“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.