Tensions in Black-Jewish Relationsby 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 Black people, 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 Black people 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 Black people could not achieve true freedom unless they led the movement themselves; otherwise, white people 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 African Americans 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 African Americans 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.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Tensions in Black-Jewish Relations." (Viewed on September 30, 2023) <https://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/tensions-in-black-jewish-relations>.