Last Wednesday we talked about the Jews of Europe (especially France), forced by grim reality to consider emigration. In subsequent days, the media took up the question too. While the jihadists and their fellow travelers would take great pleasure in seeing the Jews flee, which is a compelling reason not to flee, it’s too easy for us to tell our European brothers and sisters what they should do. More on that another day.
Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I talked about King and race relations in shul on Shabbat, starting with the movie “Selma.” We also got to hear from two high school seniors (our own Rachel Matheson and Morgan Williams who is African American) talk about their learning and outreach as part of Operation Understanding D.C. OUDC’s mission is “to build a generation of African American and Jewish leaders who promote respect, understanding and cooperation while working to eradicate racism, antisemitism and all forms of discrimination.” It got me to thinking more about black-Jewish relations, which once were a source of great pride in both communities and then weren’t, and what we should be thinking now. Forgive the length of this column; you can read some each day.
Throughout the 1990s people like me attended countless forums, engaged in dialogue 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 Dr. King at Selma. In the fifties and sixties, the interests of our two communities had been aligned on so many issues. By the 1990s, conflict between blacks and Jews was more visible than cooperation, and there was much resentment. What happened?
In 1968, the Ocean-Hill/Brownsville teachers’ strike pitted black community activists against the heavily Jewish union. 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 X. 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.”
In the 1980s, black-Jewish relations could best be summed up by Jews 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 a 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.
That is some of the history. New Yorkers of a certain generation remember it best. Yet the 2000’s have not been similarly contentious. The relative harmony can be attributed not to a great meeting of minds but to a variety of factors. 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.”) 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. 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. 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. There are also enduring examples of common causes among blacks and Jews, especially in partisan politics. The two communities continue to represent a very important part of the base of the Democratic Party. So, conflicts have receded and grass roots cooperation is ascendant – though regarding Middle East affairs and faith-based initiatives we can often be found on different sides. Overall, blacks and Jews are enjoying a period of relative normalcy. It is a long time coming.
That doesn’t mean we can move on to other issues so easily. I just read that America’s racial wealth gap grew dramatically during and after the Great Recession. For every $13 in wealth held by the average white household, the average black household has $1. 150 years after the end of slavery, and 50 years after Selma and Birmingham, African Americans are overall still struggling. There are no easy answers, for sure. I just want us to think “reset.” I want us to realize that 50 years of antipathy between Jews and blacks is mostly gone, and we need be think solutions not problems – whether it be support for public education or for voting rights not being undermined, support for reforms as needed in community police response, taking on tutoring in underprivileged schools, giving tzedakah for the many great organizations that build the black community, or just being open to building relationships with individual black people we meet in our workplace or neighborhood.
Ponder all that and have a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
P.S. Sports are maybe second only to godliness. Join us Sunday night for our second annual Family Sports Night, much enhanced over the very successful first one – check out the athletes who are coming. Sunday morning includes the Literary Luminaries event. Shabbat morning features Minyan Olamim. Information about all this was on yesterday’s listserv and is on our website, www.bethelmc.org.