Author Archives: Edward S. Shapiro

About Edward S. Shapiro

Edward Shapiro is a Professor of History at Seton Hall University.

Blacks and Jews Entangled

Abridged and reprinted with permission from First Things.

In her 1991 autobiography, Deborah, Golda, and Me, Letty Cottin Pogrebin argued that black-Jewish relationships rested on a common history of oppression. “Both blacks and Jews have known Egypt,” she wrote. “Jews have known it as certain death (the killing of the firstborn, then the ovens and gas chambers). Blacks have known it as death and terror by bondage.” Of the many pieties of American Jewry, few have been accepted so readily and widely at face value or have been so influential as the easy assumption that blacks and Jews share vital interests arising out of what the rabbi-historian Arthur Hertzberg termed the “comradeship of excluded peoples.”

Rabbi Max Nussbaum and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Rabbi Max Nussbaum with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


Intertwined Fates

Jews have supposed that they, more than any other group, could and did empathize with the plight of blacks, and that blacks recognized this. Jewish newspapers early in the twentieth century compared the black movement out of the South to the exodus from Egypt, noted that both blacks and Jews lived in ghettos, and described anti-black riots in the South as pogroms. Even European Jews voiced compassion for the American black. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was translated into both Yiddish and Hebrew.

Among Jewish leaders, if not the Jewish man-in-the-street, it became an article of faith that the fates of blacks and Jews were intertwined. Jews were propelled into the civil rights movement by the belief that Jews and blacks shared the same agenda. Jewish spokesmen emphasized that this affinity of Jews toward blacks stemmed not only from idealism but also from self-interest. Jews would benefit the more America moved toward a society of merit in which religious, ethnic, and racial barriers were unimportant. Jewish leaders stressed the similarities rather than the differences between the Jewish and black experience in America. Both groups, they asserted, were powerless and victims of persecution. Both included in their ranks martyrs to American intolerance.

Charleston Jews

Reprinted with permission from Sephardim in the Americas: Studies in Culture and History (The University of Alabama Press). 

A friendly rivalry has existed between Savannah and Charleston as to which is the older Jewish community. Savan­nah can date its origins as an organized Jewish settlement to 1733, its congregation to 1735. However, periodic losses of population led to lapses and revivals. Charleston can date its first Jew of record to 1695, when the governor used an unnamed Jew as interpreter to a delega­tion of Spanish-speaking Indians. Two years later, four Jewish names, one undecipherable, were appended to a petition. The others were Abraham Avila and Jacob Mendes, Sephardim; and Simon Valentine, an Ashkenazi and a nephew of New York’s Asser Levy.

First Synagogue

Avila and Valentine lived out their lives in Charleston, but few Jews joined them. It was not until 1749 that 10 heads of family, led by Joseph Tobias, were available to form a minyan, the quorum need­ed for the congregation they named Beth Elohim ("House of God"). Of the founding families, six were Sephardic, four Ashkenazic, including Mordecai and Levi Sheftall, both of whom were temporary residents from Savannah.

The Sephardic majority, evidently determined to dominate deci­sion-making, accorded their best-informed layman, Moses Cohen, the honorific titles Hacham v’Abh Beth Din ("chief rabbi and chief of the ecclesiastical court"). Isaac da Costa, a leading merchant, functioned as hazzan [cantor]. It was he who purchased ground for a cemetery in 1762. Two years later he deeded it to the congregation, but named as trustees the leaders and membership of Sephardic congregations in London, "King’s Town, Jamaica," and "Bridgetown, Barbados." In the deed a dash separates these from the three North American con­gregations, also named with their mixture of Ashkenazic and Sephardic leaders.

Charleston’s Jewish growth was interrupted by the Revolution. In 1780, the British captured the city, and Da Costa joined other Jewish patriots in Philadelphia. In his absence, the congregation’s leadership was assumed by Ashkenazim. When peace was declared in 1783, Da Costa returned to Charleston. He died within a few months, and his remains were interred in a separate cemetery at Hampstead, subse­quently described in the local press as belonging to "the Portuguese Congregation of this City, called "Beth Elohim Unveh Shallom."

Jews in the Suburbs

Reprinted with permission from A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II (Johns Hopkins University Press). 

The most important aspect of the postwar mobility of America’s Jews was their relocation to the suburbs and their movement into the middle class. While mirroring national currents, these demographic trends were more intense among Jews. Historian Arthur Hertzberg estimated that, in the two decades between 1945 and 1965, one out of every three Jews left the big cities for the suburbs, a rate higher than that of other Americans. Jews tended to cluster together in suburbia, but some brave pioneers moved into suburbs that contained few if any Jews. 

One of the first analyses of the impact of suburbanization on Jews was Albert I. Gordon’s 1959 book Jews in Suburbia, which concerned Newton, Mass. Gordon had a Ph.D. degree in anthropology from the University of Minnesota. More impor­tant, he was the rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Newton, an exclusive suburb of Boston, which had a large and growing Jewish population by 1959. The nickname of Newton was “the garden city.” Old-timers claimed this was because of its many parks and flower beds. Others claimed it was because there was a Rosenbloom on every corner.

Why They Moved

There were many reasons for the explosive growth of suburbia after 1945. They included the increased use of automobiles, postwar prosperity, the pent-up demand for housing created by the depression and the war, the desire of veterans to resume a normal family life after the dislocations of wartime, the baby boom of the late 1940s and 1950s, government programs that encouraged the building and purchase of houses by veterans, and the postwar cult of domesticity that defined women’s highest calling as mother and wife. The ability to deduct local property taxes and interest payments on mortgages from one’s income in computing federal income taxes made suburban homes more affordable.

The postwar housing boom was concen­trated in suburbia. Pre-World War II suburbs increased in population, while new suburbs were created from scratch on tracts of land that had been woods, desert, and marsh. The great pioneer in this postwar suburban housing boom was Jewish builder William L. Levitt. By using the tech­niques of mass production that he had developed in constructing bases for the military during the war, Levitt built tens of thousands of affordable homes for families eager for a taste of the American dream after the depri­vations of the 1930s and the war years.

Brandeis University and the Jews

Reprinted with permission from A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II (Johns Hopkins University Press).

Of all American universities, none played a more significant role in Jewish scholarship than Brandeis University. Its distinguished faculty in­cluded Nahum Glatzer and Alexander Altmann, two of the world’s leading authorities on Jewish philosophy. Glatzer, until 1933 when he left Germany, had held the chair of Jewish philosophy and ethics at the University of Frankfurt previously occupied by Martin Buber. Altmann had been a rabbi in Berlin and a lecturer in the city’s Orthodox rabbinical seminary before he fled Germany in 1938. In the 1950s, when Glatzer and Altmann joined the Brandeis faculty, the university was less than 10 years old. 

Brandeis University

Usen Castle, the only building original

to the Waltham, Mass., site of

the Brandeis campus.

Image courtesy Brandeis University.

Brandeis’s meteoric rise to academic excellence was without parallel in the history of American education. The 107 students who made up Bran­deis’s first class in 1948 had enrolled in an institution whose future was cloudy at best. Its campus in Waltham, Massachusetts, had previously housed Middlesex University, a defunct medical college, and its most im­posing building resembled a medieval castle. The university began with a library containing only 1,000 books, mostly out-of-date medical texts. With only $33,000 in the bank, the institution’s finan­cial condition appeared precarious.

Opposition to Jewish Universities

The founders of Brandeis, most of whom were from neighboring Bos­ton, seemed to have embarked on a fool’s errand. There was no assurance that American Jews in the 1940s would be any friendlier to the idea of a Jewish university than they had been in the 1920s, when Yeshiva University announced plans to establish a liberal arts college.

At that time, the Ameri­can Hebrew, the organ of the German Jewish establishment, described the idea of a Jewish college as a “preposterous proposition… fraught with harmful possibilities.” Such a proposal indicated “a lamentable lack of confidence in the justice and fair play of the American people.” Fortunately it was “not in any sense representative of the wishes of American Jewry.” Judaism did not require “cloistered walls or academic seclusion to retain its integrity.” Louis Marshall, the unofficial spokesman for the Jewish estab­lishment, agreed. The establishment of a Jewish college, he predicted, would be “most unfortunate.”

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Though the author concludes that anti-Semitism played no role in the trial and execution of Jules and Ethel Rosenberg, the matter remains a subject of debate. Reprinted with permission from A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II (Johns Hopkins University Press).

Five months after Sen. Joseph McCarthy entered the national spotlight, an event took place in New York City that shook American Jewry to the core. On Monday, 17 July, 1950, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Julius Rosenberg and charged him with transmitting classified information re­garding the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. Rosenberg’s arrest had been preceded by the arrest of Harry Gold and David Greenglass, Rosenberg’s brother-in-law, and was to be followed three and a half weeks later by the arrest of his wife, Ethel.

The three-year Rosenberg case culminated in their execution on Friday, 19 June, 1953, just minutes before the onset of the Jewish Sabbath. J. Edgar Hoover called the Rosenbergs’ offense “the crime of the century.” If it was not that, it certainly led to one of the great Amer­ican trials of the century, and was a cause célèbre of the cold war.

Jewish Fears

For Jews, the most important aspect of the Rosenberg case was the Jewish background of all four of the major defendants. All had obviously Jewish names. American Jews feared the Rosenberg trial would be a godsend to anti-Semites. What better proof could there be of the Communist sympathies of Jews and their support for the Soviet motherland? Never in American history was the hoary anti-Semitic association of Jews with Communism more believable than in the early 1950s.

The fear that the Rosenberg case would exacerbate anti-Semitism was heightened by the emphasis of European and American Communists on the couple’s Jewish background once it became clear that they were not going to talk. Anti-Semitism, their supporters charged, was behind the government’s prosecution and execution of the Rosenbergs. The Rosenbergs’ defenders wondered why the New York City jury that convicted the Rosen bergs did not contain one Jew, even though the city’s population was 30 percent Jewish. They also noted that, even if the Rosenbergs were guilty as charged, their crime had been committed during World War II, when the Soviet Union was not an enemy of the United States. At the worst, the Rosenbergs had provided information to an ally, and this did not warrant the death penalty.

Blacks and Jews in America, 1960s-1980s

The following article is reprinted with permission from A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II (The Johns Hopkins University Press). 

Jews [were] an important presence in the civil rights movement. About half of the white civil rights attorneys in the South in the 1960s were Jews. More than half of the white freedom riders in the 1960s were Jews, and nearly two‑thirds of the white volunteers involved in Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1964 were Jews. Two of them‑-Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner–were murdered. Jews also provided much of the funds for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Congress of Racial Equality, and other civil rights organizations.

segregated restaurantJews were flabbergasted when, beginning in the 1960s, they discovered that not all blacks appreciated their efforts and that anti‑Semitism was growing within the black community. In the 1980s, Jews were particularly disturbed by evidence that Jesse Jackson, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, had a reflexive dislike of Jews and Israel, and by the failure of Jackson and other black leaders to forcefully repudiate Louis Farrakhan and other black anti‑Semites.

The Jewish community relations agencies concluded that anti‑Semitism within the ghettos of Chicago, New York, and other large cities was far greater than they had previously as­sumed. This had already been deduced by Jews who lived near the ghetto or had businesses in black areas.

The split between Jews and blacks did not result from a weakening of Jewish support for a color‑blind society. It stemmed rather from changes within the civil rights community. While Jews continued to champion the principle of merit, black leaders insisted on affirmative action to redress past grievances.

In practice, affirmative action meant racial discrimination on behalf of blacks and other aggrieved minorities. Affirmative action evoked among Jews memories of the quotas that had limited their economic and educational opportunities in Europe and in the United States prior to 1945.

American Jews and Israel in the Post-War Period

Israel was founded as a site for the ingathering of Jewish exiles. But what about those “exiles” who did not want to “gather,” at least not permanently? American Jewry dealt with this complicated aspect of Zionism in the post-war period by redefining their relationship to the Jewish state. The following article recounts the development of American Jewish responses to Israel in the post-war period. It is reprinted from A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II with permission from The Johns Hopkins University Press

Enthusiasm for the idea and reality of a Jewish state was widespread among American Jews after 1945. This had not always been the case. Prior to the 1930s, Zionism had little appeal for American Jews. They believed that they were already living in what Zionism hoped to create‑-a nation in which there would be no restrictions on the social, economic, and intellec­tual advancement of Jews. When American Jews referred to “the golden land,” they meant the United States, not Palestine. “The United States is our Palestine,” Rabbi David Philipson asserted in 1895, “and Washington our Jerusalem.” Evidently European Jews agreed. Between 1880 and 1920, for every one who migrated to the Promised Land, over forty crossed the Atlantic to the land of promise. American Jewish leaders feared that Zion­ism would lead to legitimate suspicions among Gentiles regarding the loyalty of America’s Jews.

american jews and israel The destruction of European Jewry combined with the refusal of the Western nations, particularly the United States, to do anything meaningful to rescue the remnants, convinced American Jews that a Jewish state was necessary. The Zionism of American Jews was, however, sui generis. It did not encompass the most important element in Zionist ideology‑-aliyah [in Hebrew, literally “going up”–immigration to Israel]. Despite the claim of Israeli Zionists that every Jew was obligated to relocate to Israel, less than 100,000 American Jews settled in Israel, and most of those who did eventually returned to the United States. More American Jews chose to be buried in Israel than to live there.

Jews and Liberal Politics

The liberal politics of American Jews led to their participation in a variety of left-wing organizations and movements in the post-war period, including feminism, civil rights, and the Democratic Party. The following article ruminates on some of the reasons, historical and contemporary, that the Jewish community in the 1950s and 1960s gave to explain their affinity for liberalism. It is reprinted with permission from A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II, published by The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Sociologists, historians, and political scientists offered various explanations of American Jewish liberalism. In The Political Behavior of American Jews (1956),Lawrence Fuchs argued that liberalism emerged ineluctably from Jewish values, which stressed the importance of charity and social justice. Fuchs’s interpretation, as many critics pointed out, ignored the fact that there was no correlation between the intensity of Jewish commitment and liberalism. Jews living in the shtetls of Eastern Europe or in Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn were less liberal than more assimilated Jews. Prominent Jewish leftists were often contemptuous of Jewish tradition and interests.


liberal politicsThe explanation of Jewish liberalism as a fulfillment of Judaism also downplayed the fact that Jewish leftism was intensely secular and rejected the Orthodox definition of Jewish identity. It is not surprising that the Jewish socialist labor movement and YIVO [founded in 1925 as an academic institute dedicated to the study of Yiddish and East European Jewish culture] emerged in Vilna, the Jerusalem of Europe, as opposing definitions of Jewish identity in the midst of the most intensely Orthodox Jewish community in eastern Europe.

Another interpretation looked not to Judaism but to recent history to explain this Jewish commitment to liberalism. Prior to the late nineteenth century, the Jewish political orientation in Europe and the Arab lands was passive. Jews feared the state and were detached from political involvement. Since the parties of the left in Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries favored Jewish emancipation and opposed anti‑Semitism, Jews naturally supported the political left and distrusted the political establishment, which was often anti‑Semitic. In addition, the growth in Europe of an urban Jewish proletariat in the late nineteenth century encouraged Jews to look to various forms of socialism as panaceas for their economic and social difficulties