“Why can’t blacks be more like us?”
This was the essence of a question posed by an older Jewish woman at a synagogue forum on black-Jewish relations. The year was 1995, during a period when the relationship between the black and Jewish communities was a topic of considerable discussion.
Throughout the 1990s I attended countless forums, engaged in dialogue, wrote articles, and formed alliances, all in an effort to improve the relationships between blacks and Jews. Nostalgia and resentment were the dominant feelings among Jews in those years. Nostalgia for the glory days of black-Jewish relations, exemplified by the image of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm in arm with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma, Alabama. Resentment of black anti-Semitism in light of the two communities’ shared struggles.
In the 1990s, conflict between blacks and Jews was more visible than cooperation. Yet in recent years, conflicts have receded and cooperation is ascendant. Blacks and Jews are enjoying a period of relative normalcy.
It is a long time coming. After reaching an apex in the 1950s and 1960s, when the interests of the two communities were aligned on the most important issues, relations deteriorated with each succeeding decade.
After the Civil Rights Movement
In 1968, the Ocean-Hill/Brownsville teachers’ strike pitted black community activists against the heavily Jewish union. Black anti-Semitism mingled with Jewish racism in what was ultimately a struggle for power. The civil rights struggle had come north, and Jews, among others, were challenged to make sacrifices in the name of racial equality. It was a challenge made more difficult when the messengers were less like King, more like Malcolm.
In 1978, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote the dissenting opinion in Bakke v. University of California Regents, a decision that struck a major blow to affirmative action plans. Just 20 years earlier Marshall had worked side-by-side with Jewish lawyers from the American Jewish Congress and NAACP on the most important legal work of the civil rights struggle.
As a strong supporter of affirmative action, Marshall was most distressed by the opposition of Jewish groups, saying, “the trouble with Bakke to my mind was that the Jewish people backed it.”
Violence in Brooklyn
For many Jews, black-Jewish relations in the 1980s could best be summed up with one word–Hymietown–Jesse Jackson’s controversial name for New York (he also referred to Jews as “Hymies”). That very same town played host to most significant conflagration between blacks and Jews, when long-simmering tensions boiled over in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in 1991. One Jew was killed during several days of rioting by black residents, which followed an accident in which a car driven by an Orthodox Jewish driver killed a young black child.
Yet the 2000s have not been similarly contentious. The relative harmony can be attributed to a variety of factors.
Changing Neighborhoods, Changing Fears
Conflict between the two groups has been displaced. Jews are no longer a dominant “outsider” presence in black neighborhoods. In a widely condemned statement in 2006, former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young expressed the frustration of at least some blacks when characterizing small businesses in black communities: “I think they’ve ripped off our communities enough. First it was Jews, then it was Koreans, and now it’s Arabs.”
Improvements in public safety have reduced the fear of crime some Jews associated with blacks. Instead, particularly since September 11, 2001, Jews are more likely to fear violence from Arab and Asian Muslims.
High-profile black anti-Semitism has largely disappeared. The Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan, who loomed so large in the 1990s, are no longer a Jewish communal concern. Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have largely put their conflicts with the Jewish community behind them. No one in the black community has emerged to replace them.
In 2006 an American Jewish Committee survey found that almost 60% of Jews thought most or many Muslims were anti-Semitic. Only 21% of Jews thought the same thing about blacks. In fact, Jews were more likely to think most or many Evangelical Protestants were anti-Semitic. While Jewish beliefs about black anti-Semitism have held steady, their beliefs about Muslim anti-Semitism have risen dramatically–up fifty percent since the year 2000.
Blacks are no longer the largest minority group in the United States, surpassed in 2003 by Latinos. It is not surprising that Jews have placed a greater emphasis on developing relationships with the Latino community, particularly in cities like Los Angeles and New York with large Jewish and Latino populations. The less complicated history between Jews and Latinos, coupled with Latinos’ growing political power, have facilitated partnerships between the two communities.
The diversity of both the black and Jewish communities have created alternative channels for communication. African and Caribbean immigrants have begun to achieve economic and political power, at times dividing them from native born blacks, but creating a clean slate in their relationships with Jews. Organizations for Jews of color like Ayecha are creating opportunities for intra-religious, interracial understanding.
Common Political Causes
There are also enduring examples of common causes among blacks and Jews, especially in partisan politics. The two communities continue to represent the base of the Democratic Party. In recent elections, black, Jewish, and gay voters were the only groups to give Democratic candidates at least 75% of their vote. In 2006, more than 80% of Jews and more than 90% of blacks voted for Democrats.
Shared liberal politics has led to cooperation on public policy. At the federal level, Jewish and black organizations like the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the NAACP have mobilized support for a higher minimum wage, Medicaid expansion, and opposition to Social Security privatization. The American Jewish Committee’s recent statement affirming its commitment to anti-poverty programs may foreshadow even greater cooperation.
Social and Economic Justice
At the local level, some of the old partnerships have been rekindled through the recent entrance of synagogues in the field of congregation-based community organizing. In 2002, the Jewish Fund for Justice began to support the involvement of synagogues with church-based organizing networks like the Industrial Areas Foundation. Today, dozens of synagogues in cities like Columbus, Boston, and San Francisco, are hosting actions where hundreds of Jews sit side-by-side with hundreds of black, white, and Latino church-goers. Their common agenda often includes expanding health care, improving schools, and building affordable housing.
In the 2000s, we have seen a renaissance of local Jewish groups committed to social and economic justice issues, often working closely with local black and Latino groups. Many of these organizations were formed by local Jewish activists saddened by deteriorating relationships between Jews and communities of color, and angered by the Jewish role in this deterioration. Groups like the Progressive Jewish Alliance in California have been particular successful at rebuilding burnt bridges and reestablishing trust between communities.
Division still exists, of course. National security and foreign affairs, particularly in the Middle East, have revealed deep fissures. Jewish organizations, and many Jews, have supported much of the Bush Administration’s agenda in these areas, in part out of concern for Israel’s security. Blacks have largely opposed these American policies.
At the same time, many blacks have been sympathetic, even supportive, of faith-based initiatives that bring government money into churches to support social service programs. Jews have overwhelmingly remained steadfast in their opposition to what they view as a breach in the wall separating church and state.
A Realistic Outlook
Yet these divisions have not felt like betrayals. Blacks and Jews seem to have a more realistic and less romantic vision of the relationship among their communities.
Every January we celebrate the birthdays of two icons of black-Jewish relations: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on January 11, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on January 15. Each year there are many events to celebrate both anniversaries, and we undoubtedly hear a great deal about the heroic work of these men, work they occasionally did together.
But time has a way of smoothing over the rough edges of history. Neither Heschel nor King was universally beloved in his community. Despite the serious engagement of many Jews and Jewish organizations in the civil rights movement, most sat on the sidelines. Some criticized Heschel and other Jewish leaders for their participation in the struggle for black civil rights. The high period of black-Jewish cooperation was also a period of significant black-Jewish conflict.
The current era of normalization presents opportunities for alliances less burdened by the weight of history and unrealistic expectations. It should be embraced as a welcome change by blacks and Jews alike.