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What a Problem!

The Negroes and the Jews

by Leonora E. Berson
Random House, 436 pp., $8.95

No Name in the Street

by James Baldwin
Dial, 197 pp., $5.95

Whatever the reasons—and common sense is not the most likely one—there seems much less alarm about black anti-Semitism these days than there was four years ago. For example, New York City’s secondary schools are once again the splendid institutions they were before the Afro-American Teachers Association subjected them to its malignant mischief in the late Sixties. The New York Times no longer compiles the indecencies of the streets; and the only present danger that seems clear enough to the Anti-Defamation League to excuse its abandonment of chivalry is Rabbi Meyer Kahane of the Jewish Defense League.

The transient shadow of black anti-Semitism impelled Mrs. Berson and Drs. Weisbord and Stein to their studies; and the lifting of that shadow, if not as fact at least as material for fantasy, has given their work a post-humous quality. All three have most worthily risen to an occasion while it was passing them by. James Baldwin has a different problem: his account of his experiences in the eight years since he published The Fire Next Time is both affecting and informed with the wit of despair. Still the immobility of those years has left him with very little to say about his appointed theme that he did not say then, although Baldwin’s mind and eye are no mean instruments, even when they are marking time. But all parties seem somehow stranded—Mrs. Berson and Weisbord and Stein by the transience of our fashions in Negro themes, and Baldwin by the permanence of the Negro condition.

The specter of black anti-Semitism, though it has departed from the stage, did manage, in its brief appearance, to leave behind suggestive illuminations about the government of cities and the conditioning of their inhabitants. Both inquiries into that subject are conscientious, and in Mrs. Berson’s case even spirited.

All the same, with Baldwin in their company, even though less attentive than usual, one wants in these guides, alert as they are, just a trifle more of the sense of the complexity of life. When Baldwin, rather by the way, remembers his own father’s “unrequited love for the Great God Almighty,” he makes us aware of the stubborn mystery of the transmission of genes, for we substitute his own not-often-enough-requited love for all Mankind. What the merely conscientious writers lack is just that suggestiveness which helps us to understand. Mrs. Berson, for instance, reminds us that what got itself called black anti-Semitism was first noticed in New York in the fall of 1966 when East Harlem’s IS 201 was invested by Negro parents protesting the appointment of Stanley Liss as its principal. Mrs. Berson is most scrupulous in tracing the false promises of the Board of Education that carried so many IS 201 activists from a beginning as hopeful integrationists to an end in a rage that could only be turned against poor Liss, whose otherwise unoffending nature could not exempt him from the crime of being the only visible target.

Mrs. Berson helps us to justify the rage, however misplaced in its object; but what is missing is the effrontery that dares make a guess about the feelings underneath it. Her account reminded me of some of the parents in the IS 201 demonstrations whom I had talked to at the time. One of them had two children in the school, and her fixed judgment was that they were being far worse taught than she herself had been in Whiteville, North Carolina. She felt no curiosity about knowing Liss before dismissing him. “If he was any good,” she flatly said, “he wouldn’t be here.”

With a gesture of her hand she called to witness the streets that stood about her as monuments of incompetence and indifference. There will be those, I suppose, who find feelings of self-hatred in her observation. But I heard it quite differently; to me her words seemed to come far more from the offended pride of someone so habitually served inferior goods that she had come to assume that no one would offer her any other kind. She could, as a reasonable being, understand someone who could endure the life around her, but she could not imagine anyone choosing it. She must have grown so used to seeing competent Negroes in difficulty and incompetent whites in comfort that she could not believe that anyone white would be assigned to service in her neighborhood unless he had dismally failed to make himself useful everywhere else.

Mrs. Berson’s discussion of slum landlords is severe but understanding, and set in motion my own memories of the day or two I spent with the Black Panthers in Brownsville a few summers ago. The Panthers were occupying themselves with the distress of tenants whose houses had been scuttled and left to crumble by their owners. The only available target was a real estate man who had remained behind as the receiver charged by the East New York Savings Bank to administer the properties it had foreclosed.

The Panthers began their negotiations with a distinctly unpleasant emphasis on his first name (“BURR-nard”) and highly unappetizing off-stage mutterings about avaricious Zionists. Even so, their negotiations went well enough to give the pleasing illusion that there are no quarrels too infected if the parties will only accept the universal cure of a dialogue. The realtor agreed to attempt some repairs; privately he expressed the hope that he might do even more, since the bank had been after him to do something for these people and so had his children in Great Neck.

The atmosphere was mellow until the Panthers came to their complaint about a building that was without water because most of its pipes had been stolen, and the landlord substitute replied that, in this case, he could do nothing. There was no money left for repairs and there was nothing for him to do but abandon the place to the depredations of the addicts and the appetites of the worms of decay. As evidence for this assertion, he presented the Panthers with the mortgage foreclosure order on the building. It hardly seemed a weighty exhibit, since pretty much every piece of property in his jurisdiction had also been foreclosed by the East New York Savings Bank and he had already agreed to fix up a number of the others. But then the respectable remain prisoners of the belief that all arguments can be settled with the show of some document, however irrelevant.

The disreputable, however, are convinced that any argument can be settled with the proper display of implacable determination; and the lady Panther to whom the realtor had handed this document could think of nothing useful to do with it except to grimly set about copying from it the names of the lawyers for the East New York Savings Bank. She had hardly begun this activity when her host leaped from behind his chickenwire cage, wrestled the paper from her hand, and fled, consumed by the terror that he, whom the bank officers had so often reproached for not doing enough for their tenants, might have been the instrument for bringing those same tenants, in vengeance or reproach, down upon the bank’s very headquarters. Caught between the Panthers and his principals, he almost howled with suffering. Whatever his sins, he was hardly a spectacle to arouse the beholder to blame the Jews, at least such among them as are left behind in Brownsville.

To whatever extent the quarrel between the Jews and the Negroes has ever been real, its origins may be traced in part to conflicting conceptions about the urban experience. It seems, for example, to be a frequent assumption of studies of the city that the Jews are its prime example of success and the Negroes of failure. And yet, given the level of communal achievement of most cities, how can we speak realistically of one group’s success and another’s failure? A majority of New York’s professional schoolmen are said to be Jewish, and a great many of their pupils are Negroes. The teachers, one supposes, are presumed to be successful while the pupils are widely assessed as failures. But can anyone be taken seriously as a success when his accomplishment has been confined to a system that, most observers seem to agree, is mostly a failure at educating the children of the poor?

Disputes about the blame for this failure are both tedious and seldom to the point; all that seems significant is that so many of the teachers blame the parents and such parents as have any spirit left tend to blame the teachers. When people quarrel about blame, we must assume that they agree about the fact of failure. I do not mean to dismiss the advantages of a union contract under such circumstances, but even that could hardly outweigh the spiritual deprivation that the daily round must inflict upon any teacher with the remotest sense of vocation. In this case at least, it seems to me, we would do better to talk less about Jewish successes and Negro failures and to recognize a catastrophe common to both in every degree except security of employment, no small thing but no sufficient one either.

Now the concession of universal failure happens to be the one most difficult to make; and that difficulty may explain, if not excuse, the occasional self-congratulatory tone in the Jewish side of the debate which is not all that much more attractive than the spite that has sometimes cankered the Negro side. In my own city, most high civic functions—to use an honorific if implausible term for what is little more than the neglect of undisposable garbage—are performed by middle-aged personages who remember being poor when they were young. The subsequent elevation of their titles comes, in the absence of anything more spiritually rewarding, to seem to them the achievement of every hope of glory. The degraded character of their functions absolves them from having any impulse that might direct them to cultivate the means of grace. One thinks especially of those judges who gaze down every day upon products of the city that proclaim its failure, and who then return home refreshed by feeling themselves the embodied proof of the city’s success.

But even those are not sustaining illusions. All that can be shared in the slums, apportioned to the native and his custodian alike, is the fact of failure. The quarrel indeed may be largely over who is responsible for that failure. It does not lie within my province to allot the blame for the torment of the cities. Still it is not unthinkable to say that this might have been arrested if persons of real authority had been troubled enough by it. To be a sensitive victim of such conditions is to suspect that the powerful would not look on so indifferently without a fixed contempt for all who live or work in the slums—a classification of pariah that encompasses a number of Jews and a majority of Negroes.

Now a long experience with the feeling of being held in contempt may or may not produce acceptance of the contemner’s judgment, but it does concentrate the mind on how he thinks. The object of official disdain comes to assume that a society that values him so low could hardly reserve much respect for anyone who is seen, in any direct and obvious way, to make his living from him. Thus the slum can seem to its inhabitants a sort of Casbah where violence is tolerable so long as it keeps its place within its appointed boundaries. The slum merchant, often Jewish, is, by day at least, not much less vulnerable than the pariah class he serves. Mrs. Berson writes of the 1964 urban riots:

…in most cities and particularly in Philadelphia in that first summer, Negro lives were given a higher value than Jewish property. The Jewish merchants, although not usually a bloodthirsty crew, felt that, if blacks had attacked the stores of the establishment in the central business cores, the priorities would have been reversed. Some even voiced the feelings that city officials were somehow sanctioning the attacks by refusing to shoot looters.

One is comparatively safe so long as one takes care to attack only one’s neighbor. There was an element of the weak bullying the weak in the black show of anger against the Jews. And, in a curious way, Jewish reminders that Jews too have been victims contributed to black aggression, mainly verbal though it was. There is, unfortunately, a part of most of us that suspects that no one is a victim who has not done something to deserve it. The more atrocious the treatment, the more does this bad part of us argue the unique disgrace of its object: whatever had been done to the Negro, he could remember that no society had lately pronounced so brutal a sentence on him as Germany had on the Jews. The alleged passivity of the Jews in their death camps could only be a source of mockery to those black militants who so firmly, if too sanguinely, believed that the mass of Negroes were rousing themselves at last from their own traditional passivity.

Sholem Asch, Hayim Greenberg has recalled, once wrote “sympathetically and affectionately of a Jew who displayed slavishness and humility in a Nazi concentration camp, and who cringingly and with a smile on his face obeyed all the commands of the overseer.” “Asch, it was then said, had insulted us,” Greenberg goes on. “[But] Asch’s critics did not stop to think for a moment that this humble obedience to all commands contained much contempt for the tormenter, who failed to notice it only because of his own absolute degeneration and dullness. Proud as we may be, none of us will be insulted by an animal.” (From Voices From the Yiddish, an excellent collection edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, University of Michigan, 1971, p. 273.)

Asch’s golus-Jew sounds much like the Negro’s own Uncle Tom. It might be a useful contribution to black studies for some young, black, and thoroughly tough-minded critic to sit down with all the old Stepin Fetchit film clips and see what all those scrapings, bowings, and jivings, now dismissed as an embarrassment, might really have been saying. Is it not possible that the Negro-Jewish dialogue would be considerably less bristly if both could better appreciate their common possession of such similar anti-heroes, to each a source of shame that may well be unmerited?

If black anti-Semitism is to some extent a bullying of the weak by the weak, the vigor of the Jewish response might also be taken as the manful response of the weak in the face of the weaker. The Jews are not often thought of as weak these days; still there remains considerable ambivalence in their position in the general society. Some of the Jewish voices quoted by Weisbord and Stein and Mrs. Berson do indeed leave us with the impression of an extraordinary, although by no means unjustified, mixture of pride of place with insecurity. Certainly some of us must feel ourselves confronting in a few of these utterances an hauteur that has banished most powers of sensible observation from the speaker. Nathan Glazer, quoted in the book by Weisbord and Stein, seems to expect us to infer that black militants are so deficient in the capacity for abstract thought that they could not have refined a concept even so primitive as anti-Semitism if it had not been interpreted for them by “a white, predominantly Jewish intelligentsia.” Lucy Dawidowicz, quoted in the same book, pronounces her judgment on ordinary Negroes:

Like the Russian serfs in many respects, these poor Negro masses share with them a primitive religiosity embedded in superstition and a distrust of urban mercantile society and a money economy.

Old tribal experiences have a way of lying interred and then wondrously bursting from the earth. A similar contempt for the peasants was recollected from his childhood and rather immoderately strictured by Hayim Zhitlowsky, the nineteenth-century Russian socialist, in a memoir translated by Lucy Dawidowicz:

The whole town lived off the Russian peasants. My father hired them to cut down Russian woods which he bought from the greatest exploiter of the Russian peasant, the Russian landowner. The lumber was shipped abroad, while the Russian villages were full of rotting dilapidated huts, covered with rotting, straw-thatched roofs. They could have used my father’s merchandise. Wherever I turned my eyes to ordinary, day-to-day Jewish life, I saw only one thing, that which the anti-Semites were agitating about: the injurious effect of Jewish merchantry on Russian peasantry. No matter how I felt, from a socialist point of view, I had to pass a death sentence not only on individual Jews but on the entire Jewish existence of individual Jews. [Voices From the Yiddish, p. 129.]

Rabbi Jay Kaufman looks at the angrier spokesmen for the blacks and can find in them only a single, debased motive:

Unable to offer any constructive program to mitigate the sufferings of deprived Negroes in the ghetto, they offer them the jobs Jews have attained through training, labor, proficiency and seniority. It is a cheap and larcenous scheme.

But, underneath the occasional tone of the disdainful proprietor, there abides a continual sense of doubt about the permanence of the estate. As a social institution, organized Judaism never feels itself quite free enough from the judgment of the larger society outside it, which may explain why Jewish institutions seem to preach excessively to Jews and occasionally to Negroes, while Catholics and Protestants make bold to preach to everyone.

The winter before last, when the Jewish Defense League was disturbing the peace outside the Soviet Embassy, the Times reported the comments of just two affronted passersby. One said that Hitler hadn’t gotten enough of you people; the other offered the reproach that acting like this gets us Jews in trouble. Journalists have a weakness for presenting the most striking expressions as though they were the most typical ones; still, both comments do suggest that official Judaism has much of an excuse, as well as a disposition, for believing that it is continually being watched and held to standards that apply nowhere else. The limits of permissible discourse, less and less visible in most cases as they are, can seem almost to have disappeared where the Jews are concerned.

Weisbord and Stein offer two helpful indicators of this condition:

1) John Hatchett is appointed director of the Martin Luther King Center and is discovered as an exponent of the thesis that “black children are being educationally castrated” by “the Jews who dominate and control the educational bureaucracy of the New York Public School system.” Dr. Hester, the president of New York University, says he can understand “how someone might make references to [the Jewish Teachers Organization] and at the same time not be anti-Semitic.” Hatchett is retained in his office until, in the middle of the 1968 electoral campaign, he tells an audience that Albert Shanker, Vice-President Humphrey, and Mr. Nixon “all have something in common—they are racist bastards.” He has gone too far at last and is fired.

2) The Metropolitan Museum of Art publishes as a foreword to the catalogue of its “Harlem on My Mind” exhibit a high-school student’s essay attesting that “behind every hurdle that the Afro-American has to jump stands the Jew who has already cleared it.” There follow hardly unnatural Jewish protests, and the New York Post reports that among the comments of the beleaguered director of the Metropolitan is: “If the truth hurts, so be it.”

But it is not really the truth. One assumes that Mr. Hoving does not think it is either; what he and Dr. Hester were saying is not so much that they believe the Jews are to blame for the Negroes’ misfortunes as that they understand how some Negroes might think so. They feel that the Jews ought to be able to take it and not be so sensitive, a reproof that might have more force from a quarter with more sensitivity itself.

The spirit displayed by these two pillars of organized institutions must serve to remind Jewish leaders and their followers of the tenuousness of their social station and how vulnerable they are to being snubbed when they assert themselves. Long appreciation of this state of affairs has conditioned them to extreme caution in quarrels with anyone truly powerful and to unwearying zeal in policing any behavior that might give the general community an excuse for thinking badly of the Jews.1

This itch for internal sanitation seems to infect widely separated branches of Jewish institutional life. When Rabbi Meyer Kahane held the pulpit of the Jewish Press—which was later to drop him as an embarrassment—he seemed conspicuously less exercised by the black militants than he was by Jews he suspected of tolerating them. Once he pridefully reported that, when a group of Rochedale radicals invited Leslie Campbell, the Semite-mocking teacher, to explain his animus at a forum, the Jewish Defense League’s troops broke in and proceeded to beat up the Jews in the audience while Campbell stood on the stage unmolested and watched.

When we ascend in the social scale, it is Kahane who becomes subject to the attentions of this inner detective agency. The Anti-Defamation League sets spies on him and transmits their findings to the FBI. Higher still, we have Nathan Glazer’s publication a few years ago of the names of the Jews listed by the International Committee to Support Eldridge Cleaver—not, by the way, in support of Cleaver’s opinions but in his legal troubles. It is hard not to suspect that the impulse behind any such inquiry is less sociological than inquisitional.

At the highest point on the scale there is the American Jewish Committee, whose many laudable endeavors have never distracted it from its felt duty as warden of community behavior. Otherwise, how can we explain its antipathy toward Zionism when the Stern Gang was making the Jews look troublesome and its outrage at anti-Zionism now that Israel has made the Jews look so admirable; the morbid grindings of its anti-communism in the Fifties, when the notion might be getting about that all Jews were communists; and its peevish tone in recent years when the new left seemed the latest possible embarrassment to the Jews?2

For sad as it is, if not the Jews, at least too many of their institutions share with the Negroes the special penalty of still being spoken of more often as categories than as persons. They fell upon each other for a while because there was no one else quite so safe to fall upon; and, in the quarrel, each naturally arraigned the other in the most defamatory of the categories that the broader society had appointed for them. It was altogether pathetic; and earnest though these recent studies are, we have to be grateful that the quick exhaustion of the parties has rendered them so academic. There are subjects that one is glad to find at least somewhat out of date.

Baldwin’s newest essay seems to have been received with general disappointment. He has, I suppose, the handicap of having been assigned the category of black entrant and of having very little that is new to offer when speaking from that stall. Everyone has already noticed some slippage in the accuracy of references he had until now maintained in those orals to which we seem to expect him continually to submit and again prove himself our brightest student. His flunking was announced as soon as his examiners heard him recite that it was Henry James and not E. M. Forster who had said “only connect” and then proceed from that elementary blunder to the reflection that “perhaps only an American writer would have been driven to say it, his very existence being so threatened by the failure in most American lives, of the most elementary and crucial connections.” There is, inescapably, some nonsense in Baldwin; but it is only a general sort of nonsense and putting up with it is a small price for his continuing to be more wonderful than ever when he writes of the particular.

No Name in the Street seems indeed, if we can remain one more moment in the prison of categories, rather more a Jewish than a black book. One thing missing in the language of the official spokesmen cited by Weisbord and Stein and Mrs. Berson is what some of us outsiders have come to envy, without ever being able quite to define, as a special Jewish sensibility. It is therefore all the more a relief to come upon it so unexpectedly in Baldwin. There is the same voyage whose very undertaking is a heroic victory over the fear of rejection and whose return is a calm unembittered assessment of its experience:

[Eldridge Cleaver] seemed to feel that I was a dangerously odd, badly twisted and fragile reed, of too much use to the Establishment to be trusted by blacks…. I also felt that I was confused in his mind with the unutterable debasement of the male—with all those faggots, punks and sissies, the sight and sound of whom, in prison, must have made him vomit more than once. Well, I certainly hope that I know more about myself and the intention of my work than that, but I am an odd quantity. So is Eldridge; so are we all. It is a pity that we won’t, probably, ever have the time to attempt to define once more the relationship of the odd and disreputable artist to the odd and disreputable revolutionary; for the revolutionary, however odd, is rarely disreputable in the same way an artist can be.

There is the same sense of having been somehow displaced, of returning to every scene of childhood and finding it at bottom unrecognizable: His closest boyhood friend calls on him after years of silence on both sides. He has read in Leonard Lyons’s column that, when he heard of Martin Luther King’s murder, James Baldwin determined to give away the still new suit he had bought for his last public appearance on the platform with King. “For me,” Baldwin says, “that suit was drenched in the blood of all the crimes of my country.” His old friend had read that declaration and called to say that, in that case, he could use the suit. Baldwin traveled up to Harlem to present it to him. The friend worked in the post office, and, after a while, small talk having faltered, Baldwin began giving his opinion of the Vietnam war.

Wait a minute,” he said, “let me stand up and tell you what we’re trying to do in there.” “We?” I cried. “What mother-fucking we? Stand up, mother-fucker, and I’ll kick you in the ass.”

The way they looked at me proved that I had tipped my hand…. In great weariness I poured myself yet another stiff drink, by now definitively condemned, and lit another cigarette, they watching me all the while for symptoms of cancer, and with a precipice at my feet.

For that bloody suit was their suit, after all, it had been bought for them, it had even been bought by them: they had created Martin, he had not created them and the blood in which the fabric of that suit was stiffening was theirs. The distance between us, and I had never thought of this before, was that they did not know this and I dared to realize that I loved them more than they loved me.

The nonsense that is merely language passes soon enough in Baldwin’s book, thank heaven; and only the common sense of feeling endures.

  1. 1

    One example of this caution ought to be enough. In the winter of 1968 a special issue of Columbia College Today undertook to explain to that institution’s affronted alumni the events of its student revolt the previous spring. Its account included one sentence that began “Mark Rudd’s father, a Polish emigre whose name was originally Rudnitsky…” and another whose entirety was “Nearly all the leaders and many of the members of Columbia’s SDS chapter are of the Jewish faith.” The message designed by such citations was, we have to assume, that alumni of the more conservative persuasion need not worry that revolt at Columbia was any more alarmingly general than it was when they were throwing in the pond the handful of Jews who constituted the National Student League.

    I do not recall a single protest from any of those Jewish institutions that were at that moment in wild alarm about the anti-Semitic statements of such Negro teachers as Leslie Campbell and Albert Vann. To say that the persons who are trying to overthrow you are only Jews is in theory not very different from screeching that the persons you are trying to overthrow are Jews; but in our reverence for property and power the first is overlooked as an error in taste and the second condemned as the outrage both of them are.

  2. 2

    Such in any case is the impression left by faithful and generally affectionate reading of the magazine that, since it is the most conspicuous ornament on the AJC’s publications list, has come to be taken as the most accurate measure of the committee’s response to the successive stimuli of the past twenty-five years. A recent speech of Bertram H. Gold, executive vice-president of the American Jewish Committee, indicates, however, that its managers see public issues as rather more complicated than its editors make us feel they do. For example, Gold says,

    We have imposed upon ourselves a constraint that has inhibited open and direct criticism of Israel. This posture has been particularly galling to many idealistic committed young Jews who are searching for a voice in the Jewish world that will support the existence and security of the Jewish state, but still be prepared to challenge specific Israeli policies.

    We should welcome the emergence of new groups in Jewish life who want to share in formulating answers. The expression of differences and dissent within the Jewish community should be encouraged. Ours is not, and never will be, a monolithic community.

    The capacity of the Jews to surprise us seems to have produced an institution where the roles are reversed in a fashion unique in our experience, one, that is, where life seems complex to its bureaucrats while remaining entirely simple to its intellectuals.

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