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
Whatever one might mean by “Jewish liberation,” Jewish history and religion present it as an unfolding process that is far from complete. This point is underscored for observant Jews by the fasting and mourning of Tisha B’av, which commemorates the historical disasters and catastrophes that began with the destruction of the First and then the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The Shoah is conceived of in a similar way in some of the literature recalling the Holocaust. That said, we can speak of three instances of Jewish liberation that have served as models for black leaders and occasionally, as with Marcus Garvey’s followers, for a mass movement.
The first instance is the deliverance of the ancient Hebrews from bondage in Egypt and their agonizing exodus toward the Promised Land. The second liberation comes with the Zion-ist or nationalist vision of a final refuge and homeland where Jews (or African-Americans) may achieve physical security while living in accordance with their own laws and traditions. The Zionist ideal is to create a national center that will radiate pride, dignity, and standards of conduct for those Jews (or African-Americans) who remain in the Diaspora (and it should be stressed that many Jews and peoples of African descent have long believed that they live in a Diaspora).15
The third model, deriving from the Enlightenment and the ideals of the American and French Revolutions, envisions a liberation from all legal disabilities, the acceptance of a common citizenship, and an opening of equal opportunity for upward mobility based on individual merit. It is significant that the Abbé Grégoire, who during the French Revolution was one of the most eloquent in demanding the emancipation of both Jews and blacks, also called for the elimination of all ethnic dialects so that all French citizens could share a common “republican” language. Today such a call for extinguishing cultural and religious differences has little appeal.16
The first theme, that of Exodus, was exemplified on January 1, 1808, when the Reverend Absalom Jones preached a thanksgiving sermon in Philadelphia celebrating the abolition of the African slave trade by the US and Britain. A former slave himself and a founder of the African Episcopal Church, Jones hailed the American and British laws as the providential prologue to slave emancipation, building his vision on the biblical “circumstances which preceded the deliverance of the children of Israel from their captivity and bondage in Egypt.” After comparing the misery, grief, and despair of the ancient Hebrews with the horrors of the Atlantic slave system, Jones told his black congregation that God had commanded the Jews as part of their worship “never to forget their humble origin” and their “historic deliverance from slavery.” Accordingly, “it becomes us, publickly and privately, to acknowledge, that an African slave, ready to perish, was our father or our grandfather”:
Let the first of January, the day of the abolition of the slave trade in our country, be set apart in every year, as a day of publick thanksgiving for that mercy. Let the history of the sufferings of our brethren, and of their deliverance, descend by this means to our children, to the remotest generations.
In effect, Jones was calling for a day like Passover, when Jews are asked to “relive” their historical liberation from bondage.17
Everyone has heard the Exodus theme in slave spirituals—“Way down in Egypt’s land…. Let my people go”—but few whites are aware that Moses, Joseph, Joshua, Daniel, David, Solomon, Zipporah (Moses’ black Cushite wife), and the Queen of Sheba all had a deep meaning for American slaves and their descendants. As late as 1960 Michael Walzer, then a young graduate student who was writing about black sit-ins as well as the centrality of the Book of Exodus in the English Puritan Revolution, described a powerful sermon in a black church in Montgomery, Alabama, in which the preacher “cringed,” he wrote, “under the lash, challenged the pharaoh, hesitated fearfully at the sea, accepted the covenant and the law at the foot of the mountain.” 18 Whereas white Christian hymns tended to spiritualize “Egyptian bondage” and “the Promised Land,” American slaves, more attracted to the Old Testament, concentrated on the fact that God had presented an alternative to slavery and had punished oppressors in this world. And in the words of one spiritual: “And the God dat lived in Moses’ time is jus’ de same today.”19
Again and again the songs and sermons by black preachers repeated the hopeful theme of the Red Sea opening, of the enemy’s army being destroyed, and of a Promised Land that was not heaven, as whites maintained, but a physical place. As General Sherman’s troops marched through Georgia they heard slaves sing: “I fasted an’ I prayed till I came through/Thank God A’mighty, I’s free at las!” “Shout the glad tidings o’er Egypt’s dark sea,/ Jehovah has triumphed, his people are free!” A Union army chaplain, W.G. Kiphant, was deeply troubled by the discovery that
Moses is their ideal of all that is high, and noble, and perfect, in man. I think they have been accustomed to regard Christ not so much in the light of a spiritual Deliverer, as that of a second Moses who would eventually lead them out of their prison-house of bondage.20
One can conclude that the first, or biblical, liberation of the Jews was exceptionally meaningful for African- Americans because it conveyed, as Walzer points out, a “sense of possibility” and genuine escape from oppression combined with a realistic message that freedom is not a clear-cut condition instantly achieved but a goal requiring self-discipline and arduous collective effort. It is also worth noting the continuity of the theme in African-American literature from Frances Harper’s allegorical poem of 1869, Moses: A Story of the Nile, to the novels of James Baldwin, who used the journey out of Egypt as a symbol for overcoming the corruptions of the dominant white world.21
If we turn to the model of Zionism, or the Return—and it is worth recalling that a few Sephardic Jews did return to Turkish Palestine in the mid-sixteenth century after their expulsion from Spain and Italy—we find that some slaves and free blacks in New England petitioned to be returned to Africa as early as the American Revolution. Paul Cuffe, the black shipowner and captain who transported thirty-eight African-Americans to Sierra Leone in 1816 and thus initiated the “colonization movement,” said he was following the Jewish example of the ancient Exodus narrative.22 In 1820, when the American Colonization Society and the US government sent the first group of free black colonists to Africa, the Society’s white agent, while dying of disease, transferred his commission as leader to Daniel Coker, a mulatto minister. Coker prayed that “He that was with Moses in the wilderness, be with us,” and that “He that divided the waters for Israel will open our way, I know not how.” By May 1821, as increasing numbers died, Coker confided in his journal that “Moses was I think permitted to see the promised land but not to enter in. I think it likely that I shall not be permitted to see our expected earthly Canaan. But this will be of but small moment so that some thousand of African children are safely landed.”23
During the 1820s and the years that immediately followed, free American blacks overwhelmingly opposed the colonization movement, sensing that it was largely motivated by white racist desires to “cleanse” the continent of a people who had been among the first to arrive, clear, and plow the land, and had even helped fight for American independence. Yet by the 1850s many Northern black leaders, deeply disillusioned by the series of events from the Fugitive Slave Law to the Dred Scott decision, began to advocate or plan large-scale emigration to Africa or Haiti. Thus when many white clergymen, including some rabbis, were citing Noah’s curse to justify black bondage, various Northern black clergymen—“pioneer black nationalists,” in George Fredrickson’s phrase—“put forth a prophetic view of black redemption that would inspire African-American emigrationists, the first Pan- Africanists, and leaders of the ‘Ethiopian’ movement among black Christians in South Africa.”24
In the 1890s this back-to-Africa campaign was revived by Henry McNeal Turner, a prominent African Methodist Episcopal church bishop, and Henry Sylvester Williams, the Trinidadian architect of the first Pan-African Conference, who may have been inspired by Theodor Herzl’s speeches to workingmen in London.25 In 1902 Theodor Herzl, the “father” of Zionism, envisioned in his utopian novel Altneuland a double stream of migrations that would restore Negroes to Africa as well as Jews to Palestine. Herzl maintained that only a Jew could fully comprehend what it meant for blacks to grow up “in alien surroundings despised and hated because their skin is differently pigmented.” For their part, some prominent blacks, though highly ambivalent about Jews in general, were horrified by the Russian pogroms of the 1880s. “My heart goes out,” Booker T. Washington wrote, “to our Hebrew fellow-sufferers across the sea.”26 Black editors and writers publicized the persecution of Jews in Russia and began to draw parallels between black nationalism and Zionism. Whatever elements of self-interest lay in these acts of identification, both Jews and blacks were searching for pride, dignity, and self-respect at a time of increasing persecution, debasement, and caricature.
Black emigrationists repeatedly drew parallels with what the black leader Edward Blyden hailed as “that marvellous movement called Zionism.” Blyden, who had learned Arabic and had visited what he called “Jerusalem and Mount Zion, the joy of the whole earth,” wrote in 1898, in The Jewish Question, that the entire civilized world recognized the claims and the right of the Jews to the Holy Land. “There are few,” he wrote, “who, if the conditions were favourable, would not be glad to see them return in a body and take their place in the land of their fathers as a great—a leading—secular power.”27
Two decades later Marcus Garvey and his followers found somewhat similar inspiration in both the biblical and Zionist sense of mission, though by Garvey’s time anti-Semitism had become more rampant and relations between Jews and blacks were becoming more strained and complex. Garvey, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr.,
was the first man of color in the history of the United States to lead and develop a mass movement. He was the first man on a mass scale and level to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny and make the Negro feel he was somebody.28
And in a speech of 1921 Garvey informed his listeners that for centuries Jews had been a despised race in Europe, “buffeted worse than the Southern Negro today.” Even in the US “it was a disgrace to be a Jew.”
What did the Jews do? Garvey asked. They were too few in number to carry out any physical conquest. Therefore, they had devised a master plan for the financial conquest of the world. Jewish financiers had brought on the First World War, presumably as a profit-making venture, and had then abruptly stopped the war when they were promised the possession of Palestine. “The Jew has gone back to Palestine,” Garvey concluded, and the Jew it is that has the world in the palm of his hand.” While much of this sounded like Henry Ford and other contemporary anti-Semites, Garvey conveyed no sense of outrage. On the contrary, he was exhorting his followers to learn from the Jewish example. Since Jews in Palestine had already enhanced the prestige and opportunities of Jews in England and America, he said, one could be assured that self-governing blacks in Africa would help to liberate blacks in the entire Diaspora.29
The “Zionist” model of black liberation proved to be a disastrous failure. Since Liberia was founded in 1822 very few blacks have chosen to emigrate from the US; like the present world’s largest population of Jews, they have viewed the US, or at least “the American dream,” as the closest approximation to a promised land. Moreover, even apart from Garvey’s financial collapse and imprisonment, Garveyism easily fostered a kind of anti-Semitism mixed with envy and admiration, as in Malcolm X’s statement in a 1963 Playboy magazine interview:
The Jew never went sitting-in and crawling-in and sliding-in and freedom-riding, like he teaches and helps Negroes to do. The Jew stood up and stood together, and they used their ultimate power, the economic weapon. That’s exactly what the Honorable Elijah Muhammad is trying to teach black men to do. The Jews pooled their money and bought the hotels that barred them.30
As with Zionism, various forms of black nationalism helped to overcome racist stereotypes of weakness and animality, conveying instead a sense of dignity and power. Yet despite the early hints of common interest, voiced by such figures as Herzl, Blyden, and Garvey, divisions between blacks and Jews were deepened in the late 1960s by Israel’s relations with white South Africa, by sympathy among African- Americans with Arabs and Palestinians, and by the Six-Day War of 1967, which evoked a sharp attack on Israel from SNCC. The B’nai B’rith’s Anti-Defamation League labeled SNCC as racist and anti-Semitic, while many black leaders, for their part, supported the UN’s equation of Zionism with racism.
Fortunately, the third and major model of Jewish liberation had been the struggle against legal discrimination and disabilities, and the attempt to erode prejudice, coupled with the use of education to encourage upward mobility. Of course, traditional Christian thought had sharply separated the “Chosen People” of the Old Testament from their grasping, “stiff-necked” descendants. Nevertheless, in the second half of the nineteenth century African-American leaders increasingly cited the contemporary Jews of Western Europe to prove that the effects of racial prejudice, especially what Frederick Douglass termed a “consciousness of inferiority,” could be overcome.
In a speech celebrating Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass pointed out:
At one time to hate and despise a Jew, simply for being a Jew, was almost a Christian virtue. The Jews were treated with every species of indignity, and not allowed to learn trades, nor to live in the same part of the city with other people. Now kings cannot go to war without the consent of a Jew. The Jew has come up, and the negro will come up by and by.
As Waldo E. Martin Jr. explains, in The Mind of Frederick Douglass:
The lessons of the historical saga of the Jews—he [Douglass] and many others, white and black, agreed—were worthy of emulation. In spite of racial and religious proscription, Jews strove for knowledge, achievement, and socioeconomic mobility. They also prized and fought for human rights, dignity, and their identity as a people.31
In 1899 Booker T. Washington took up the same theme: “There is, perhaps, no race that has suffered so much…. But these people have clung together. They have had a certain amount of unity, pride, and love of race…. Unless the Negro learns more and more to imitate the Jew in these matters, to have faith in himself, he cannot expect to have any high degree of success.”32 Four years earlier a black lawyer in Cleveland had enlarged on the point:
We feel and think our lot in this so-called “white man’s country,” is a hard one; and in very truth it is…but when we scan the blood-stained recitals of what the Jews have passed through since the destruction of Jerusalem…, and then note how conspicuous they are in all civilized communities for their real attainments along the lines of science, art, literature and finance, we may well cheer up and persevere along the same lines until victory crowns our efforts.33
James Weldon Johnson similarly called on his fellow blacks to emulate Jews in measuring up “brain for brain” with white America.
Unfortunately, this kind of rhetoric was bound to backfire, especially as the disparities in education, wealth, and power between the two groups continued to widen. By the late 1980s the per capita income of American Jews, who made up less than 3 percent of America’s population, was almost double that of all non-Jews; and Forbes magazine reported that Jews made up 40 percent of the richest Americans. According to Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab,
During the last three decades Jews have made up 50 percent of the top two hundred intellectuals, 40 percent of American Nobel Prize winners in science and economics, 20 percent of professors at the leading universities…, 40 percent of partners in the leading law firms in New York and Washington, 26 percent of the reporters, editors, and executives of the major print and broadcast media, 59 percent of the directors, writers, and producers of the fifty top-grossing motion pictures from 1965 to 1982, and 58 percent of directors, writers, and producers in two or more primetime television series.34
Moreover, at a time when more young black men were in jail or prison than in college, nearly 90 percent of college-age Jews were attending college, and a disproportionate number of them winning Phi Beta Kappa keys and other honors at the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities.
These Jewish achievements mostly took place after World War II. That Jews often had to overcome prejudice in order to succeed became significant for African-Americans only when more blacks themselves began to attend the same colleges and enter the professions and the business world. In the mid-1920s, in view of the virtual absence of blacks in America’s best colleges, one could hardly expect African-Americans to be horrified by the news that Yale restricted the admission of Jewish students to 13 percent, when Jews made up 5.5 percent of Connecticut’s population. Because Jews long struggled against such quotas and considered it normal for the number of Jewish students to rise to one quarter or one third of the student body in some of the nation’s best universities, law schools, and medical schools, they were often fearful of affirmative action programs that might substitute ethnic quotas for supposedly objective standards of merit. As the historian Jerome Chanes put it, “For Jews, quotas were a way of keeping people out; for African Americans, quotas were a way of letting people in.”35
For Jews, eighty years or so of upward mobility have come close to eliminating all but a few pockets of genuine Jewish poverty. Few Jews, one suspects, tried to imagine during those years what it must be like for African-Americans to face a group of whites who, while claiming a large debt of gratitude for past aid, achieved great material and professional success and could also point to the greatest victimization in history as part of their past. What were African-Americans to make of people who, although they would sometimes admit they were by no means free of racism, kept extending an imploring hand and asking, “What went wrong?”
Thus today it is a shock to read in books like Struggles in the Promised Land the often quoted words of Louis Marshall, the great Jewish jurist and strong supporter of African-American causes, spoken before the 1926 annual convention of the NAACP: “We were subjected to indignities in comparison with which to sit in a Jim Crow car is to occupy a palace.” It happens that Marshall, often quoted out of context, was referring to the wholesale massacres and expulsions of Jews in late medieval and early modern Europe.36 Yet the insensitivity of such comparative victimization remains, especially when one thinks of the thousands of Jim Crow lynchings and the failure of the federal government to stop them. Marshall’s remark was not far in spirit from an all-too-common view privately expressed by some Jews and other descendants of recent immigrants: “Our people arrived penniless, and they made it. Why can’t the Negroes be more like us? Our people aren’t living in drug- and crime-infested ghettos.”
In fact, we do not have to minimize the obstacles and prejudices that Jews overcame in America to observe that there was nothing in American Jewish history remotely comparable to the social, economic, and psychological effects of centuries of African-American slavery and racial persecution, including the period from the 1870s to the 1960s. Competition over which group suffered most can only encourage Jewish racism and black anti-Semitism; but knowledge of the larger historical picture, including millenniums of violent anti-Semitism and the lethal, destructive legacy of racial slavery and the Atlantic slave system, could serve as a basis for mutual understanding in dealing with the stark realities of human evil.
For the first third of the twentieth century such shared knowledge was promoted by the Yiddish press, which, unlike the publications of other immigrant groups, was filled with accounts of lynchings and racial injustice, together with informative essays on the achievements of African-Americans and their struggles for racial equality. Well-to-do and powerful German Jews contributed millions of dollars to such organizations as the National Urban League, the NAACP, the Tuskegee Institute, and other black schools and colleges, while Jewish-led unions like the ILGWU were the first to admit black workers and fight for racial equality. It is also true that for many blacks, Jewish landlords and merchants became the symbol of exploitation in a market-driven society—in part because Jews were often the only whites who would lend money to blacks, locate their shops in black districts, and cater to black tastes.
In 1999 one can cautiously conclude that the third model of liberation, that of upward mobility and assimilation, as envisioned by Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and James Weldon Johnson, has begun to work. If the black- Jewish “alliance” has mostly crumbled, there has been a spectacular increase in the size of the black middle class, in levels of black employment, in the skills and preparation of black students at the best colleges, and in the numbers of top-level black administrators and law firm partners (often promoted by Jewish employers).37 For decades the nation has admired black actors, athletes, models, and other black celebrities of various kinds. Clearly such admiration has its limits; but no Jew has come close to matching Colin Powell as a leader with a plausible chance of being elected president. And as African-Americans have begun to acquire a prouder sense of their own history and cultural continuity, they increasingly face a dilemma that has long plagued Jews—assimilation.
It is true that intermarriage with whites has not begun to rise to the 52 percent rate of Jewish intermarriage with gentiles; and the choices of blacks are circumscribed by the rigid American definition of “race.” But many African-Americans are still troubled by the thought of dilution of their identity and by increasing divisions among them according to shades of skin color. Furthermore, as upwardly mobile blacks follow Jews and other whites to the suburbs, their behavior may reinforce the conviction of many inner-city youth that education and success come from “acting white.” The problems raised by upward mobility and assimilation—and the question of the social responsibilities of those who are more successful than others—could provide new ground for dialogue between Jews and blacks.
Finally, Jewish history provides another note of caution. Countless times, in various kinds of societies from Moorish Spain to Weimar Germany, Jews have “succeeded” and won “acceptance,” only to encounter a sudden pogrom or outburst of ancient anti-Semitic canards. Like Jews (to say nothing of Kosovars, Serbs, or Tutsis), African-Americans might seem more accepted and then, sometime in the future, face a revival of the kind of antiblack racism that had supposedly disappeared. When we look at other parts of the post-cold war world, we see how often nationalism is based on a hatred and mistrust of others.38 We have no reason for complacency about having conquered such feelings here.
December 2, 1999
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. ↩
Negro Universities Press, 1970. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
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.” ↩
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. ↩
Greenberg, “Negotiating Coalition: Black and Jewish Civil Rights Agencies in the Twentieth Century,” in Struggles in the Promised Land, p. 163. ↩
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). ↩
Jordan, “Medieval Background,” in Struggles in the Promised Land, p. 53. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
In America, Africa, and Israel there are, of course, an increasing number of black Jews. This is not the place to discuss the definition and variety of black Jews; the black Jews I have known, students and academics, have been unquestioning Americans. ↩
For a new English translation of Grégoire’s extraordinary attack in 1808 on arguments for racial inferiority, see Henri Grégoire, On the Cultural Achievements of Negroes, translated with notes and an introduction by Thomas Cassirer and Jean-François Brière (University of Massachusetts Press, 1996). ↩
Absalom Jones, Thanksgiving Sermon, Preached January 1, 1808, in St. Thomas’s, or the African Episcopal Church, Philadelphia: On Account of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade, on that Day, by the Congress of the United States (Philadelphia, 1808), pp. 5, 10-11, 13, 19-20. ↩
Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (Basic Books, 1985), p. 3. ↩
For biblical themes in slaves’ spirituals, see Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 11-80. ↩
Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 311-312. ↩
One should note the importance of a different version of history dis-seminated as early as the 1820s by Freedom’s Journal, America’s first black newspaper, and David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World. According to this view, the Pharaoh and Egyptians had been the black ancestors of African-Americans and the Jews had benefited from a mild form of servitude in no way comparable with slavery in the New World. See Peter P. Hinks, To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997), pp. 186-201. While this argument has persisted to the present, it would appear that most Christian slaves identified with Moses and the Israelites even if they were taught that Jews were later “Christ killers.” ↩
Of course Jews in the Diaspora had always prayed for the messianic time when they or their descendants would return to Jerusalem. ↩
Daniel Coker, Journal of Daniel Coker (Baltimore, 1820), pp. 15-17, 27, 31; Tom W. Shick, Behold the Promised Land: A History of the Afro-American Settler Society in Nineteenth-Century Liberia (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), p. 22. ↩
George M. Fredrickson, Black Liberation: A Comparative History of Black Ideologies in the United States and South Africa (Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 61. ↩
Robert A. Hill, “Black Zionism: Marcus Garvey and the Jewish Question,” in African Americans and Jews in the Twentieth Century, p. 45. ↩
Louis R. Harlan, “Booker T. Washington’s Discovery of Jews,” in Religion, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward, edited by J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson (Oxford University Press, 1982), page 270. ↩
Hollis R. Lynch, Edward Wilmot Blyden: Pan-Negro Patriot, 1832-1912 (Oxford University Press, 1967), pp. 64-65. Some powerful African-Americans gave strong support to the founding of Israel. In 1947 Walter White won much applause from Jews by persuading Haiti and Liberia to vote in the UN for the partition of Palestine. ↩
David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Morrow, 1986), p. 428. ↩
The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, edited by Robert A. Hill (University of California Press, 1983-1984), Vol. 2, pp. 245, 317, 466; Vol. 3, pp. 215-216; Vol. 5, pp. 127-128. Though Garvey cursed “the Jews” (and then a Jewish judge) when a jury found him guilty of mail fraud, he had earlier posed as a black Moses and had repeatedly stressed that “we have been as much enslaved mentally, spiritually and physically as any other race and a fair comparison is the race that Moses led out of Egyptian bondage.” ↩
Quoted in Weisbord and Stein, Bittersweet Encounter, p. 97. While in the 1870s Jews launched a collective boycott of the A.T. Stewart department store, which owned a luxurious hotel that began barring Jews, beginning with the eminent and wealthy Joseph Seligman, Malcolm X’s mythology of Jewish power concealed the fact that for nearly a century Jews were systematically excluded from gentile hotels, resorts, and country clubs, to say nothing of law firms, medical schools, and corporate administrative positions; indeed, in the 1890s Southern whites sacked and burned many Jewish stores and farmhouses. ↩
University of North Carolina Press, 1984, p. 123. One should note that Douglass and other black abolitionists were part of a movement that included such Jewish abolitionists as August Bondi, Jacob Benjamin, Michael Heilprin, David Einhorn, Moritz Pinner, and Ernestine Rose. Bondi and Benjamin fought in John Brown’s guerrilla band in Kansas; Einhorn and Heilprin played an important role in refuting the biblical justifications for Negro slavery put forth by Orthodox rabbis and conservative Christian ministers and theologians. ↩
Harlan, “Booker T. Washington’s Discovery of Jews,” p. 270. ↩
Harlan, “Booker T. Washington’s Discovery of Jews,” p. 277, note 10. ↩
Jews and the New American Scene (Harvard University Press, 1995), pp. 26-27. ↩
See Jack Salzman, “Introduction,” in Struggles in the Promised Land, p. 14. ↩
Nancy J. Weiss gives the short version of the quotation in her essay in Struggles in the Promised Land. Hasia Diner provides the full quotation in context. To be fair to Marshall, one should note that in his lectures to Jewish immigrants in 1907, he exhorted the East Side Educational Alliance to avoid the racism of Jim Crow. ↩
“Inside Outsiders: As Blacks Rise High in the Executive Suite, CEO Is Often Jewish,” The Wall Street Journal, April 22, 1998. ↩
While nations like Ivory Coast in Africa are the products of arbitrary agreements among European colonial powers, The New York Times of August 8, 1999, carried a distressing story about the rising xenophobia of “pure Ivoirian Pride,” which has driven many fishermen of Malian ancestry back to the deserts of Mali. ↩