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Passover Seder table.

Cheryl A. Meyer, Star Tribune

Let's emulate Humphrey's open arms

  • Article by: ERIC P. SCHWARTZ
  • April 6, 2012 - 11:53 AM

Tonight, at Passover dinner tables in thousands of Twin Cities homes, Jewish families will read the Haggadah, the religious book that tells the story of the deliverance of the ancient Hebrews from bondage.

While the Haggadah chronicles the experience of the Jewish people, it also has a broader message for Jews and non-Jews alike: that no one should suffer discrimination or persecution, and that all people deserve to be free.

As Jews in Minnesota and around the world mark our religion's most important celebration of freedom, we do well to consider the signal role of one of Minnesota's favorite sons in carrying that simple message of human decency.

And while Hubert H. Humphrey's efforts to promote civil rights and combat anti-Semitism took place many decades ago, they offer crucial lessons to a state whose population has changed so dramatically in recent years.

When Humphrey was elected mayor in 1945, Minneapolis had a well-deserved reputation for discrimination against Jews. One respected journalist, Carey McWilliams, described the city as the capital of anti-Semitism in the United States, noting that "in almost every walk of life, an iron curtain separates Jews from non-Jews."

Neighborhoods were off-limits to Jews, as well as private country clubs and social organizations like the Rotary, Lions and Kiwanis Clubs. Jews faced employment discrimination and discrimination in the medical profession and other professions. Summer resorts around Lake Minnetonka also barred them entry.

Humphrey brought to the mayor's office a determination to combat civil-rights abuses. He initiated a flurry of activity that would transform the circumstances of the Jewish community in Minneapolis and surrounding areas.

In his inaugural address, he insisted that "government can no longer ignore displays of bigotry, violence and discrimination." Under his leadership, the Minneapolis City Council enacted a Fair Employment Practice Ordinance, the country's first municipal fair employment law.

Humphrey's advocacy efforts, the fair employment legislation and the Fair Employment Practices Commission it created had profound impact -- so much that by 1961, Minneapolis had elected its first Jewish mayor, Arthur Naftalin.

The Jewish community was not the only beneficiary of Humphrey's dedication to basic human decency. Humphrey was dismayed by segregation and other forms of discrimination against African-Americans, and was determined to use his positions to combat racism.

As Minneapolis mayor in 1948 -- when he exhorted the Democratic Party to "get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights" -- and later, as a U.S. senator, when he successfully pressed for passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- he demonstrated a deep commitment to civil rights and social justice for all people.

Hubert Humphrey also well understood that the quest for human rights and social justice was never-ending. And when he declared that "the worst evil of all is indifference," he underscored our collective responsibility to promote the rights and the well-being of the vulnerable and the disenfranchised among us.

So what should that collective responsibility entail?

In a state where 25 percent of the population will be persons of color within the next 25 years, we must welcome new arrivals, promote tolerance and heed the biblical admonition to welcome the stranger.

In a state where the achievement gap between K-12 students of color and white students is among the largest in the country, we must advocate for early childhood interventions for at-risk children.

And in a state where hundreds of women each year are victims of human trafficking, we must strengthen law enforcement and social-service efforts to address this despicable abuse. On these and so many issues, we must meet the Rabbinic guidance to "repair the world."

For Jews and for non-Jews, that is the timeless, and timely, message of the Passover holiday.

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Eric P. Schwartz is dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He is also a board member of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the American Jewish community's international refugee advocacy and service organization.

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