Jews and African Americans: Siblings in Oppression?
Explore and interrogate the identification between Jews and African-Americans against the backdrop of the Passover seder.
- Identification between Jews and African Americans can be a source of strength and a source of tension for both communities.
- What is the significance of including the African American spiritual "Let My People Go" in a Passover seder?
- In what ways do Jews and African Americans identify with each other, and what are the limitations of this identification?
- Computer with speakers and internet access to play YouTube audio clip of Paul Robeson singing "Let My People Go"
- Lyrics to "Let My People Go"
- Document Study: Siblings in Oppression?Siblings in Oppression?Siblings in Oppression?Siblings in Oppression?Siblings in Oppression?Siblings in Oppression?Siblings in Oppression?Siblings in Oppression?
- Optional: Projector (in addition to computer, speakers, and internet connection) to show YouTube video of 1969 Freedom Seder
- Optional: Copies of different haggadot
Since this lesson examines Jewish/African American relations through the lens of the Passover Seder, you may want to schedule this lesson prior to or just after Passover. The final activity of this lesson has been designed with such timing in mind.
The inclusion of the song "Let My People Go" in this lesson provides a perfect opportunity to expand this lesson with the help of your school's/camp's music teacher/cantor/song leader. (If you would like to teach another lesson related to music, see JWA's Go & Learn lesson on Freedom Songs.)
Tensions in Black-Jewish Relations
Judith Rosenbaum, Jewish Women's Archive
Introductory Essay for Living the Legacy Unit 3, Lessons 1-3
Siblings in Oppression?
There is a long history of black-Jewish partnership in the American Civil Rights Movement, and just as long a history of tension and misunderstandings. From the beginnings of organized civil rights activism in the early 20th century, Jews were prominent leaders, participants, and financial backers of the Movement, counting among the founders and lead supporters of organizations such as the NAACP and the National Urban League. On the judicial path toward the advancement of civil rights, Jews played important roles as lawyers and judges.
American Jews have often felt a kinship with African Americans, based on shared minority status and the cultural memory of slavery (albeit a much more immediate history for African Americans). In the mid-20th century, certain conditions contributed to this sense of identification. The recent history of the Holocaust made many American Jews more attuned to discrimination and racism and more committed to opposing it. In addition, the widespread postwar financial success of American Jews bolstered their confidence that the American ideals of equality and meritocracy from which they had benefited could also work for African Americans, not realizing that anti-black racism made the African American experience significantly different from the Jewish case. For their part, some African Americans, who drew strength from biblical stories of slavery and God's redemption and witnessed Jews' active commitment to civil rights, also saw Jews as partners in their struggle.
At the same time, latent tensions always existed between the two communities. Some blacks, viewing the inequality and asymmetry between the experiences of the two groups, resented Jewish feelings of moral proprietorship in the civil rights struggle. The geographic closeness of the two groups, who often shared neighborhoods (frequently as a result of the exclusion of black and Jews from other areas) could lead to tension as well. African Americans' main contact with Jews was often in the form of landlords or shop owners, and some resented Jews for making a profit off their community. When many Jews, participating in "white flight," left inner-city neighborhoods for the suburbs and better educational opportunities for their children, their African American neighbors often felt abandoned, blamed for urban problems, and resentful that they did not have the same opportunities to move elsewhere.
These tensions sometimes took explicit shape in public anti-Semitic statements among African Americans and anti-black statements among Jews. Jews often felt particularly betrayed by African American anti-Semitism, arguing that blacks should be more generous given Jewish support of civil rights and that African American leaders should more quickly and roundly condemn expressions of anti-Semitism in their community when such statements were made.
The Civil Rights Movement and Black Power
The latent tensions became more prominent within the Civil Rights Movement as it moved north and into the cities in the mid-1960s. In the South, Jews – despite having white privilege – clearly did not have the same power as other whites. In the North, Jews did not seem as different from other whites, and were often the ones who wielded the most power in black neighborhoods. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (known as the Kerner Commission), which investigated the causes of the 1967 race riots, found that Jews owned about 30% of the stores in black neighborhoods like Harlem and Watts and that many of the largest stores were owned by Jews and/or had Jewish-sounding names. (See Jonathan Kaufman, Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times between Blacks and Jews in America. New York: Penguin Books, 1988., p. 137).
The mid-1960s also brought a shift within the Civil Rights Movement from a focus on integration and alliance-building to one of separatism. In 1966, SNCC and other radical civil rights groups made Black Power the new basis of their activism, calling for racial pride among African Americans and black self-determination within the Civil Rights Movement. Proponents of Black Power pointed out that blacks could not achieve true freedom unless they led the movement themselves; otherwise, whites retained a degree of power and authority over them. They emphasized the need for black self-sufficiency, as well as black cultural pride (e.g. "Black is Beautiful"), and encouraged white activists to work on their own issues, in some cases expelling white leaders from their organizations.
These ideas were not entirely new; Malcolm X – influenced by his conversion to the Nation of Islam, a black separatist religious sect – had advocated a platform of separatism in the early 1960s. By the late 1960s, however, Black Power had fundamentally changed the structures and assumptions of the Civil Rights Movement and had inspired new organizations, such as the Black Panther Party, as well as a new wave of "Afro-centrism" in African American culture (as demonstrated by the use of African names, African clothing styles, "Afro" hair styles, etc.).
The Six Day War provided another spur to black-Jewish tension. After Israel's surprising military triumph in June 1967, many American Jews experienced a surge of pride in Israel, an underdog nation that had succeeded in becoming a power to be reckoned with, and felt a new or renewed commitment to Zionism. Some African Americans also saw the Jewish state as a model for a historically oppressed people empowering themselves. At the same time, many civil rights activists began to develop a more critical approach to Israel, identifying with the Palestinians as an oppressed group seeking self-determination, and castigating Zionism as a colonial, racist movement. These tensions around Zionism came to a public head in 1977, when Andrew Young, a civil rights activist and the first African American Ambassador to the United Nations, met secretly with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization. This meeting sparked an uproar, in which Jews were prominent among those who loudly condemned Young, and which resulted in President Carter asking Young to resign, which he did. Many felt that Jews had forced his resignation.
Another symbolic rupture in black-Jewish relations was the controversy around the decentralization of Brooklyn's Ocean Hill-Brownsville schools in 1968. The city of New York had proposed decentralizing the school system by breaking it into neighborhood districts to be run by community boards. This would give parents a stake in their children's schools and make the schools more accountable to them. Ocean Hill-Brownsville – a majority African American community – was one of the three districts chosen to test decentralization. Parents, with the support of white teachers led by Sandra Feldman, a Jewish member of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) union, had already been organizing in Ocean Hill-Brownsville and supported the decentralization plan (which they referred to as "community control," emphasizing that from their perspective, this was an experiment in self-determination, not just a change in bureaucratic models).
The tensions around decentralization focused primarily on the question of whether the community board had the power to hire and fire teachers without regard to the teachers' union's system of due process. Though the issue was about district decentralization and administrative protocol, the situation came to be understood as one that pitted African American interests against Jewish interests. This was in part because parents in Ocean Hill-Brownsville were concerned by the fact that the teachers were overwhelmingly white (and Jewish) and the students overwhelmingly black and Puerto Rican. In 1967, approximately two-thirds of New York teachers, supervisors, and principals were Jewish (See Kaufman, p. 137). The community board wanted more non-white role models for the students. In May 1968, after months of tension between teachers and parents, the community board fired 19 teachers and administrators whom they perceived as most hostile to the decentralization experiment. The teachers' union, UFT, voted to go on strike until they were reinstated.
In September, the debate over decentralization erupted into further acrimony when Albert Shanker, the head of the UFT, distributed copies of an anti-Semitic leaflet that had been put into the mailboxes of teachers at the junior high school in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. The focus of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville controversy now became black anti-Semitism. The community board accused Shanker of deliberately fanning fears of anti-Semitism and defended itself against these accusations, pointing out that more than 50% of the teachers they had hired to replace the striking teachers were Jewish.
In November, after two months of strikes, the Board of Education suspended the community board, ending the experiment in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. But the debates over the role of anti-Semitism in the community continued, further enflamed by the reading of an anti-Semitic poem written by a student in Ocean Hill-Brownsville and dedicated to Albert Shanker on the radio show of Julius Lester, a black writer with a weekly show on WBAI. (Lester later converted to Judaism and became a professor of Jewish Studies.)
Another educational issue that divided some blacks and Jews in the 1970s and beyond was affirmative action. Many Jews were wary of affirmative action programs for several reasons: having benefited from meritocracy, they believed strongly in individual merit as the basis of equality of opportunity; they had negative associations with any program that smacked of quotas, which historically had been used to exclude Jews from schools, clubs, and workplaces; and they perceived that Jews would not benefit from policies that gave preferential treatment to African Americans over whites. The case of Marco De Funis, a white Jewish man, highlighted the Jewish perspective on this issue. In 1971, De Funis was denied admission to the University of Washington Law School. He brought a suit against the school claiming that he had been the target of discrimination because other students with admission scores below the cutoff (as his were) had been admitted while he had not. The original trial found in De Funis' favor, but the Supreme Court of Washington reversed the decision. Because De Funis was Jewish and affirmative action already a heated issue in the Jewish community, the case attracted a great deal of attention from Jewish organizations and the Jewish press, with a range of viewpoints expressed both in favor and in opposition to affirmative action policies. In 1974, the case came before the Supreme Court and organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League submitted briefs supporting the original decision. (The US Supreme Court ultimately decided that the case was moot because De Funis, who had been provisionally accepted to the school while the case was pending, was about to graduate.)
Over the years, other incidents, such as Jesse Jackson's off-the-record reference to New York as "Hymietown" (using "Hymie" as a derogatory term to refer to Jews) during his 1984 presidential campaign, and the riots between blacks and Jews in the heavily Hasidic and West Indian Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1991, have flared tensions between the two communities, provoked in Jews a mixture of anger and nostalgia about a perceived "golden age" of black-Jewish relations, and made the subject of black-Jewish relations one of public concern, addressed in mainstream media. Of course, some argue that there never was a real alliance, just a checkered history of connections and collaborations. But for some blacks and Jews, this history of cooperation led to higher expectations regarding their relationships with one another than with other whites, and when those expectations were not met, the disappointments on both sides were even sharper.
Introduction: "Let My People Go"
- Distribute the lyrics for "Let My People Go" to your students. Then play the Youtube clip of Paul Robeson singing the song (just listening to the audio). Your students can follow along as they listen to the song. Note: the version in this lesson plan includes only two verses. You can find other versions online and in Haggadot, which include additional verses. Some versions used in churches include a line "And let us all in Christ be free."
- After your class has listened to "Let My People Go," you may want to sing it as a group. Then discuss the song using some or all of the following questions:
- How many of you are familiar with this song?
- While many of us associate this song with Passover, the song "Let My People Go" (or "Go Down Moses") actually originated as an African American spiritual, sung by black slaves as they worked in the fields. Some historians believe that songs like "Let My People Go" operated on a political level as well a spiritual level, using the story of slavery in Egypt as a way to reflect on their own slavery. Ask students: Describe how you think the words might have been understood by the slaves who originated the song, and why the story of the Israelite slaves in particular might have spoken to them.
- Explain: For many Jews at this time Egyptian bondage became a symbol of the history of persecution that Jews and African American shared. This identification was part of the foundation of Jewish participation in the Civil Rights Movement. In today's lesson, we're going to use "Let My People Go" to stand in for this shared cultural reference for Jews and African Americans. (If this is the first time you are discussing the history of Jews and the Civil Rights Movement with your class, you may want to go deeper into the relationship between Jewish social justice activism and Jewish history of oppression. See Unit 1 Lesson 2.)
- Does knowing the origins of this song change the way you think about what it means to sing it at a Passover seder? How does the song's history as a church spiritual impact your understanding of its role at the seder?
- "Let My People Go" was sung at the 1969 Freedom Seder, and in the years since then, it has become a popular addition to many seders and Haggadot. If time allows, play the portion of the 1969 Freedom Seder video that shows "Let My People Go" being sung. Ask students: How was hearing "Let My People Go" sung at this Freedom Seder similar and different to hearing Paul Robeson, yourselves, and/or your own families/friends sing the song?
- What do you think it has meant to Jews to add this song to their seders? How do you think African Americans might have felt about this use of the song in a Jewish context?
- What might be the benefits to Jews and/or African Americans of making this connection between their histories of oppression? What might be the limitations to this connection? What might cause tension or resentment?
- Think back to the seders you've attended: What other themes, readings, foods, can you think of that have been added to seders today? What purpose do these changes serve? How are they similar to or different from the addition of "Let My People Go"?
- Divide your class into groups of 3-4 students and distribute a copy of Document Study: Siblings in Oppression?Document Study: Siblings in Oppression?Document Study: Siblings in Oppression?Document Study: Siblings in Oppression?Document Study: Siblings in Oppression?Document Study: Siblings in Oppression?Document Study: Siblings in Oppression?Document Study: Siblings in Oppression? to each student.
- Give your students time to read each of the two documents out loud in their groups and discuss the related questions.
- Each group should then go over the analysis questions found on the last page of the Document Study and be prepared to share their responses with the class.
- Bring your class back together. Have the groups share their ideas and thoughts in response to the analysis questions. (Be sure to print out an extra copy of these questions for yourself, so you can read them aloud.) Refer back to the documents as needed to help your class with the analysis.
Wrap-Up: Additions to your own seder
- Depending on time and your setting, this activity could also be assigned as homework.
- Using what they've learned in class about Jewish/African American identification and its limitations, have your students create something that could be incorporated into their own seder. You may offer your students a choice of the following assignments, or you may choose for them:
- An introduction or commentary to "Let My People Go" that could be included in the seder when the song is sung.
- New verses for "Let My People Go" that reflect the history of Jewish/African American identification.
- A reading for one or two people that reflects the history of Jewish/African American identification.
- A poem that reflects the history of Jewish/African American identification.
- A new version of the four questions that reflects the history of Jewish/African American identification.
- A new version of the four children that reflects the history of Jewish/African American identification.
- You may want to provide your students with samples of different haggadot so that they can get some ideas for their written assignment.
- If you are teaching this lesson prior to Passover, assignments can be taken home and incorporated into your students' seders.
If you are teaching this lesson after Passover, assignments can be incorporated into a bulletin board or booklet for students to share with their families.
You may use some readings from the 1969 Passover Seder and some readings written by your students to develop a model seder for a different class or grade.
For further exploration of Jewish identification with African Americans, consider reading to the class the excerpt below from The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South by Eli Evans. (This may fit best prior to doing the Document Study.) Evans grew up in Durham, North Carolina, and in his chapter "The Maids and Black Jesus," Evans reflects on going to black rural churches in the South when he was a teenager. He describes not being bothered by the hymns and spirituals of black churches because they often told stories from the Old Testament, and also describes feeling a connection to African Americans because of his sense of their shared persecution.
"…[I would] listen to an old black preacher sing his sermon—about Moses leading the children of Israel out of slavery, of Joshua and the battle of Jericho, or of Daniel in the lion's den. Negroes…made [the stories in the Old Testament] come alive…To me, Negroes and Jews were joined in a union of persecution and hate; we were both children of history, both celebrating a people in slavery and a yearning for deliverance…
Negroes believed in my hero Moses with more passion than I did, and that drew me to them."*
*Eli N. Evans, The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. Reprinted University of North Carolina Press, 2005), p. 261.
Vocabulary term: African American Spirituals
African American Spirituals
These songs were sung by African American slaves in church and/or while working in the fields. The songs are religious in nature, but some scholars believe that they also had subtle political messages that were understood by the slaves but overlooked by their masters.
Vocabulary term: 1969 Freedom Seder
1969 Freedom Seder
A seder that took place in 1969 on the one year anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination. It was written by Arthur Waskow and attended by African Americans and whites, Jews and Christians. Some have said this was the first Freedom Seder, but there were some seders on the theme of freedom and civil rights held earlier in the century as well. In each case, the purpose of these seders was to politicize the seder experience, making it more relevant, and to cement the bond between Jews and other oppressed peoples. Today, Freedom Seders linking the themes of Passover to various liberation movements are held in many communities.
Vocabulary term: Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson (1898-1976), the celebrated concert singer, path-breaking actor, and dedicated social justice activist, made famous the African American spiritual “Let My People Go.” Throughout the 1920s, Robeson found success as a singer and film and stage actor. He refused to be cast in the stereotypical and often offensive minor parts many other African American actors at the time found themselves playing, and his success paved the way for other black actors. Robeson was also an outspoken advocate for oppressed groups, including Jews in Europe and anti-fascists in Spain. During the Cold War, the House Un-American Activities Committee named him a communist, which blacklisted him in Hollywood and effectively ended his acting and musical career. Though Robeson denied that he was ever a member of the Community Party, he refused to sign an oath disavowing the political movement.
Let My People Go (Go Down Moses)
When Israel was in Egypt land
Let my people go!
Oppressed so hard they could not stand.
Let my people go!
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land.
Tell ol' Pharaoh to let my people go!
"Thus saith the Lord," bold Moses said
Let my people go!
"If not I'll smite your first born dead."
Let my people go!
Siblings in Oppression?
In your groups, read the two documents and go through the discussion questions that immediately follow each document. The whole class will come back together to go over the analysis questions at the end of this Document Study.
Introduction to 1969 Freedom Seder Exerpt
During Passover 1969, Jews and African Americans came together on the first anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination to remember him and strengthen the bonds between the two peoples. A Seder with new readings that connected the Jewish exodus from Egypt with the struggle for Civil Rights seemed the perfect way to commemorate and celebrate. The text below includes selected short excerpts from that seder. A longer text can be found on the Shalom Center website. A video of certain portions of the 1969 Freedom Seder can be found on YouTube here.
Note: by 1969, some activists in the Civil Rights Movement had moved away from the approach of non-violent civil disobedience that had been central to earlier phases of the Movement. The Black Power movement, in particular called for a more militant approach to gaining civil rights. It may be useful to read the text below with that historical context in mind.
1969 Freedom Seder Exerpt on violence in the struggle for freedom
The tradition says that we spill wine from our cups in recounting the plagues because it is incumbent on us to reduce our pleasure as we remember the sufferings of the Egyptians. And the tradition also tells us that when the angels rejoiced in the drowning of the Egyptians, the Lord our God, blessed be he, rebuked them saying, “Are these not my people also, and the work of my hands?” Let us therefore grieve for the sufferings of our brothers the Egyptians.
But let us also remember the lesson of the plagues: the winning of freedom has not always been bloodless in the past. Through the generations, our prophets, our rabbis, and our shoftim [judges] -- men like Micah who spoke the word of God directly to the kings and the people, men like Hillel who worked out the law of justice in daily life, and revolutionary leaders or “judges” like Gideon -- have faced the issue of violence in the struggle for freedom…
It was not bloodless when the people of America announced, “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it,” and when the shofet Jefferson, that revolutionary judge and leader, added, “Can history produce an instance of rebellion so honorably conducted? God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”…
It was not bloodless…when the judge Lincoln said, “If every drop of blood drawn by the lash must be paid by one drawn by the sword, still must it be said. The judgments of our Lord are true and righteous altogether.”…
It was not bloodless in the dark months of 1942 when Emmanuel Ringelblum wrote from the Warsaw ghetto: “Most of the populace is set on resistance. It seems to me that people will no longer go to the slaughter like lambs. They want the enemy to pay dearly for their lives. They’ll fling themselves at them with knives, staves, coal gas. They’ll permit no more blockades. They’ll not allow themselves to be seized in the street, for they know that work camp means death these days. And they want to die at home, not in a strange place…
“Whomever you talk to, you hear the same cry: The resettlement should never have been permitted. We should have run out into the street, have set fire to everything in sight, have torn down the walls, and escaped to the Other Side. The Germans would have taken their revenge.
“It would have cost tens of thousands of lives, but not 300,000. Now we are ashamed of ourselves, disgraced in our own eyes, and in the eyes of the world, where our docility earned us nothing. This must not be repeated now. We must put up a resistance, defend ourselves against the enemy, man and child.”…
No, the moments of resistance have not been bloodless. The blood of tyrants and the blood of freemen has watered history. But we may not rest easy in that knowledge. The freedom we seek is a freedom from blood as well as a freedom from tyrants. It is incumbent upon us not only to remember in tears the blood of the tyrants and the blood of the prophets and martyrs, but to end the letting of blood. To end it, to end it!
- Review: What are the origins of the document? When was it written?
- What audience was this document written for? How might this have influenced its content and/or format?
- By 1969 some civil rights activists felt that resorting to violence when necessary was essential to the cause. The Freedom Seder included a quote by Thomas Jefferson: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants." Do you agree with Jefferson? Why or why not? What does this reference suggest about the purpose and authority of the Civil Rights Movement? What do you see as the significance of reading this quote during a Passover seder?
- In the second paragraph there is a list of types of Jewish leaders who had to deal with violence in fighting for freedom. Why do you think the author describes these different roles?
- Do you see this text as condoning violence or arguing against its use? Point to specific lines in the text to back up your argument.
- Leaving aside the powerful references to violence in this text, let’s look at the types of leaders and events that are mentioned. Who are the people quoted in this document? What language is used to describe them? Would you describe them in these terms? Why or why not? What might these figures mean to Jews? What might they mean to African Americans?
- After recounting stories of rebellion that took place in America, the author moves to Europe and a story about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. What do you think was the purpose of including this story? (Consider both the story itself and also the reference to the Holocaust.)
- What impression do you get about the relationship between the oppression of Jews and African Americans, based on the excerpts of the 1969 Freedom Seder?
Introduction to "Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They're Anti-White"
In 1967, James Baldwin, a novelist, poet, and civil rights activist, wrote an article trying to explain why after all that Jews had done for the Civil Rights Movement some African Americans could be anti-Semitic. The document below is an excerpt from Baldwin's article.
Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They're Anti-White Excerpt on Jewish Suffering
…One does not wish, in short, to be told by an American Jew that his suffering is as great as the American Negro’s suffering. It isn’t and one knows that it isn’t from the very tone in which he assures you that it is…
The Jew’s suffering is recognized as part of the moral history of the world and the Jew is recognized as a contributor to the world’s history: this is not true for the blacks. Jewish history, whether or not one can say it is honored, is certainly known: the black history has been blasted, maligned and despised. The Jew is a white man, and when white men rise up against oppression, they are heroes: when black men rise, they have reverted to their native savagery. The uprising in the Warsaw ghetto was not described as a riot, nor were the participants maligned as hoodlums: the boys and girls in Watts and Harlem are thoroughly aware of this, and it certainly contributes to their attitude toward the Jews…
- Review: Who wrote this document? When was it written?
- What audience was this document written for? How might that have influenced its content and format?
- Does Baldwin think that Jewish suffering is as great as the "American Negro's" suffering? From what does he know this? What kind of tone of voice do you think Baldwin is referring to?
- According to Baldwin what are the differences between Jewish and African American experiences of oppression? Do you accept this argument? Is there anything you would add to this argument?
Base your responses to the following discussion questions on both of the documents you just read:
- How have some Jews perceived their history of oppression? How did this shape their relationships with African Americans and the Civil Rights Movement?
- How did American Jews in the era of the Civil Rights Movement (and beyond) try to build a bridge between their experience and the African American experience?
- How have some African Americans perceived their history of oppression? How have they perceived the history of Jewish oppression?
- What issues or challenges do you think might arise between Jews and African Americans as a result of these different viewpoints?
- How would you characterize Jewish/African American relations today? How has examining these documents added to your understanding of this relationship?