Before the nation turned its attention to remove Confederate symbols with protests that turned violent, 80-year-old Benjamin Israel, a black Orthodox Jew, was quietly leading a battle in Hollywood to replace three streets named after Confederate leaders.
“We have a concept known as Tikkun Olam, which means we have a responsibility to make the world a better place,” said Israel.
The activist says a friend asked him to take on the issue since he served on the city’s African-American Advisory Council. But, some within the council dismissed the so-called problem that Israel brought to their attention.
“They said, N-word you crazy! We don’t have time for this kind of nonsense. We got more important things to do,” recalled Israel.
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So he decided to take his fight before the City Commission and that went on for three years.
“It took a while to get their attention, because they were not concerned. When the new Mayor came, that changed the situation. That changed the dynamics,” Israel explained.
Finally, commissioners started to hear the soft-spoken New York native –who now calls South Florida home. He had done his homework on all the Confederate name and one stood out the most: Nathan Bedford Forrest. That street runs right through Hollywood’s Black Liberia neighborhood.
“He ultimately became the founder of the KKK, and he also was the first Grand Wizard,” Israel lamented. “As a black man, it was particularly hurtful. Being that you could have a street running through the middle of the black community named after the founder of the KKK, whose purpose it was to destroy, to frighten and to chase away black people.”
Word of Israel’s campaign spread to other activists including Black Lives Matter.
“There involvement was very helpful to us, because they came out in force to the meetings and it made a difference,” he said.
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One voice turned into many.
In August 2017, the Commission voted 5-1 to change the street names, because, according to Israel, city leaders looked beyond race.
“Do the right thing not because you’re white, not because you’re black, but because you have a moral obligation,” the activist explained.
Israel’s hard work earned him an honor from Black Lives Matter. The organization called him a community hero.
It was a special honor for the man surrounded by his books with a love and passion for history.
Israel’s advice for the next generation of black leaders who want change may surprise some.
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“We got to stop blaming the white man. When we come together and do what we need to do for ourselves. Everything else will fall into place,” Israel said.