Struggles in the Promised Land: Toward a History of Black-Jewish Relations in the United States
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.