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.
Jews 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.
Jews were also offended by radical blacks who accused Israel of being a colonialist society oppressing the Palestinians, a supposedly Third World people.
Jews were unprepared for the souring of black‑Jewish relationships in part because they misunderstood the history of these relationships. Jews perceived the years prior to 1967 as a golden age of amity between two minorities facing common dangers. Jews believed they were immune from the virus of racism because of their experience with anti‑Semitism and the Holocaust.
Because Jews believed that they, along with blacks, were among the persecuted, it was difficult for them to comprehend the real nature of black‑Jewish relationships and the source of black anti‑Semitism. In 1967, for instance, left‑wing journalist I. F. Stone blamed it simply on “overwrought blacks” and cautioned Jews not to exaggerate its extent.
In truth, Jews had ceased being an oppressed American minority, and their relations with blacks had never been marked by equality. Blacks had been the employees, tenants, debtors, students, and welfare supplicants, while Jews had been the employers, landlords, creditors, teachers, and welfare bureaucrats. Jews had done things for blacks but rarely with blacks. Occasionally, as in Harold Cruse’s anti‑Semitic volume The Crisis of the Black Intellectual (1967), blacks protested this servile relationship. For blacks, the most important thing about Jews was that they were white, not that they had once exhibited paternalism toward blacks.
Reprinted with permission from A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II (The Johns Hopkins University Press).