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Jews and Blacks in America: An Exchange

To the Editors:

In his ranging exploration of the long and recently troubled relationship of Jews and blacks in America [NYR, December 2, 1999], Professor David Brion Davis cites Hasia Diner and me as principal proponents among historians of what he implicitly characterizes as the “self-interest” school of Jewish motivations. We are arraigned as interpreters of the Jewish experience who have shown “great unease in accepting that Jews were motivated by ‘empathy’ and ‘altruism”’ (p. 57). According to Professor Davis, Ms. Diner subscribes to my understanding of black-Jewish collaboration as having been one in which the latter helped the former in order to fight anti-Semitism “by remote control” (p. 57). Ms. Diner, an acquaintance whose scholarship I’ve long admired, and who is hardly reticent about explaining herself, may not be entirely comfortable with finding her dense, complex discussion of this subject collapsed into my own much briefer writings for the sake of Professor Davis’s argument.

As for myself, were I more certain that Professor Davis has extended to my views the courtesy of actually reading what little I have written on this vexed topic, I should have been strongly inclined to forego the effort of responding to his “Jews and Blacks in America.” I do not think he has, however. As his forest of footnotes cites neither the title of the volume in which he assumes that this topic is discussed (W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919) nor, more pertinently, one would have thought, the 1984 Journal of American History article wherein the topic is, indeed, addressed (“Parallels and Divergences: Assimilationist Strategies of Afro-American and Jewish Elites, 1910 to the Early Thirties”), I would wager that Professor Davis has taken the indicting phrase attributed to me as well as its hostile import from Murray Friedman’s What Went Wrong? The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance, a book distinguished by repetition and rebarbative oversimplification. In so doing, it seems obvious that my views about the collaboration of these two special American groups have been hijacked by Professor Davis in the service of a post-Holocaust controversy whose remote connection to my own concerns can only be, at best, a formal one.

It was never my intention to disparage the considerable quotient of empathy and altruism animating early-twentieth-century Jewish involvement in the struggle for African-American civil rights and educational uplift, examples of which range from the quiet philanthropy of Jacob Schiff in the first hours of the NAACP’s creation to the underwriting by the Rosenwald Fund of the professional training of an entire generation of African-American scholars before the Second World War. The question I posed in my journal article (and addressed merely en passant in my Du Bois biography), however, was whether motives of altruism and empathy exhausted the explanations for the accelerated and quite remarkable collaboration of Jews and African-Americans occurring at a certain point in time in the early decades of this century. I ventured to suggest, as has Professor Diner, that there was a bit more to the story than that.

Professor Davis invokes altruism over a narrow conception of self-interest as the compelling explanation for the decision of certain Jews to forge this special relationship with black people against the grain of mainstream prejudices, reasoning that “[Jews] would have won more rapid acceptance as genuine and patriotic ‘whites’ if they had adopted the prevailing and insidious antiblack prejudices…” (p. 57). My problem with such a formulation is that it seems to ignore the history of what was largely a class-based response to the national eruption of anti-Semitism by those Jews who had, until then, quietly and successfully negotiated a place of uncontested prominence in mainstream America. All Jews, as Professor Davis knows, are not alike, any more than all blacks, Hispanics, or Asians constitute a homogeneous bloc—or, for that matter, not all white gentiles. Lest we forget, not so long ago not even all Caucasians—Italians, Poles, Hungarians, and others—were deemed to be white enough to please Anglo-Protestant America.

Anti-Semitism, increasing sharply on the eve of the Great War and redoubling in intensity well beyond the 1924 enactment of the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, profoundly discombobulated the country’s German-Jewish elite (“Uptown Jews,” as they were called in New York) whose path to assimilation was imperiled by the influx of Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe. One has only to cite a page from John Higham’s classic Strangers in the Land to be reminded of the groundswell of indiscriminate, nativist virulence against Jews that permeated universities, corporate boardrooms, the foreign service, residential covenants, country clubs, and middle America for at least the first forty years of this century. The lynching of Leo Frank, Anglo-Saxon leagues, the KKK, Henry Ford, and quotas were not for nothing in the lives of Jewish Americans. The great majority of the Jews closely associated with the NAACP and the National Urban League (the “civil rights Jews”) were increasingly distressed by the cultural and ideological pro-pensities of their newcomer coreligionists, among whom Zionism and Marxism found decisive favor.

This massive influx of new European Jews was roughly contemporaneous with the Great Black Migration that deposited in the cities of the North hundreds of thousands of Deep South and Caribbean African-Americans who appeared to be as culturally problematic to the communities of well-established people of color as the new immigrants were to the earlier Ashkenazim. Determined to find themselves one day also at the same threshold of acceptance as the affluent Jews reaching out to them and hoping to make Jewish success, as they understood it, a paradigm for their own achievement, the educated, affluent African-Americans in the North were equally embarrassed and alarmed by explosive, migrationist forces from the South and the West Indies, developments that powerfully encouraged their welcoming of the Jewish embrace. Both the affluent Ashkenazim and the educated African-Americans of the so-called “Talented Tenth” felt themselves menaced by the exclusionary reactions triggered by the arrival in enormous numbers of their own people, as well as by the radical ideologies these newcomers brought with them. To quote from my “Parallels and Divergences”: “Like New York City’s Uptown Jews who lived in terror of the Hester Street anarchist’s mad act, Talented Tenth leaders complained, ‘We all suffer for what one fool will do.”’ The black Zionism of Marcus Garvey was as unwelcome to the African-American elite as Zionism and Marxism were to the Jewish elite. Without exception, studies of Northern urban black America disclose nostalgia for a supposedly golden period before the Great Black Migration when there was no racial discrimination in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York.

By the early 1920s assimilationist Jews and African-Americans needed each other. So to sum up this extended response to Professor Davis: because the elites of two communities, German Jews and Talented Tenth blacks, shared an identical adversary during the early decades of this century—a species of white gentile dangerously aroused by sudden demographic upheaval—theirs may be understood, without imputation of bad faith or exploitation to the former, as a defensive alliance, cemented, I have argued, more from the outside than from within. Believing themselves at the threshold of full acceptance in mainstream America, then knocked off balance by an unwelcome population infusion, becoming frightened and dismayed by the eruption from below of cultural nationalism and Marxism, the privileged Ashkenazim reached for the African-American leadership and even helped to create it, hoping, as the distinguished jurist Louis Marshall remarked in 1924, that the success of African-American civil rights organizations “may incidentally benefit Jews,” for, then as still now, Jews have always known that racist incidents are to societies what the canary is to the mine.

That a fringe group of black professional anti-Semites, a media epiphenomenon rather than a substantial reality, has encouraged the gross misperception that large numbers of people of color harbor antipathies for Jewish Americans is both ridiculous and deplorable. All the more reason, then, in a time when the histories of American group identities appear to be undergoing creative revision, that historians have a special obligation to recall the often inconvenient past as it was, even at the risk of being misrepresented.

David Levering Lewis

Martin Luther King Jr. University Professor

Department of History

Rutgers University

New Brunswick, New Jersey

David Brion Davis replies:

I have long admired the outstanding scholarship and writing of both Hasia Diner, which I praised in my review, and David Levering Lewis, who by his own admission has written very little on the relations between Jews and blacks. I’m afraid that Professor Lewis loses his curious “wager” and speculation about what I had read before writing my essay. As a longtime subscriber and contributor to The Journal of American History, I had read his deeply researched 1984 article, “Parallels and Divergences,” which is confined to black and Jewish “elites” from 1910 to the early 1930s, and which makes the statement that “by establishing a presence at the center of the civil rights movement with intelligence, money, and influence, elite Jews and their delegates could fight against anti-Semitism by remote control.” I should have cited this reference and apologize to Professor Lewis for not doing so.

Although Professor Lewis draws on Hasia Diner, his rather hostile treatment of “Talented Tenth blacks” and “uptown Jews” allows him to ignore her truly central point: that Jewish aid and support for blacks in this period cut completely across class lines. If wealthy German Jews gave millions for black education and civil rights, the radical Yiddish press was filled with accounts of lynching and racial persecution, thus evoking a sense of identification and sympathy between the two peoples. Radical Jewish lawyers and labor leaders fought for the rights of blacks; the Jewish-dominated International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union led the way in admitting blacks to unions; and as Herbert Apetheker has privately reminded me, Jewish members of the Communist Party “engaged in fierce battles against racism.”

I am pleased that Professor Lewis recognizes an element of “empathy and altruism” in such activities that went beyond ethnic self-interest, a motive I never denied except as an all-embracing explanation. As for my hypothesis of alternatives, one need only recall the abolitionist Daniel O’Connell’s futile appeals to Irish-Americans to join forces with the enemies of slavery and racial persecution. Although the Irish immigrants were often caricatured as “black” and suffered vicious persecution, they helped to lynch and torture free blacks in New York City’s draft riots of 1863. Later Asian immigrants, who faced more prejudice than Jews and who for long periods were even excluded from the United States, failed to see any obvious strategies of self-interest by allying themselves with African-Americans. They and other immigrant groups that endured persecution did not seem to realize that antiblack racist incidents “are to societies what the canary is to the mine.” I hope it is clear, however, that my differences with Professors Lewis and Diner are largely a matter of emphasis and terminology.

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