbi. 

Just and Righteous Causes is a definite read. Moses’ depiction of Rabbi Sanders is moving, yet more importantly, the book provides a glimpse into the lost record of southern Jews who participated in the Long Civil Rights Movement. Further scholarship is needed illuminating how not all southern Jews were ambivalent to segregation. Moses’ book demonstrates that not every Jew in the south “bur[ied] their heads and repeat[ed] that it is not a Jewish problem” (119).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Allison E. Schottenstein is Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Cincinnati, Blue Ash.

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James L. Moses is Professor of History at Arkansas Tech University.

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