Jews and African Americans: Siblings in Oppression?
Jewish Women's Archive - Living the Legacyhttp://jwa.org/LivingtheLegacy
Jews and African Americans: Siblings in Oppression?
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?