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Wed, 10.02.2024

African American and Jewish American Relations in America, an article

*On this date (Rosh Hashana), we examine the history of Black and Jewish relations in America.

During the colonial era, Jewish immigrants to the Thirteen Colonies were generally merchants from London. They settled in cities such as Providence, Rhode Island, Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, gradually integrating into the local society. Some Jews became slaveholders, which was a long-established institution in the colonies. American historian Eli Faber says that "the numbers just aren’t there to support the view" and that "Jews were involved but to an insignificant degree. That doesn’t absolve them of that guilt, but everyone made money off African slaves: Arabs, Europeans, Africans."

Since the time of slavery, Blacks and Jews have identified with each other community experience in various ways.  Many Blacks have compared their circumstances (at the time) in the Antebellum South to that of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, siding with and aligning in religious scripture and expressing Black spirituals such as "Go Down, Moses." The desire for a Black exodus inspired the recognition of "Zion" in the names of many Black churches.  Black Nationalists of the 1800s used the Zionist movement as a mold for their Back-to-Africa movement.

The Jewish community has also expressed compassion for the plight of Blacks in the United States.  In the early 1900s, Jewish newspapers drew parallels between the Black movement out of the South and the Jews' escape from Egypt, pointing out that both Blacks and Jews lived in ghettos and calling anti-Black riots in Louisiana, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Georgia, Mississippi, and throughout the South "pogroms." Stressing the similarities rather than the differences between the Jewish and Black experience in America, Jewish leaders emphasized that both groups would benefit the more America moved toward a society of worth, free of religious, ethnic, and racial restrictions.

From the start of the American Civil Rights Movement, Blacks and Jews demonstrated arm-in-arm. In 1909, W.E.B. Dubois, Julius Rosenthal, Lillian Wald, Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, Stephen Wise, and Henry Malkewitz formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). One year later, prominent Jewish and Black leaders created the Urban League. Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington worked together in 1912 to improve the educational system for Blacks in the South.

During the Nazi occupation in the 1930s and '40s, when Jewish refugee professors arrived at Southern Black Colleges (HBCUs), there was a history of overt empathy between Blacks and Jews and the possibility of truly effective collaboration. Professor Ernst Borinski organized dinners where Blacks and whites would have to sit next to each other, a simple yet revolutionary act. Black students empathized with the cruelty these professors and scholars had endured in Europe and trusted them more than white Americans. The special relationship between these teachers and their students was, in some ways, a microcosm of what was beginning to happen in other parts of the United States.

The American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and the Anti-Defamation League were central to the campaign against American racial prejudice. Jews made substantial financial contributions to many civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. About half of the civil rights attorneys in the South during the 1960s were Jews, as were over 50 percent of the whites who went to Mississippi in 1964 to challenge Jim Crow Laws.

The late 1960s gave birth to the Black Power movement, emphasizing self-determination, self-defense plans, and racial pride and representing a radical break from the nonviolence and racial integration espoused by the Reverend Martin Luther King.  The separatist rise of Black Nationalism was only one of the difficulties facing the Black-Jewish union since the leveling off of the Civil Rights movement. The rapid decline of American antisemitism since 1945, combined with the nation's continuing pervasive racism, influenced Blacks to believe there was an overwhelming racial gulf separating Jews and themselves.  Blacks no longer perceived the division as one between the persecutors and their victims — including Jews, but between those with white skin and those with Black. Through the eyes of Blacks, Jews turned out to be whites with all the privileges their skin color won them, regardless of the alliances they had in the past.

As early as the first two decades after World War II, James Baldwin, Kenneth Clark, and other Blacks encouraged liberal Jews to give up the "special relationship." This came partly from a fear that the Jews' determined belief in their bond with Blacks would eventually become offensive and, ironically, provoke Black antisemitism.  The prospect of this shift was incomprehensible to Jews who believed that their history, culminating in the Holocaust, defined them as oppressed and, therefore, incapable of being the oppressor. Jews continued to call for maintaining a Black-Jewish alliance despite the socioeconomic differences between the two groups.

Positions hardened around such troublesome issues as affirmative action in the schools, Louis Farrakhan's anti-Semitic rhetoric, and the Million Man March, exacerbated by stereotypes in sensationalized media coverage. In 1991, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York, a car driven by a Lubavitch Jew spun out of control onto a sidewalk, killing one Black child and injuring another. As angry Black residents beat the car's driver, the privately run Jewish Hatzolah ambulance arrived, and workers began attending to the child pinned under the car. When a New York City ambulance arrived, the technician instructed the Hatzolah driver to remove the Lubavitch driver from the escalating scene and take him to the hospital. Black rumors of the Jew being aided first flew through the neighborhood.

The streets filled with shouts of "Get the Jews!" That night, a mob of 10 to 15 angry Black teens and men fatally stabbed a young Orthodox Holocaust researcher. For three days, Jewish residents of Crown Heights and reporters were beaten, cars overturned and set afire, and stores looted and firebombed by angered Black residents. Finally, hundreds of police officers in riot gear restored a relative calm. The state's official investigation into the riots found that city authorities and police failed to respond appropriately. Lubavitchers say this was an experience few have forgotten.

That same year, an anonymous group of African Americans associated with the Reverend Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam published “The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews,” detailing the involvement of Jews in the Atlantic slave trade and Pan-American slavery. Jewish historians had already produced significant research on the subject, but the information had never appeared in a publication.  None of the book's data was placed in any context that would indicate its broader historical significance and caused quite a furor. The role of Jews in the enslavement of Blacks was exaggerated through calculated misrepresentation. Over the years, Farrakhan has angered many with various slurs, including his description of Judaism as a "gutter religion" and Jewish landlords as "bloodsuckers."

In the 21st century, in Palm Beach, Florida, after the November 2000 presidential election, the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Rabbi Stephen Jacobs asked that Jews and Blacks unite as they did in the previous Civil Rights Era to push for an accurate vote count in the (then) presidential race.  American History has taught Blacks and Jews two very different lessons. In the Jewish experience of the U. S., education and hard work eventually pay off, and thus, the future is full of possibilities. Blacks, however, face a legacy of over five centuries of racism on American soil. There is a sense that something more than dedication is required for redemption.

The chronicle of Black-Jewish relations in the United States is long, evolving, and complex. The relationship is tumultuous, ironically full of ugly twists and turns combined with moments of real human transcendence. There are gaps between American Jews and American Blacks regarding crime, family breakdown, drug addiction, alcoholism, and educational achievements. The "culture of poverty" in today's inner city is incomparable to anything in the American Jewish experience. The future has much to offer both groups, both with hard work and understanding.

The BLM movement led nationwide protests after the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020.  As in the case of earlier police killings, American Jewish leaders spoke out as well; World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder denounced it as a “horrific racist act.” The Union for Reform Judaism declared that “Black Lives Matter Is a Jewish Value,” the Orthodox Jewish Union said, “Racism is not a thing of the past or simply a political issue. It is a real and present danger that must be met head-on.”

Regarding the 10/7/2023 Israeli-Hamas War, much has emerged between African and Jewish American communities.  Leah Donnella, who is Black and Jewish, is the senior editor of NPR's Code Switch. And in a recent conversation, she reflected on her upbringing. "My parents were very intentional about talking about those identities as being intertwined and related–and they did that very much through the lens of justice," Donnella said. "Fighting for justice has always been a tradition for both Black communities and Jewish communities. That's a lot of how both of my parents understood their faiths and their identities."

While spending time in Jewish spaces, Donnella finds herself being asked to speak on behalf of Black people. And with inflamed passions on all sides since the October 7th attacks by Hamas and the subsequent Israel-Hamas War, she says the divides aren't necessarily deepening; they're revealing what was already there.


Jewish Virtual


Struggles in the promised land: towards a history of Black-Jewish relations in the United States
By: Jack Salzman; Cornel West
Oxford University Press, 1997.
ISBN: 019508828X

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