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July 19, 2020 12:50 pm

Leading Jewish Organizations Mourn Rep. John Lewis: ‘Devoted His Life to the Pursuit of Justice’

avatar by Benjamin Kerstein

Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) was among the black and Jewish legislators in the US Congress warning against rising antisemitism. Photo: House TV via Reuters.

Leading Jewish organizations from across the spectrum mourned on Sunday the passing of veteran Georgia congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis.

Lewis, who died on Friday at age 80, was one of the early leaders of the civil rights movement, and famously crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge in Alabama in 1965 as part of a march for voting rights and was badly beaten by a policeman. He also helped organize the 1963 March on Washington.

Chairman Arthur Stark, CEO William Daroff, and Vice Chair Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said in a statement, “John Lewis worked to bring the Jewish and Black communities closer together. He was also a steadfast supporter of a strong US-Israel relationship.”

“Congressman Lewis was truly a larger than life figure, who will be dearly missed by all,” they said. “He will be remembered for his courage, perseverance, and faith in America. He leaves a legacy which will stand the test of time.”​

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“We are devastated to learn of the passing of my hero, friend, and civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis,” Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement. “John devoted his life to the pursuit of justice and taught the world about the importance of making what he called ‘good trouble.’ Lewis was a fearless leader whose courage and heroism were on display each and every day as he fought for a more just world.”

“He not only is the moral compass for all we do — fighting the good fight — but as we look to fight hate every day, his tenacity, his ability to stick through things and to continuously show leadership, inspired us all,” said Allison Padilla-Goodman, Vice President of the ADL Southern Division. “We will deeply miss his leadership and express our sincere condolences to his entire family.”

Lewis was heavily involved in the ADL throughout his life, working with the group to pass hate crimes legislation on both the federal and state level, working with the ADL against white supremacism, and serving as a member of the ADL’s 2013 Centennial Committee. In 2013, he was honored by the ADL at the In Concert Against Hate event at the Kennedy Center and was later given the ADL’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

The American Jewish Committee’s CEO David Harris said of Lewis, “No one in American public life was as admired as a prophetic voice calling on us to live up to our highest values and greatest aspirations, to strive to make this nation a more perfect union, as John Lewis.”

“Even as he battled cancer, Rep. Lewis continued to be a powerful voice of conscience for our nation, at a time when it is once again sorely needed,” he added.

“We are immensely grateful for his dedication to, and connection with, the Jewish community,” Harris said. “He was instrumental in encouraging Black-Jewish dialogue, consistently outspoken against antisemitism, one of Israel’s strongest advocates in Congress, and an active supporter of the Soviet Jewry movement in the 1970s and 1980s.”

Lewis was also honored several times by the AJC, receiving its Selig Distinguished Service Award in 1994, the Congressional Leadership Award in 2005, and the American Liberties Medallion in 2018.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which honored Lewis with its Tikkun Olam Award in 2008, also weighed in, with President and CEO David Bernstein saying, “The best way to honor Congressman Lewis is to join people of color and redouble our effort to end racial disparity in America. His work and legacy live on in our work.”

Lois Frank, former JCPA chair and longtime friend of Lewis, said, “John was an unwavering ally of the Jewish community. His most sincere, heartfelt love was for humanity. Not only his people, all people seeking justice. For a man of such celebrity this humble and gracious spirit prevailed. His neshama was pure … one of a kind.”

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum said in a statement that Lewis was “an exceptional leader” whose “heroic actions and commitment to the peaceful pursuit of racial justice helped shape our nation.”

“A long-standing friend of the institution, he often spoke about the emotional impact of his many visits to the Museum and was a Congressionally-appointed member of our governing Council,” the statement added. “In 2016, Lewis was the recipient of the Museum’s highest honor, its Elie Wiesel Award, in recognition of his extraordinary moral and physical courage and his enduring commitment to promoting the human dignity of all people.”

Charles Kaufman, President of B’nai B’rith International, said Lewis “lived a life of righteousness and courage.”

“A man of great conviction and integrity, Rep. Lewis refused to participate in the ‘million man march’ led by antisemite Louis Farrakhan,” he pointed out. “May his memory serve as a blessing to all of us.”

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