Review: Just and Righteous Causes

Kyle Stanton

Kyle Stanton is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the State University of New York at Albany.

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Kyle Stanton, "Review: Just and Righteous Causes," Journal of Southern Religion (22) (2020):

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James Moses, Just and Righteous Causes: Rabbi Sanders and the Fight for Racial and Social Justice in Arkansas, 1926-1963. Faytetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2018. 232pp. 168-226-0755.

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In Just and Righteous Causes: Rabbi Sanders and the Fight for Racial and Social Justice in Arkansas, 1926-1963, James Moses argues that Ira Sanders was one of the most influential rabbis of the civil rights era. The long-time rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel of Little Rock, Sanders was active in many social justice causes. In his meticulously researched book, Moses captures much of the rabbi’s personality and worldview, in addition to the wide range of Sanders’s social justice commitments. Most of the primary sources for the book came from the rabbi’s personal papers at both the University of Arkansas-Little Rock and Congregation B’nai Israel.

Moses demonstrates that Sanders’s commitments to social justice began early in his career. While serving a congregation in Pennsylvania, Sanders helped found a Planned Parenthood chapter in Allentown. Shortly after his arrival in Little Rock, Sanders witnessed a lynching in 1927 and this horror motivated him to join both the Urban League and the NAACP and to speak out against segregation. However, the rabbi’s commitments to social justice issues extended beyond racial matters. Sanders helped found a Planned Parenthood chapter and a school for the blind in Little Rock.

Moses explores Sanders’s relationship with Zionism. Although an early member of the American Council for Judaism (ACJ), Sanders withdrew from the controversial organization in 1944, when the group took on a combative stance toward Zionism. Sanders eventually came to support Israel, as did most Reform rabbis of his generation. However, Moses notes that Sanders often remained silent about his earlier involvement with the ACJ.

Moses helpfully offers an overview of other southern rabbis’ approach to civil rights, demonstrating that, unlike many moderates of his era, Sanders went beyond mere advocacy for racial tolerance. Rather, he pressed for full integration. His notable contributions include a speech, offered as a private citizen, in which he argued against the Arkansas state Legislature granting the governor the authority to close schools in defiance of integration. Sanders also played an important role during the Central High School integration crisis. Although there was little Jewish presence in Central High School, Sanders encouraged the students of more moderate parents to speak publicly in favor of integrating the high school.

Though Moses’s volume effectively analyzes Sanders’s life and contributions, those looking to understand how the American Reform movement influenced this rabbi or other southern rabbis might look elsewhere. The relationship between Ira Sanders and his early mentor, Kaufmann Kohler, could certainly have used more textured analysis. As president of the Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati when Sanders was a rabbinical student, Kohler significantly influenced the young rabbi. Kohler was a leading figures associated with Reform’s Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, a pivotal document in the relationship between Reform and social justice issues. However, not all Reform rabbis of Sanders’s generation chose to take up liberal causes. Some were assimilationists who did not champion civil rights causes in the mid-20th century.

Moses effectively makes the case for the importance of Ira Sanders and other individual Southern rabbis in southern historiography. Scholars with an interest in civil rights, southern Jews, and the relationship between African Americans and Jews will find Just and Righteous Causes: Rabbi Sanders and the Fight for Racial and Social Justice in Arkansas, 1926-1963 particularly useful.