I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked this question as I travel outside the state in my role as Assistant Executive Director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation (BJF). Not only are people surprised to find that there is a vibrant Jewish community in the Heart of Dixie, but even more astonished when I tell them that, as a Jew, there is no place I’d rather live.
Alabama has a Jewish population of less than 10,000 people, about 5,500 of whom live in Birmingham. But, this comparatively small community has had a significant impact since arriving in Alabama as traveling merchants in the 1750’s.
Despite the bigotry and prejudice that has long haunted our state, Jews here have not experienced overwhelming anti-Semitism as many outside of the region assume. Jews have played significant roles as business and community leaders and many Jews were influential in the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham and Montgomery.
While occasionally church-state issues have been sources of tension, Jewish institutions have built great relationships with political leadership and policy makers on both the state and municipal levels.
While Jews in Alabama are without a doubt thriving members of the greater community, this is not unique to our state. Despite the tragic events that took place in the Kansas City area Sunday reminding us that hateful prejudice continues to exist even here at home, the story of American Jewry is one of success and fulfillment throughout the country.
However, in a time when we see increased anti-Israel sentiment growing around the world and in the US, Alabama is exceptional in its unyielding and passionate support for the Jewish state. This is something of great significance to the BJF and Alabama’s Jewish community, and it is often on my mind at this time of year.
In the spring of each year Jews around the world celebrate Passover by telling the ancient story of the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt. While traditions may differ from place to place the story remains the same whether being told in Jerusalem, Brooklyn or Birmingham.
It is an exciting, albeit familiar, story that captures the power of miracles, the importance of gratitude, and above all the value of freedom from oppression. We thank God for freeing the Jewish people from the bondage of slavery in Egypt, for splitting the Red Sea and guiding our ancestors across and for caring for them in the desert for 40 years.
It is only because of this miraculous story that the Jewish people ultimately arrived in the Promised Land — what is today the modern state of Israel. While the Passover story is well known and of great significance to both Jews and Christians throughout Alabama, what many do not know is that our state has a unique and special connection to Israel.
In the midst of World War II, the Alabama State Legislature led the country as the first state to publicly call for a modern Jewish state in the Jewish people’s biblical homeland. Senate Joint Resolution 4, which was approved on June 10th, 1943 read in part:
“Therefore be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the State of Alabama that the establishment of a Jewish homeland… be commended to the considered judgment of the United Nations, not only as an act of justice to the Jewish people… but as an integral part of the new democratic world order in which every people shall have the right to self-government and self-determination in accordance with the principles for which we are now waging war.”
In this moment, the State of Alabama, so often criticized for its lack of progressive thinking, took action in the name of democratic principles in a way that no other state ever had. Alabama, so often thought of as lagging behind in a perpetual fight for justice, was for a moment, a leader in that effort.
Much has changed in Alabama since 1943, but the staunch support for Israel demonstrated five years before its establishment as a modern state, has not faltered. When I talk about the importance of the US-Israel relationship around the state, I often tell people that I believe Alabama is one of if not the most pro-Israel states in the country.
This pro-Israel sentiment is cultivated by an informed and vocal Jewish community as well as the passionate support of thousands of our Christian friends throughout Alabama, and nowhere is it more evident than in our state’s Congressional delegation. The BJF works closely with organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to educate legislators about the importance of the US-Israel relationship, and I am always touched by the interest and overwhelming support they continuously demonstrate.
Time and time again our Senators and House Members have supported Israel in its efforts to reach peace with its Palestinian neighbors. They have advocated for military aid to Israel as the United States’ strongest ally in the region and have supported strategic cooperation that benefits both countries. Finally, understanding the grave threat that a nuclear capable Iran represents to both Israel and the US, our delegation has reliably supported increased sanctions against the Islamist regime in Tehran.
Israel is the only true democracy in the Middle East. It is a country that values liberty, religious freedoms, human rights, and a market driven economy. These are American values that we as Alabamians hold dear, and just as we should be proud of Alabama’s leadership in 1943, we should celebrate our elected representatives’ on going support for Israel today.
Passover is considered the festival of freedom for the Jewish people. There is no doubt that our state’s record on promoting freedom and equality is far from perfect, and our past mistakes cannot be ignored or forgotten. However, each Passover I am reminded of the important statement Alabama made at the height of the Holocaust when so much of the rest of the world was silent.
Alabama’s steadfast support for Israel, then and now, is important to Alabama’s Jewish community, and it is one thing that makes living here special to me as a Jew. Most importantly, however, it represents a piece of our state’s past and present that all Alabamians can be proud of as we work together to better our state for its future.