Tikkun Magazine, September/October 1994
That Black-Jewish Thing: What's Going On?
By Bob Blauner
Late last May at San Francisco State University, in the week before final exams an African-American artist named Senay Dennis unfurled a mural he had painted t honor Malcolm X and his legacy. The mural was commissioned by the Student Union Governing Board, and the artist was paid $1,500 in student funds. The idea that Malcolm was worthy of a major artistic monument was evidently universally accepted on this very multicultural urban campus, a place that pioneered "Third World" or Ethnic Studies in the late 1960s as well as faculty unionism on the West Coast. What was controversial was the fact that the artist had surrounded the image of Black nationalism's patron saint with Stars of David, which were next to dollar signs, skull and cross-bones, and the phrase "African Blood."
The artist and his supporters argued that these symbols were anti-Zionist and not anti-Jewish, and that they faithfully reflected Malcolm X's vision. This so incensed an African-American English professor, Lois Lyles, that she got hersel arrested in the act of painting "Stop Prejudice" on the mural. Robert Corrigan, the president of S.F. State, was criticized by some for waiting too long before he ordered the mural painted over and by others for a heavy-handed confrontational mode of operation, including "censorship" of a duly commissione work of art. The president of San Francisco's Hillel Center, David Bergman, supported the idea of honoring Malcolm and therefore regretted that the mural was constructed in such a way that it had to be destroyed in its entirety in order to remove the anti-Semitic symbols. And it seems that most Black students at the school were as opposed to Dennis's exploitation of Malcolm X for his own purposes, as were white and other students.
The controversy evoked not only storm, but serious discussions of the meaning o multiculturalism, and how racially divided the campus really was. Many felt that the media exacerbated such divisions by portraying the mural story as a reflection of Black-Jewish conflict, rather than reflecting only the views of a tiny, die-hard minority.
The S.F. State mural incident is only the latest example of a disturbing patter of events, in which certain prominent Black figures publicly express strong anti-Jewish sentiments. Since Black-Jewish tensions were exacerbated three year ago in New York City's Crown Heights, there have been many reports of anti-Semitic utterances, especially in campus appearances by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and his former lieutenant Khalid Muhammad. From Professor Leonard Jeffries, Farrakhan, Muhammad, and the students attending their talks have come such assertions as the Jews controlled the slave trade, Jews dominate American society today, and perhaps the most outrageous, that Jews killed Martin Luther King, Jr. (the latter reportedly from a recent event at Howard University). And on a number of college campuses, the pressure of Black student organizations and the fear of protest and rioting have forced cancellation of scheduled talks by such Jews as Jack Greenberg, the former director of the NAACP'S Legal Defense Committee, and the historian David Brion Davis, noted for his writings on racism.
This tendency of some African Americans to target Jews as an especially powerful and racist segment of America has evoked fear, anger, puzzlement, and perhaps above all a sense of betrayal in Jewish Americans. Many Jews have been almost a angry at prominent African Americans who have failed to speak out against Black anti-Semitism as they were at the perpetrators. But above all they cannot understand why Blacks, of all people, would be turning against them. The historical memory of Jews tends to be well developed, and people know that 50 percent or more of the white volunteers for Mississippi's 1964 Freedom Summer were Jewish, including both of the white martyrs, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner; that Jewish philanthropy made possible the "historically Negro colleges;" and that their group has long been in the vanguard of movements for racial equality. Many of my Jewish students see their group and African Americans as the two most important historically oppressed peoples. With such "similar interests," they feel that today we should be allies rather than antagonists.
Particularly in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Jews are very sensitive to any cues that non-Jews are diminishing the importance of anti-Semitism. Thus, I was disappointed at a recent debate on multiculturalism on the Berkeley campus, whe one of the panelists, Ronald Takaki, responded to fellow panelist Nathan Glazer's concerns about the anti-Semitism of Leonard Jeffries's public statements by deeming them "insignificant." Takaki, a professor of ethnic studies, was a major architect of Berkeley's American Cultures requirement, an innovative program exploring the experiences of European-American ethnic groups as well as racial minorities. As a personal friend, I know Takaki's concern about anti-Semitism, especially its impact on young Blacks who respond to the statements of Khalid Mohammad and others of his ilk. But because Takaki chose to emphasize the relative insignificance of Jeffries's distortions compared to the pervasive distortion of people of color in conventional scholarship, he missed chance to denounce anti-Semitism clearly and strongly. As a Jew interested in building bridges between the multicultural movement and European Americans, I keenly regretted that missed opportunity.
Another way that Black anti-Semitism can be down-played is to argue that becaus such feelings are shared by only a small number of African Americans, the importance of the problem is exaggerated, more a matter of media sensationalism than of substance. In a recent conversation with another friend, the sociologist Hardy Frye, the latter argued that the extremist promoters of anti-Jewish feelings lack substantial following in the Black community.
While it is true that the media do not give as much attention to the efforts that are being made to restore dialogue and reconciliation between Blacks and Jews as they do to provocative statements and divisive conflict, I think Frye is wrong on this point. All indications are that anti-Semitism has increased among African Americans in recent years, especially among the younger generation. And this includes not only streetwise youth of the urban centers, but those college-educated Blacks who have been influenced by Afrocentric perspectives. And it is the latter group that will produce many future leaders of the African American community.
Having said this, I take recent poll data which indicates that African American are more likely to be anti-Semitic than other Americans with a grain of salt. It's my hunch that Black people tend to feel more strongly about Jews than most other Gentiles do because the histories and fates of the two groups have been s closely intertwined in America. So if there are more African Americans who dislike and resent Jews, there are probably also more who like and admire us. I agree with Cornel West, who implies in his recent book, Race Matters, that although on the rise recently, anti-Semitism among Blacks has been less pronounced in the past than it has been among other non-Jews. But despite the importance of these questions about whether Black anti-Semitism has increased and deepened, I don't think they are the most interesting or the most important questions for understanding Black-Jewish relations today.
Instead I would pose the following: First, why are the noisiest and most disturbing expressions of anti-Jewish sentiment in the United States today being voiced by some African Americans? Second, why have these attitudes been able to gain some legitimacy in their communities? Third, given that recent history makes African Americans particularly ready to scapegoat others for their frustrations, why have some selected Jews as the target? And finally, what abou Jews? What is our responsibility in this conflict and how can we act constructively today?
The fourteen years since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 has been a disastrous period for African Americans. Of all ethnic groups, Blacks have been most affected by the politics and the culture of conservative retrenchment, a climate in which a selfish mean-spiritedness has replaced social compassion, in which politicians have deserted the interests of civil rights, racial minorities, and the poor. And since 1973, the no-growth economy has been an even greater disaster, creating for the 1990s a situation unique in America: one in which the average real income for workers seems to be in permanent decline; in which the new jobs produced tend to be markedly lower in pay and security than the old jobs lost; and as a consequence, the new generations of youth will not, on average, be able to match the living standards of their parents. And yet the rich get richer, while the poor get poorer and the middle classes are increasingly squeezed.
In such a political and economic climate, ethnic and racial antagonisms escalate, given that class struggle is not the American Way. Instead, we scapegoat the most vulnerable groups: new immigrants, Asian Americans, and homosexuals--as well as the two venerable targets of group hatred, Black people and Jews.
It is naive to believe that African Americans should be any more immune to the American disease of group-hating-group than any other sector of our society. In the 1960s and 1970s they were promised the freedom and equality for which their people had striven for centuries. But instead, even successful middle-class Blacks have been experiencing rising levels of racism (both on an interpersonal level, for example in occupational life, and in the larger society). And for those who are poor or working class, frustrations brought on by the economic situation and the political climate breed anger and a strong sense of betrayal. Hopes have been dashed, people are mad, and they are going to lash out.
And why not lash out at the Jews? Just as most young whites know almost nothing of the nation's history of racism, having been born too late to experience firs hand the 1960s civil rights era, young Blacks know just as little about the times when Jewish Americans and African Americans were comrades in arms.
Over the long haul, Black Americans have been noteworthy--not for their hatred of white people, which would be understandable, considering their historic treatment--but for their ability to transcend hatred and maintain a humanistic belief in the possibilities of change and redemption. And this remains in large part true. But I believe that in recent years the racial hatreds of African Americans, including the recent hatred of Jews, have been given a new legitimacy--perhaps pseudo-legitimacy is a better term--that comes from the Left's "politically correct" discourse on race and racism.
During the 1960s, there was an explosion of new understandings, definitions, an meanings of the term "racism," which soon became the primary expression to denote racial oppression in America. Whereas most white people--aside from a minority of leftists, intellectuals, and academic social scientists--continued to view racism primarily as beliefs, feelings, and actions based on group stereotypes and hatred (that is, in terms of the 1950s model of prejudice and discrimination), many Blacks began to see racism as a structural phenomenon. Seizing on a distinction between subjective and objective racism, many Blacks argue that although African Americans can be as prejudiced as anyone, they can' be racist because they lack the power to institute or uphold structures of domination or to impose their views on others. I frequently hear this argument in the classroom, and it is a line of thought that is familiar to me because I helped develop and disseminate it and similar ideas in my sociological writings during the late 1960s and 1970s.
Perhaps twenty-five years ago I thought that the kind of distinctions sociologists make would so impress and educate the public that they would readily adopt our understandings and definitions. It hasn't happened. Although we influence, we cannot control the public's use of language. And while racism did replace prejudice as the key term in the language of race, for most people it retains the same "subjective" connotation as does prejudice. Therefore there is something quite disingenuous about those who argue that Black people can't be racist, because they know that they are engaged in verbal sleight-of-hand. Even so, this rationalization is useful in dealing with their cognitive dissonance and in serving as a green light among some African Americans to legitimate the expression of crude stereotypes and hatreds of ethnic groups (most notably, but not exclusively, Jews), expressions that would be totally unacceptable if voice by whites. I do not think the Left should countenance such attitudes, nor such an intellectualized defense of them. Black anti-Semitism is a form of racism an should be labelled as such.
But if the special frustrations of the Black population--the combination of economic hardship and the lack of future prospects, especially for the young--this larger scenario of rising expectations turned to dashed hopes--help explain this new Black anger and need to strike back, we still need to ask, why the Jews? There was plenty of anger in the Black Power era (1965 to 1975), plenty of accusations that some African Americans were engaging in a reverse form of Black racism. But then the target was almost always "whitey," "honkey," white folks in general, very rarely Jews or any other specific ethnic group.
The late 1960s was a critical period. The Jewish-Black alliance may have alread been dead by 1966, when Black nationalism and Black Power replaced integration as the major focus of the movement. But three events between 1967 and 1969 can be seen as the nails that sealed its coffin: first, the Six-Day War of 1967 in which Black militant leaders sided with Israel's Arab enemies; second, the battle for community control of the schools, especially in Ocean-Hill Brownsville, where the teachers and union leaders that stood in the way of Blac parents and political organizers were overwhelmingly Jewish; and finally, the institutionalization of affirmative-action programs in 1968 and 1969. Jewish liberals and neoconservatives took the lead in providing the intellectual and political arguments against these programs, which furthered anti-Jewish sentiment among Black Americans.
And yet anti-Semitism per se remained tempered, contained to small circles for many years. Why? I think it's because in the Black Power decade there was still a lively personal and political dialogue between Blacks and whites, Blacks and Jews. Like other Left-liberal and radical whites, Jews were drawn to groups such as the Black Panthers, who saw the racist, capitalist system, rather than specific ethnic and racial groups, as the enemy. Jews were prominent among white financial supporters of the Panthers, and indeed Huey Newton is reported to have had a Jewish grandfather. (When he took a PLO-sponsored trip to the Middle East in the late 1970s, Newton insisted that his itinerary include Israel, so that he would get both sides of the story.)
Since the 1980s, this heated though rich and honest dialogue between whites and Blacks has been largely absent. And during the 1980s and '90s the leading voice of Black nationalism have moved away from the inclusiveness of a latter-day Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. At the same time, main-line civil rights groups and leaders have lost much of their authority. The consequent moral and political vacuum explains the increasingly important role that the Black Muslim and Louis Farrakhan in particular play in providing some ideological direction for Black anger and frustration. Combine this paucity of leadership with the economic hopelessness I've already described, and the result is a nihilism and desperation in Black America, which is why so many African Americans are listening to Farrakhan and other anti-Semitic voices in a serious way.
Furthermore, it is only in the case of the African-American minority where we have this peculiar marriage of a nationalist movement associated with Islam, a religion, culture, and politics which is often at war with Judaism and Zionism. In the case of Latinos and Asian Americans, such a "natural" opening to anti-Semitism does not exist.
How ironic that, aside from explicitly neo-Nazi and Aryan "White Power" groups, it is Afro-Americans who are today the primary perpetuators of Hitler's thought in America. But this is in part because the anti-Semitic discourse that Hitler tapped into and popularized is entrenched in Western culture and deep in the popular psyche. So these archetypal images of the deceitful and all-powerful Jew can be used by any leader when he wants to play demagogue, even leaders of organizations like the Nation of Islam, which otherwise do much that is positiv for their members. Thus the recent allegation that Jews killed Martin Luther King, Jr. echoes the 2,000-year-old belief that Jews killed Jesus, and if, as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion say, Jews have long controlled world finance and economic life, then they must have controlled slavery and the slave trade also.
Jews also became a ready target because we have a special visibility, continuing to stand out through our cultural style, sensibility, and names, if no longer by appearance. And so often Jews just happen to be in those positions where they have some power and control (even if limited) over African Americans. I've mentioned the educational system, the contested terrain during the 1960s. At that time, Jews were still frequently storekeepers in Harlem and other ghettoes Now Koreans or other Asians, and sometimes Arab-Americans occupy such "middle man" positions in urban Black neighborhoods, reminding us that Jews are not the only ethnic targets of Black anger.
Perhaps anti-Semitism is the underlying motive when Farrakhan and others assert that Jews control the media. But the prominence of Jewish Americans in intellectual and cultural life--in the universities, in Hollywood, in televisio writing and producing, in book publishing, as owners and editors of such important newspapers as The New York Times, as well as our significant role in other journals of opinion--should not be dismissed as unimportant.
In recent years, the racial struggle is being waged more and more on the cultural front. What is at stake is control of those images of Black people tha the wider public gets from television and film, as well as the control of the interpretations of race relations that are provided by the "opinion leaders" who write books and publish their ideas in newspapers, magazines, and academic journals. African Americans want a greater representation in these positions so that they can determine how their historical and contemporary realities are interpreted--Spike Lee can do only so much.
Consider how many of the writers and critics on jazz and Black music are Jewish, how predominant Jews have been among the white experts on Black history, Black culture, and the sociology of race relations. It matters less today that these Jewish writers have been liberal or radical and Black-affirmative; for the Afrocentric movement, all this is a negative situation that needs to be changed
Finally, I think many Blacks have turned against Jews precisely because the two groups have been closely connected in the past. Many people have used the language of family to talk about these ties, which have been described as fraternal or paternal but never as one of equal partners. African Americans have constantly chafed under and worked against the paternalism inherent in this inequality. And since such a relationship cannot easily be reformed, it tends to be ended through abrupt and almost violent rituals of separation, as in the Black Power period when whites (read Jews) were ejected from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other civil rights organizations, or as in today's angry anti-Jewish rhetoric.
All this distrust, envy, and hatred is the underside of an African-American identification with and admiration of Jewish Americans. This identification has deep roots in Black religion and folk culture. The "Hebrew Children" in the spirituals stood for Africans enslaved in America. Blacks have also admired (an envied) the Jewish capacity for business success, which they see as coming from an ethnic affinity for "sticking together." This is typically contrasted with a characteristic disunity in Black communities and seen as the key to the impressive political and cultural power that Jews, a group small in numbers, command. But if the older brother has all the power, he must be using the younger one for his own purposes--enhancing his ego needs through domination, appropriating cultural riches for profit, exploiting Black people in countless other ways.
And Jews make an excellent target for charges of racism and exploitation, not because Jews are a particularly racist sector of the white population, but for the very opposite reason. Cornel West points out that Blacks have had higher expectations of Jews than they have had of other whites, so that when some Jews become point men in the attack on affirmative action, Blacks feel betrayed and unfortunately generalize their anger toward the group as a whole. And from the other side, the strong anti-racism of Jewish Americans makes us more vulnerable to attack, prone to feelings of guilt and responsibility.
Just what is the Jewish role and responsibility in all this? Jewish Americans admire and envy much about African Americans: their rich political history, the profound moral voice of their greatest leaders, the depth and creativity of Black culture and art, not to mention the prowess and stylistic flair of Black athletes. Jews were among the first whites to "discover" these gifts, to recognize their importance and meaning and to market the African-American aesthetic sensibility to the white American public. During the 1960s, such sponsorship came to be seen as a quasi-colonial appropriation and exploitation of the culture of an indigenous people. This viewpoint remains widely shared today, especially among young Blacks and Afrocentric intellectuals.
Just as Blacks have often identified with Jews, Jews have gone even further in identifying with Blacks--sometimes in ways that seem inappropriate, even ludicrous, to the latter. When we "over-identify" with African Americans and the Black experience the result is a blurring of boundaries and an insensitivity to the other's needs for autonomy and control.
Another result can be an almost pathetic desire to be accepted by Black people, to be looked up to by them, and to be honored for one's unprejudiced attitudes. Thus, many Jews feel a nostalgic longing for the days of the Negro-Jewish alliance. But Golden Ages never return, and the hard fact is that the "objective conditions" for that historic alliance no longer exist.
It is not just the now-marked gap in economic status and social power between the two groups. Perhaps even more important, as Julius Lester has deftly argued, Blacks and Jews no longer share a common moral community. "Regardless of how an individual Jew may feel about being a Jew," he observes, "the solidity of Jewis history, culture, and religion are incontrovertible. It is the very absence of confidence among African Americans in the solidity of life itself that marks th gulf between Blacks and Jews." Blacks, Lester suggests, drawing on Laurence Thomas and Orlando Patterson, have "neither equality nor their historical-cultural traditions," and thus Black anti-Semitism may at bottom reflect "envy of the Jewish narrative and the painful longing for a healing narrative of their own."
So I suggest that Jews become sensitive to the pain Blacks feel when we insensitively argue that our shared oppression is more important than our differences. This means that we Jews should fight racism because it is right to do so, and it is in the interest of our country as well as our own ethnic group but not for the approval of African Americans so that we can march arm-in-arm once again.
Overidentification can also result in a tendency for Jews to equate slavery and racial oppression in America with their own historic oppression. Some Jews use the Holocaust as a benchmark to weigh and legitimate the claims of others to be victims of persecution, a smugness that implies a belief in a special entitlement to be certified as experts in matters of social oppression. Such an attitude rankles "many African Americans," who, according to Walter Fields of the New Jersey NAACP, have the notion "that somehow Jews have cornered the market on suffering." African Americans are more likely to feel that "if any group is the American exemplar of deprivation and oppression," it is their own or perhaps American Indians. Farrakhan puts it more strongly: "The holocaust of black people was 100 times worse than the holocaust of Jews."
The bottom line is that Jews can be as racist as anyone. This is not to deny that Jews also have demonstrated a unique commitment to social justice, including racial equality for African Americans, a fact which has not gone unnoticed by them, even before the recent statement of Urban League president Hugh Price that no other group of whites has "matched the Jewish community as long-distance runners in the civil rights movement."
Price goes on to suggest that some Blacks have been impugning "long-standing allies" such as the Jews "because of the unconscionable behavior of some of them." It is not clear who he is referring to, but it is certainly true that over the past thirty years, Jews have not been as exclusively Left and liberal-leaning as we once were. Now spread out along the entire political spectrum, Jewish America today produces some of the nation's leading conservative voices, and in recent years such powerful political players on the Right as Henry Kissinger.
But despite such internal diversity, Jewish Americans as a group, as Michael Lerner points out, consistently support liberal positions on the controversial questions of the day. More than any other group, Jews resisted the swing of white voters to Reagan and Bush and still vote against their (narrowly defined) economic interests in favor of social programs for the poor. This "Jewish exceptionalism" may be waning as the assimilation process continues apace. But because of Judaism's social ethic and a historic tendency to identify with underdogs, Jews are still more likely than other whites to understand that thei racial and class privileges pale in significance compared to the costs of racia and economic injustice--the pain and loss we suffer from living in a society so divided, so lacking in real community, and so rent with deep hatreds and alienation.
My arguments are not meant to deny that Jews are, and probably will always be a special minority, with an unparalleled history of persecution that reached its apogee in the Holocaust. Even if we are no longer poor and even if the institutionalized anti-Semitism which once kept Jews from fully participating i American society is largely a thing of the past--in contrast to the depth and subtlety of anti-Black racism--we have learned from the experience of Hitler's Germany that economic mobility and cultural assimilation guarantee very little. Jews know that, as a group, they have been offered up as a sacrificial lamb during those periods of history when mankind expresses its darkest impulses. Such expressions of humanity's dark side continue around the world today; because of this, it is not surprising that many Jews persist in feeling a commo interest with Black Americans in developing an anti-racist politics. And indeed Blacks and Jews remain the favorite targets of white-power movements based on hatred and bigotry.
The strains in Black-Jewish relations should not be seen in isolation, but rather as one important aspect of the breakdown in the multifaceted civil right coalition that existed until the mid-1960s. Another important loss for civil rights has been the decline in numbers and social power of organized labor, a fact which has contributed to the conservative drift among white blue-collar workers. Perhaps most pivotal of all--and largely unrecognized--has been the split between white liberals and white radicals that took place in the late 1960s. The mutual antagonism and lack of dialogue between white liberals and white radicals makes it difficult, perhaps impossible, to develop a mass anti-racist movement that would draw upon significant numbers of European Americans. The radical-liberal split can be seen as an American equivalent of the fault-line between social democratic and communist movements which develope in Europe in the years after the Russian Revolution. Just as the inability of socialists and communists to work together is often seen as one important key to the ascendance of fascism in the 1930s, the liberal-radical split makes it impossible to develop a successful united front of white Americans in the work of countering racism, our home-grown brand of fascism.
Without waiting for this to happen, I believe that Jews remain uniquely positioned to play a special role in the fight against racism. If the State of Israel can designate selected Germans and other Europeans as "Righteous Gentiles" because they resisted meaningfully the destruction of the Jews, we could by example encourage others to be Righteous European Americans. We may no be able to give up our class and racial privileges, but we can take the lead, through our actions and our consciousness, in giving up "white" ways of thinkin and identifying.
On returning from a visit to Israel, a group of American Blacks were puzzled, according to Gerald Early, the chair of the African and Afro-American Studies Department at Washington University, Saint Louis, as to "why Blacks had not done more to embrace the memory of slavery as Jews had the Holocaust." But the memorialization of slavery and racism is not simply the responsibility of African Americans. All of us suffer from the unfinished business of our racial past. The nation as a whole needs to collectively mourn our racial "holocausts"--including the genocide of Native Americans. Indeed, America has probably done less in this regard than Germany has with respect to its own past crimes. Since Jews do have a gift for historical memory and for ritual observance, we could take the lead in insisting that the United States find way to erect monuments and devise ceremonies that would acknowledge rather than den the crimes of our racial past. (Parallels that come to mind are the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Vietnam War Memorial.)
To this end, the bill introduced in Congress by Representative John Conyers for a national commission to study the effects of slavery is worthy of support. Als of critical importance in my view is the growing movement in favor of some form of "reparations" for African Americans. I would like to see TIKKUN magazine and other progressive Jewish circles support--at least in principle--the idea of reparations. There will certainly be many reasonable reservations, not only about details, but about such larger issues as political impact and economic feasibility. But if reparations were acts of justice in the case of Germany and our own incarceration of Japanese Americans, how can similar redress for African Americans be inappropriate?
Perhaps beginning with this question of reparations, Jewish groups and individuals in various communities can make overtures to African-American group and individuals for the purpose of forming Black-Jewish committees for dialogue and potential cooperation. Such committees were formed in New York City after the Crown Heights disturbances. And after the 1992 riots, Blacks and Koreans came together in Los Angeles.
Such "bridging" committees can be a first step toward moving from today's fragmented politics of identity to the building of the more universal and inclusive sense of common purpose that the nation so sorely needs--the heart of a politics of meaning.
Bob Blauner, author of Black Lies, White Lies: Three Decades of Race Relations in America, has also written Race and Radicalism in My Life and Work, a personal memoir in which he explores the connection between his life-long interest in anti-racism and his own Jewishness.
Blauner, Bob. 1994. That Black-Jewish Thing: What's Going On? Tikkun 9(5): 27.