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Jews and Blacks in America


In 1963, at the time of Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, it was assumed by many American liberals that Jews and African-Americans were natural allies, a belief seemingly confirmed when a disproportionate number of Jewish students participated in the Freedom Summer of the following year. Yet by 1995, when Louis Farrakhan led his Million Man March, the conventional view held that Jewish and black communities were divided by deeply rooted conflicts. In the spring of 1996 Howard University and the American Jewish Committee, in a desperate attempt to promote “mutual understanding and a just society,” launched the admirable CommonQuest: The Magazine of Black- Jewish Relations. The first issue reviewed Murray Friedman’s book What Went Wrong? The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance.1

During the past decade numerous books and academic conferences have addressed the issue of conflicting or incompatible interests between blacks and Jews. The first important survey of black-Jewish relations, by Robert G. Weisbord and Arthur Stein, was published soon after New York’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville school crisis of 1968 and was revealingly entitled Bittersweet Encounter: The Afro-American and the American Jew.2 Since 1970 little sweetness has remained. After bitter divisions over Israel, affirmative action, and the Black Power movement, some African-American academics have dismissed the contributions of Jewish philanthropists to black causes as paternalism and have argued that it was secular radicalism, not Jewish ancestry or religion, that distinguished the white civil rights workers in the South. In the history of black-Jewish relations, according to this view, the Jewishness of an eighteenth-century slave trader or a later Harlem merchant or landlord was far more meaningful than the Jewishness of Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who served in 1964 as voting-registration volunteers in Meridian, Mississippi, before being murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.

Such second thoughts about black- Jewish relations have by no means been limited to African-American historians. In Struggles in the Promised Land, a recent anthology edited by Jack Salzman and Cornel West, a number of Jewish writers stress the great caution and self-interest of Jewish organizations that worked for civil rights. In another recent anthology, African Americans and Jews in the Twentieth Century: Studies in Convergence and Conflict, Michael Rogin draws on his book Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot3 to describe the racist “stain of shame” incurred by Jewish performers who wore burnt cork on stage and screen early in this century. A few Jewish radicals joined black nationalists in arguing that Jews had been mainly interested in using and exploiting blacks for their own advancement as Jews. Many other Jews were deeply troubled that only a fairly small number of prominent blacks, such as Henry Louis Gates Jr., were willing to denounce black anti-Semitism, and that such publications as the Nation of Islam’s 1991 The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, Volume One were being circulated in American colleges.4 By the middle and late 1990s, diverse Jewish historians, among them Murray Friedman, Jack Salzman, and Seth Forman, concluded that little common ground remained and that the black-Jewish alliance was ready for last rites.

No one has equaled the American historian Hasia Diner in richly documenting the strong support given to African-American legal, economic, and educational rights, between 1880 and 1935, by Jewish newspapers, religious leaders, lawyers, labor leaders, social workers, and philanthropists.5 These were the decades when black migration from the South to Northern cities coincided with large-scale Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe. Yet even Diner shows great unease in accepting that Jews were motivated by “empathy” and “altruism”; she has consistently put emphasis on motives of Jewish self-interest—essentially endorsing the view of the historian David Levering Lewis, author of a biography of W.E.B. DuBois, that Jews helped African-Americans as a means of fighting anti-Semitism “by remote control.”6 While there is doubtless some truth to this argument (what would be wrong about one persecuted group helping another if they faced a common peril of racist prejudice?), it fails to address the probability that twentieth-century Jews, like the earlier nineteenth-century Jewish and Irish immigrants, would have won more rapid acceptance as genuine and patriotic “whites” if they had adopted the prevailing and insidious antiblack prejudices of white Anglo-Americans.7

While the term “self-interest” has many meanings and can obviously lead to a recognition of mutual interests, it cannot easily be harmonized with empathy, compassion, or benevolent goodwill—all of which appear in Jewish editorials about blacks, as quoted and described by Diner, from the Jewish Daily Forward, which was then left-wing, to the conservative and religious Tageblatt and Morgen Journal. Unlike individual philanthropists and editors, Jewish agencies and organizations were explicitly devoted to the principle of Jewish self-interest. Yet in her essay in the collection Struggles in the Promised Land, Cheryl Greenberg shows that in the mid-twentieth century “Jewish organizations also spent much of their time furthering the cause of Black civil rights even when Jewish interests were not at stake.” Indeed, Greenberg even finds examples of collaboration with black causes that “went far beyond direct or even indirect self-interest, as both communities moved toward a sense of the indissoluble nature of equality.”8 In fact, self-interest often appeared in a more negative form, inhibiting Jewish support for some of the more radical black protests, especially during World War II when most Jews were intent on proving their own patriotism and allegiance to the white majority and the power elite.

Whether examining the motives and behavior of early abolitionists or the antiracist position of most early twentieth-century American Jews, ranging from rich philanthropists to urban radicals, we should use great care in resorting to the simplistic and often cynical formula of “self-interest,” which inevitably suggests a degree of selfishness and limited commitment. The students I knew who went to Mississippi in 1964, sometimes risking their lives for a full year, were not thinking, “This will help the Jews,” or “This will look good on my transcript.” Of course the thought of doing good made them feel good about themselves. Yet it is also true that the relative purity of their motives can hardly impose an eternal moral debt on African-Americans. As bell hooks remarks in killing rage: ending racism, solidarity between blacks and Jews

must be mutual. It cannot be based on a notion of black people as needy victims that white Jews “help.” It cannot be based on gratitude extended by blacks to white Jews for those historical moments when they have been steadfast comrades in struggle furthering black liberation.

The vast recent literature on blacks and Jews, even that written by historians, suffers from a foreshortened perspective.9 Perhaps if we had a clearer vision of how far both blacks and Jews have come, and how much they have overcome, we would be less skeptical about the recent past and less pessimistic about the future. It should never be forgotten that during the past millennium no other ethnic groups have suffered such prolonged persecution, oppression, and dehumanization as have blacks and Jews. Whether defined as the slayers of Christ, the cursed children of Ham, vermin to be exterminated, or apelike savages, Jews and sub-Saharan Africans were for Europeans the archetypal outsiders—outsiders who were frequently likened to pigs and maggots whose genes supposedly threatened what fifteenth-century Spaniards began calling “purity of blood.”

According to Voltaire, “One regards the Jews the same way as one regards the Negroes, as a species of inferior humanity.” As the medieval historian William Chester Jordan demonstrates, this theme pervaded the Middle Ages, when “allegorically the words ‘Jew’ and ‘Blackness’ conjured up the Devil; morally they denoted evil; and mystically they evoked the Day of Judgment.”10 Beginning in 1290 Jews were expelled from dozens of European states and regions, a policy that late Elizabethan England attempted to impose on black Africans. In 1777, after decades of legal dispute over the status of black slaves brought in from the colonies, the French government tried to prohibit all blacks from entering the country. Beginning in the 1790s, US immigration laws were more successful in barring the influx of free blacks. Despite dramatic differences between black and Jewish occupations and ways of life, the Eastern European pogroms of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century bore a haunting resemblance to the roughly contemporary antiblack race riots, lynchings, and autos-da-fé in the United States.11

It was doubtless this similarity, along with a new eruption of pseudo-scientific racism and anti-Semitism, that led some Jewish immigrants to identify with blacks in a way that would have been unthinkable for Jews before the Civil War except for a handful of radical abolitionists like August Bondi and Jacob Benjamin. Modern writers have also drawn comparisons—some insightful, some absurd—between the four-year Nazi Holocaust and the four centuries of the Atlantic slave trade, now often termed “the Black Holocaust.” 12

Because the Jewish response to oppression goes back in time to the biblical Exodus narrative and to early modern quests for religious toleration, African-Americans began at least two centuries ago to look to the history of Jews for models of liberation. By the mid-nineteenth century the spectacular success of small numbers of Jews in Western Europe persuaded some African-American leaders that even the deepest forms of prejudice and bigotry could be overcome—though in the longer run, Jewish achievement fostered anti-Semitism, especially in Europe, and doubtless stimulated black-Jewish rivalry in the US as well as pointless debates over which group has suffered the most. (If the Nazi Holocaust means that Jews have won what might be called the “global victimization prize,” as well as an extraordinary number of Nobel Prizes, even the lynching of Leo Frank in 1915 can hardly be compared, on the American front, with the centuries of African-American agony and persecution.13 )

One can invert the question of emulation and ask whether the blacks’ long struggle for liberation has furnished useful models for Jews. In the early twentieth century, when most Jewish immigrants were poor and when their status as “whites” was challenged by anti-Semitic restrictions on residence, education, and employment, many Jewish writers and intellectuals found a kind of spiritual liberation in African-American culture. From Al Jolson to Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, and from Norman Mailer’s The White Negro to the comedian Sandra Bernhardt’s revival of blackface, one can compile an impressive list of Jews who eagerly embraced black motifs and identities as a way of breaking free from coercions of the past. One can also point to Jewish performers such as Jack Benny, whose dim friend Rochester was obviously intended to make fun of blacks and to patronize them.

Still, after analyzing the image of African-Americans in the Yiddish press, Hasia Diner writes that the underlying assumption in the published discussions of black art was that “blacks reacted more sensitively, felt pain and suffering more sharply, and expressed themselves with greater depth and with more poignancy.” Though the subject is complex and controversial, blackface performance ultimately helped in some ways to subvert the racist conventions that gave it birth. It was part of a broader Jewish identification with blacks that became a twentieth-century version of the “romantic racialism” that the historian George Fredrickson has found among earlier abolitionists and such popular writers as Harriet Beecher Stowe.14

  1. 1

    This essay makes no pretense of summarizing the extremely complex history of African-American and Jewish relations. As several writers have recently pointed out, we still lack a detailed and comprehensive history of this subject, although some of the books listed above provide indispensable insights and information.

  2. 2

    Negro Universities Press, 1970.

  3. 3

    University of California Press, 1996. As both Harold Brackman and Hasia Diner point out, Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer was enthusiastically applauded in 1927 by both blacks and Jews (one black newspaper proclaimed that “every colored performer is proud of [Jolson]”; the Jewish Forward interpreted the performance of Jews in blackface “as a sign of intense cul-tural bonding”). Brackman’s observations will appear in Modern Judaism in his essay “The Attack on ‘Jewish Hollywood’: A Chapter in the History of Modern American Antisemitism”; Diner, In the Almost Promised Land, pp. 68-69. I’m much indebted to Harold Brackman for sending me a copy of his study as well as some valuable editorial advice.

  4. 4

    The Slave Trade and the Jews,” The New York Review, December 22, 1994.

  5. 5

    In addition to her excellent book, In the Almost Promised Land, Diner has written important essays for the anthologies edited by Salzman and West, and V.P. Franklin, et al.

  6. 6

    In her essay in African Americans and Jews in the Twentieth Century, Diner attempts to expand the definition of self-interest to include friendship and empathy, as well as a Jewish “special mission,” based on Jewish persecution in Europe, to make white Americans live up to their own ideals as embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Yet she undercuts the moral value of this mission by affirming that “the issues of Black exclusion and oppression provided a stalking horse for American Jewish writers who constantly fretted over the power of anti-Semitism in America and Europe.”

  7. 7

    Much recent research confirms Bertram Wallace Korn’s conclusion that many American Jews in the pre-Civil War period accepted slavery and the prevailing belief in Negro inferiority as a way of gaining “status and security from the very presence of this large mass of defenceless victims who were compelled to absorb all of the prejudices which might otherwise have been expressed more frequently in anti-Jewish sentiment” (Korn, Jews and Negro Slavery in the Old South, 1789-1865, Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, 1961, p. 67, quoted in Weisbord and Stein, Bittersweet Encounter, p. 22). In 1860 there were only about 150,000 Jews in the US, a nation of 31,443,321 people, including nearly four million slaves. However one should note that by the late nineteenth century, Lillian Wald was organizing settlement houses for African-Americans in New York City and Jacob Schiff was agitating for racially integrated public schools.

  8. 8

    Greenberg, “Negotiating Coalition: Black and Jewish Civil Rights Agencies in the Twentieth Century,” in Struggles in the Promised Land, p. 163.

  9. 9

    Along with the extensive verbal arguments and analyses of various books, one should not overlook the pictorial dimension as portrayed in Milly Heyd’s remarkable book, Mutual Reflections: Jews and Blacks in American Art (Rutgers University Press, 1999).

  10. 10

    Jordan, “Medieval Background,” in Struggles in the Promised Land, p. 53.

  11. 11

    For vivid, unforgettable accounts of American whites torturing and lynching blacks, see Leon F. Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (Knopf, 1998) and Orlando Patterson, Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries (Civitas/Counterpoint, 1998), pp. 171-232.

  12. 12

    For a fair-minded, well-informed, and rational comparison, see Seymour Drescher, “The Atlantic Slave Trade and the Holocaust: A Comparative Analysis,” in From Slavery to Freedom: Comparative Studies in the Rise and Fall of Atlantic Slavery (New York University Press, 1999), pp. 312-338.

  13. 13

    By “global victimization prize” I refer to a modernized and systematic effort to exterminate an entire people from the earth, a program that succeeded in killing about one third of all Jews.

  14. 14

    According to Fredrickson, romantic racism “resembled Herder’s relativism more than Gobineau’s hierarchical racism, and was widely espoused by Northern humanitarians who were more or less antislavery. Although romantic racialists acknowledged that blacks were different from whites and probably always would be, they projected an image of the Negro that could be construed as flattering or laudatory in the context of some currently accepted ideals of human behavior and sensibility.” Stressing the supposedly childlike, affectionate, docile, and noncompetitive traits of Negroes, the “logical extreme was to argue, as Methodist Bishop Gilbert Haven did during the Civil War, that the Negro was the superior race—’the choice blood of America’—because his docility constituted the ultimate in Christian virtue” (The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817- 1914, Wesleyan University Press, 1971, pp. 101-102). Since the 1960s African- Americans have succeeded in demolishing the once-prevalent stereotype of docility.

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