Jewish-Black Ties Loosen Over Years


The storied tale of Jewish Northerners heading South in the 1960s to fight for blacks’ voting rights has taken its place as one of the most distinctive cross-cultural relationships in U.S. history.

Until now, the 1964 murders of three civil rights campaigners has been unresolved. The recent arrest of a suspect in the Mississippi murders of Andrew Goodwin and Michael Schwerner — both Jews — and James Chaney, a black man, has re-focused attention on a relationship once bound in blood.

As Jews prepare to mark Martin Luther King Day, however, to what extent have black-Jewish relations shifted from their historic marriage?

A long way, academics and Jewish community officials say.

The black-Jewish relationship began in the 1920s and 1930s as blacks moved into neighborhoods Jews were leaving. Still, Jewish businesses often remained, serving the black community.

A common bond rose in response to anti-Semitism and racism in the United States, culminating in the civil rights movement. But black riots against Jewish-owned businesses in the mid-1960s and the rise of black nationalism that carried undertones of anti-Semitism often polarized the groups.

Today, many of the flashpoints in the relationship, like Jesse Jackson’s 1984 reference to New York as “Hymietown” and the 1991 Crown Heights riots — when blacks rioted against Jews after a Lubavitch-driven vehicle accidentally hit and killed a black child in Brooklyn — are in the past. Reports of anti-Semitic remarks by black nationalists such as the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan also have tapered off.

Now, a new phase has dawned as both groups focus their energies on internal issues, and quieter ties have emerged. Whether the new phase will lead to a new, strengthened relationship or a cooler approach to one another remains in question.

“We’ve passed through a period of hostility and animosity,” said Murray Friedman, director of Temple University’s Myer and Rosaline Feinstein Center for American Jewish History and author of “What Went Wrong: The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance” (Free Press, 1994).

“The black-Jewish alliance as it once was is dead,” he said. But “it has moved in the direction that has been normal in American life, where groups join together on certain issues and break apart on certain issues.”

Rabbi Marc Scheier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, and Russell Simmons, the foundation’s chairman, said in a statement that the recent arrest in the Mississippi murder case calls to mind the historic black-Jewish alliance and challenges members of both groups “to continue the ongoing struggle for human justice.”

In fact, blacks and Jews continue to come together to advocate for political issues ranging from civil rights legislation to Israel.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that the Black and Jewish caucuses on Capitol Hill don’t work together,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, who is also on the NAACP board.

Saperstein said young, black NAACP board members also show an increasing interest in the Jewish community.

According to Saperstein, collaboration among blacks and Jews is strong across the country, and his own group’s black-Jewish activities are as robust as he can remember. Because of that, when tensions do arise, “there’s much greater disappointment and sometimes anger than when either of us has similar kinds of problems with other ethnic or religious minorities,” Saperstein said.

Sherry Frank also says that in her 24 years as director of the Atlanta Chapter of the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee), black-Jewish relations have grown stronger.

A black-Jewish coalition initiated by the American Jewish Committee has a mailing list of about 400 people, with approximately equal numbers of blacks and Jews, she said. Top black leaders in Atlanta invite local rabbis to speak at their pulpits, and Atlanta’s black mayor has helped raise funds for the local Jewish federation’s Super Sunday.

But Ann Schaffer, director of the AJCommittee’s Belfer Center for American Pluralism, said national relations aren’t so rosy. In comparison to Jews’ relations with other groups, “we’re not seeing the kind of reciprocity that we would like to see in the relationship” with blacks, she said.

Many black leaders are consumed with internal issues, such as job discrimination and lifting their people out of poverty, Schaffer explained. In addition, the black community “is not forthcoming” in defending Israel and condemning anti-Semitism, she said. In part, that’s because blacks identify with the Palestinians, who they see as disenfranchised like themselves, Schaffer added.

An AJCommittee 2000 study showed that few blacks feel much in common with Jews.

Yet anti-Semitism has never been as strong among blacks as among the mutual enemies of blacks and Jews, said Marshall Stevenson Jr., dean of social sciences and director of the National Center for Black-Jewish Relations at Dillard University in New Orleans, a black college heavily endowed by Jews. Anti-Semitism among black Muslims, for example, rarely is translated into action against Jews, he said.

Academics say the turning point in the black-Jewish relationship was the 1967 Six-Day War, which they say prompted Jews to turn inward and focus on Israel and the Jewish community’s concerns. In subsequent years, the Soviet Jewry movement occupied the energies of Jews who once had worked for civil rights, Temple University’s Friedman explained.

Around that time came the rise of black nationalism, which as part of its quest for black empowerment aimed to muster internal strength and resources and rejected Jewish outreach.

“Would Jews allow blacks to run their organizations?” was the rationale of the time, Stevenson said.

Both groups largely turned inward, a trend that continues today. The relationship is “more or less neutral today,” Stevenson said.

It takes a common threat to revive the relationship, he said — citing, for example, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s runs for the U.S. Senate and the Louisiana governorship.

“For there to be any kind of serious dialogue, there would have to be a major kind of racial backlash in this country that would affect African Americans and Jews,” Stevenson said.

Renewed relations also could come about as a result of efforts to strengthen the Democratic Party, he said. In the 2004 presidential election, about 75 percent of Jews voted Democratic. Among blacks, the proportion was even higher, 89 percent.

Friedman, who views the landscape of relations as a “return to normalcy,” frames Jews’ civil rights agenda as a Jewish quest for identity. Jewish civil rights workers would cite the Jewish values of social justice, but “they didn’t know a blessed thing about Judaism.” Goodwin and Schwerner were even buried as Unitarians, he said.

“We were finding our own identity by working through another group,” said Friedman, who himself labored for civil rights until a growing sense of Jewish identity landed him squarely in the field of Jewish studies.

Jewish groups also are less involved in race relations today than they once were, focusing now on buttressing Jewish causes and identities.

“Saperstein believes both agendas are intertwined.

“In America, the treatment of the black community remains a symbol of the hope for equality and justice for all people in America, and we who have been persecuted so often as a minority have a deep feeling that we have to stand by those who are persecuted more than we are today in America,” Saperstein said.

“What we do on behalf of a group like the African American community and with the African American community,” he continued, “is a test of whether or not we’ll live up to the values and the lessons of our history.”


The Cardinal Comes to the Board of Rabbis

In a historic address to the Board of Rabbis of Southern California last week, Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, called for the elimination of centuries of Catholic and Christian anti-Semitic teaching and a new era of Catholic-Jewish understanding and cooperation.

Praising pioneering efforts of Los Angeles Catholics and Jews in ongoing dialogue between the two faiths, Mahony told about 70 rabbinical, church and Jewish community leaders at the Los Angeles Jewish Federation that “the prospects for Catholic-Jewish relations in the 21st century are more promising than at any other point in our shared history.”

In earlier periods, Mahony admitted, “the Christian conscience vis-à-vis the Jews had been lulled.” But the doctrine of “Nostra Aetate” — the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 declaration on the church’s relations with non-Christian religions — articulated for Catholics a new understanding of Jews and Judaism, an understanding in which there is not the slightest hint of contempt, and not an iota of a ‘conversionist’ agenda,” he said. Even though this new Catholic understanding had yet to be fully implemented, the cardinal conceded, “I can assure you that we are well under way.”

In his half-hour of prepared remarks, Mahony suggested several goals for Catholic-Jewish relations in the next century. Among them: the elimination of all vestiges of anti-Judaism and anti-Jew — commonly known as “the teaching of contempt” — from Catholic preaching and teaching, as well as deeper Jewish understanding of Christianity; just as Christians are correcting ancient stereotypes about Judaism, Jews must overcome deep misunderstanding and ignorance of church life and practice, Mahony said. Since both the Catholic and Jewish communities have long histories of responding to the needs of impoverished immigrant groups, Mahony suggested the two groups join in helping Los Angeles’ vast numbers of inner-city poor. In the wake of the controversial Vatican Document — “We Remember: Reflections on the Shoah,” issued last March — the two faiths should undertake joint studies as well as institutionalize Holocaust studies in elementary, secondary and college schools and religious education programs, Mahony said. “The goal,” Mahony declared, “is nothing less than the healing of memory in order to frame a common understanding upon which to base educational programming for future generations.”

Beginning with the Lenten season 1999 through 2000, Pope John Paul II is going to be “much more specific about asking for forgiveness,” Mahony said in response to a question on why the church hadn’t spoken out more forcefully against clerics who actively aided Hitler or stood idly by while Jews were deported.

Mahony also roundly condemned the murder of a New York doctor who performed legal abortions. “How anyone in their right mind could be ‘pro-life’ and shoot somebody is such a complete contradiction that it just doesn’t make any sense,” he said.

The cardinal’s address, at the invitation of Board of Rabbis President Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, marked the first time that a Los Angeles cardinal had spoken to the religious body, Goldmark said. “I think it says a lot about this one man that not only did he come to this Jewish group… but he was very open to being asked serious, if not difficult questions.”

Having someone of Mahony’s stature address the rabbinical body “is a gesture that can’t be overstated,” observed Board of Rabbis Executive Vice President Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson. “He was willing to come to us and spend generously of his time with us because it’s important to him, and it’s important to where the church is today.” The cardinal’s suggestion that Jews reciprocate Catholic efforts at tolerance and understanding by learning more about Catholicism is well founded, Artson added. “We have demanded of Catholicism that it reassess its position about Jews and Judaism, and [yet]… many Jews treat the Catholic Church as if it’s still the year 1492.”

In a written response to the cardinal’s speech, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom praised Mahony for being “one of the first individuals to lend his name and prestige to the organization of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous which helps support over 1,500 Christian rescuers who risked their lives to save Jews from Nazi predators.” Since Jews and Catholics are “family,” Schulweis said, “we can expect in the coming millennium many irritants that come from families such as those we have experienced in the question of the crosses and churches of Auschwitz and the canonization of [Jewish-born nun who perished in Auschwitz] Edith Stein.” But, he cautioned, it is also important to hold onto hope and not to focus exclusively on the tragic and bitter past.

Jewish Covenant

As we approach the new millennium, we often discuss the unity of the Jewish people, seeking those aspects of Jewish life that will hold our diverse communal elements together after the year 2000. Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchek has referred to our Jewish covenant as including our shared history, shared suffering, shared responsibility and shared action.

These components take an added significance and even urgency when we consider Jewish unity in the area of Israel-Diaspora relations. Can Soleveitchek’s model of a shared covenant hold us together as a Jewish people in a period of increasing fragmentation? And how do we build lasting bridges that encourage us to explore our common goals and concerns?

In a small way, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has been at the forefront, asking these questions and pursuing answers. We should never take for granted that what has held us together in the past will do so in the future. Our societies and cultures are different, so we need to create the means to talk together, share together and act together.

It was in the context of shared concern and action that a group of Jewish Angelenos, representing our Jewish communal services, higher education and the public sector, came together this past summer with their counterparts and colleagues in Israel to establish another aspect of our partnership as a concerned Jewish community.

We tend to ignore or deny that we, as Jews, suffer from the woes of the broader society. Yet we are not immune to the stresses of modern society, either here or in Israel. That is why, more than a year ago, this community, through its Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Foundation, began to explore some of the less attractive elements of Israeli society, specifically domestic violence. Let’s face it, the problem of domestic violence has been with us for years. But not until recent years has it been addressed at home or abroad. Yet we all recognize that a battered Jewish spouse or abused Jewish child are part of our shared responsibility wherever the domestic violence might occur. For this reason, we have participated in an analysis of domestic violence in Tel Aviv, our sister city, through the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership.

Drawn from the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, the USC School of Social Work, the County of Los Angeles, the corporate sector and the Jewish community at large, seven representatives from Los Angeles spent a week in Tel Aviv to understand what we might learn from each other and what we have in common in response to domestic violence. The visit was a reflection of an amazing process now under way — the development of a volunteer committee in Tel Aviv that parallels our efforts at home.

The trip exposed the visitors to the problem of domestic violence and the creative efforts Israel is making to address it. Vivian Sauer of the Jewish Family Service, who was part of the Los Angeles group, said that looking at the faces of women and children who have been victims of domestic violence made it clear that human suffering is the same all over.

The visitors found that Israel has addressed the challenge head on through the creation of state-of-the-art shelters for abused and battered women and children. They were interested to note that the Israeli shelters are often integrated into the community. In Los Angeles, shelters are often far away from our Jewish communities, and, for confidentiality or security reasons, those being assisted are cloistered from ongoing communal life.

The Los Angeles group observed a highly integrated approach to addressing domestic violence. The mutually reinforcing concepts of community and societal pressure have a major impact in Israel on treating domestic violence. In Israel, police officers are being trained as specialists in recognizing the necessary sensitivity to the needs of women who are being abused, a concept now also being used here.

During two days of intensive workshops, the Americans and Israelis exchanged opinions and techniques. They realized that we have something to learn from each other and something to share: things such as creation of a sophisticated public awareness campaign; the creation of a domestic violence council, like we have here; or the need to increase early intervention where child abuse exists.

This small link between our community and Israel is a wonderful example of the future opportunity to share our responsibilities and to solve problems together. We are truly establishing a covenant , Tel Aviv and Los Angeles, with shared action as part of our relationship in a diverse Jewish world.

John R. Fishel is executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.