7: The Alliance Breaks: Rise of Black Power and Antisemitism

Support Black Lives Matter but do not ignore the long history of Black antisemitism

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

Disillusionment led to the rise of younger and more militant civil rights leaders, who preached “Black Power” and taking back the movement. The Black Power movement shifted the focus of the fight for civil rights “from integration and alliance-building to one of separatism.” In 1966, militant groups, including SNCC shifted focus to Black Power. They wanted the civil rights movement to run by African Americans and expelled outsiders and Jews from within their ranks. American Jewry had helped so much with civil rights; however, African Americans did not want them to have power over them or the movement.

Judith Rosenbaum explains, “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”).”[1] Dinnerstein recounts, “Black rhetoric turned increasingly nationalistic, and their new militancy included a greater identification with dark-skinned peoples in the Third World, Marxism, opposition to Israel, and mounting antisemitism.” [2]

In 1967, Israel became a divisive issue, as civil rights moved to Black power, African Americans supported the Palestinians, while American Jewry overwhelmingly supported Israel and Zionism was on the rise among a majority of American Jews. Historian Marjorie Feld explains, “After 1967, when Israel began its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the Third World Movement began to focus too on Palestinians, and so too did some Black Americans.”[3]

Historian Robin D.G. Kelley describes in his essay,

“From the River to the Sea to Every Mountain Top: Solidarity as Worldmaking” how African Americans forged a new alliance with Palestinians in the post-1967 years after breaking up with American Jewry.

Kelley relates, “The convergence of Black urban rebellions and the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war birthed the first significant wave of Black-Palestinian solidarity; at the same time, solidarities rooted in anti-imperialism and Left internationalism rivaled the ‘Black-Jewish alliance,’ founded on analogy of oppression rather than shared principles of liberation.” [4]

Just three months after Israel was triumphant in the Six-Day War on Labor Day in 1967, 2,000 left-wing activists met in Chicago at the Palmer Hotel for the Conference on New Politics. These activists spent the sixties working for the civil rights movement and advocating and protesting the Vietnam War. A majority of the activists had been Jewish college students and intellectuals who financially supported the civil rights movement during the decade. The conference was to form a new political party with progressives. At the conference the Black Caucus decided to pass separate resolutions, among them one condemned Israel and Zionism. According to Diner, “One of those resolutions condemned Israel. It declared that the Six-Day War had been an “imperialist Zionist war,” and that Israel, a white European nation, exploited the dark-skinned Arabs whose land they had stolen.”[5]

African Americans ostracized American Jewry, who had enthusiastically supported the civil rights movement and Israel in the aftermath of the war. American Jewish students, leaders, and rabbis fought along with African Americans in the south, and with them, they were arrested and beaten for the civil rights cause. Diner explains in her book Jews in America the betrayal Jews felt.

“These ideas and words stunned the Jews who attended the conference. They had come to forge a new political organization that cut across the lines of race, believing that their Jewishness and their political radicalism fit together perfectly. Suddenly, however, many of them realized that their vision was different from that of many of the conference’s black participants. They found themselves in conflict between their Jewishness and their loyalty to the political movement. Earlier in the summer, they had cheered Israel’s triumph. Now they felt outnumbered and on the “wrong” side of the issue.” [6]

The year 1967, according to Diner, marked a stark break between both groups, leading to increasing clashes each time the groups met were the two groups stood at opposing sides on issues. American Jews tried to avoid and ignore the rising antisemitic rhetoric; however, it was becoming more difficult to do so. Greenberg believes the rift partially came when Jews started to “benefit from white privilege even though they didn’t know it and failed to recognize the structural barriers preventing black people from doing better economically. They began to push a kind of race-blind approach to society.” Historian Marc Dollinger notes in his book, Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s, “The coalition’s splintering, rather than a sad end to a hopeful moment reemerges as an inevitable, if necessary, development as each social justice-minded partner journeyed through the rough and tumble of American politics in the 1960s.”[7]

The situation marked a sharp turn on the night of February 3, 1966. At a meeting of the Mt. Vernon, New York school board, which discussed lagging desegregation, Clifford A. Brown, an official of CORE, screamed out to the predominantly Jewish audience, “Hitler made a mistake when he didn’t kill enough of you.” [8] Brown later apologized. What made matters worse was the African American leaders did not immediately speak out against Brown’s comments and distance themselves from him. King took a month to comment; he said he did “not view this horrible outburst as anti-Jewish. I see it as anti-man and anti-God. It would be a statement to harshly condemn, coming from anyone.” King was the rare condemnation. [9] Without Jewish donations, CORE had to close its doors.

In the 1940s, international relations expert Ralphe Bunche, who at the time headed Howard University’s Political Science Department, noted, “The Jew is not disliked by Negroes because he is “white,” but because he is a “Jew,” as the Negro conceives the Jew. [10] In 1967, James Baldwin countered this claim, writing “Negroes Are Antisemitic Because They’re Anti-White”[11] in the pages of the New York Times. Robert Gordis responded, “Negroes Are Antisemitic Because They Want a Scapegoat.”[12]

Between 1964 and 1969, there were 400 urban riots during the summers. During the 1967 race riots, The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, the Kerner Commission determined African Americans disproportionately targeted Jewish store owners. The cause of much black antisemitism again resurfaced as for economic reasons, African American resentment of the Jewish store owners and landlords in for Jewish turned black neighborhoods because of “white flight” to the suburbs. Harlem and Watts were the epicenters of the riots, there Jews owned 30 percent of the stores, including some of the “largest stores.” African-Americans targeted the stores because of their Jewish sounding names. [13]

In 1974, Feingold wrote his book, Zion in America: The Jewish Experience from Colonial Times to the Present. Feingold found that most of the antisemitism from the African American population came from a few militant activists. Feingold recounts, “An exception to the dormant condition of American antisemitism can be found in the agitational rhetoric of a small group of black activists. It is not representative of the black community and stems from conditions specific to the relationship between Jews and blacks in the urban setting. Black militants speak incessantly of Jewish slumlords, gouging storekeepers, insensitive teachers, and numerous other Jewish “exploiters.” Unfortunately, the confrontation between black radicals and Jews has not been confined to the sphere of name-calling.” [14]

Split on Ocean Hill-Brownsville and Affirmative Action

African American militant leaders “focused sharply on economic and political goals, particularly on gaining influence over institutions that limited their opportunities, such as schools.” They wanted smaller school-districts as opposed to the public school system that left African American children behind. [15] In 1967, this led to the experimental Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district, which was one of three districts part of an experiment in decentralization. The experiment gave African Americans a chance to control the schools where their children attended. The school board called the decentralization plan “community control” to emphasize the decision making power of the community and parents. The district had support from the Ford Foundation and then-Senator Robert F. Kennedy. [16] At the start, Ocean Hill-Brownsville had the support of the Jewish teachers led by Sandra Feldman, a teacher, and member of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) union.[17]

Soon there was a clash with the predominantly Jewish teachers at these previously established schools, who were also tenured members of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) union. In May 1968, Rhody McCoy, the chief school board administrator, wanted to reorganize the schools and fired 18 older Jewish teachers and administrators, replacing them with young teachers, that were only 40 percent Jewish. At that time, 80 percent of New York “teachers, supervisors, and principals” were Jewish. In Ocean Hill-Brownsville the majority of the students were African American or Puerto-Rican, and their parents, the community, and the new board did not want the white only Jewish teachers teaching their children and thought they were “hostile to decentralization.” At the heart of the issue was whether the community board had the right to fire tenured and unionized teachers without adhering to union rules.

In the fall of 1968, the teachers union responded and went on strike over the entire New York City and planned to stay on strike until the teachers and administrators were “reinstated.” Albert Shanker, the head of the teacher’s union, accused the new board and McCoy of antisemitism. Shanker copied an antisemitic leaflet, which an African American staff member at the Ocean Hill-Brownsville junior high school put in the Jewish teachers’ mailboxes and Shanker distributed it. Rosenbaum points out, “The focus of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville controversy now became black antisemitism.” [18] The community board accused Shanker of falsely making the issue about antisemitism.

Dinnerstein calls the showdown between the two groups their most “vicious confrontation.” Dinnerstein writes, “What was an attempt by blacks to control the local school district escalated into an employer-employee conflict that then erupted into the most vicious and visible black-Jewish confrontation in the history of the United States.” [19] Both sides highlighted the worst coming each others’ ranks. The antisemitic remarks were vicious, calling Jews “pigs” and calling Hitler a “messiah,” and accusing Jewish teachers of practicing “genocide” on black children. Some other militants even threatened the teachers, they ominously wrote, “Watch yourself, Jew, crossing streets, drinking tea, etc. You have been marked for elimination.”

The harsh words, however, came from just a few African-American militants, while “McCoy and the governing board of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district went on the record” against antisemitism. [20] Shanker and the union took the opportunity to point out the incidents and make it about the entire school board. The militants were vicious in their antisemitic attacks and took the opportunity to vilify the Jewish teachers. Both the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Anti-Defamation League called Shanker out. The teachers had spent the decade being pushed aside by African-American colleagues.

The strike ended on November 18, 1968, with positions found for the fired teachers. Additionally, the Board of Education ended the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community board experiment. Dinnerstein finds the problem with the African-American militant was “had black wrath been directed solely at the union’s intransigence, American Jewish leaders would not have been unduly alarmed. But the use of antisemitic slurs and slogans in promoting an otherwise worthy cause suggested that some blacks welcomed an opportunity to vilify Jews rather than just seek improved schools for their children.” [21] According to Diner, “The strike went far beyond a labor dispute or even a clash of views on education. It inflamed public opinion and became a struggle between two communities.” [22]

There were three other incidents of antisemitism in New York City in the last two years of the decade that proved the alliance between the two groups had ended in hostility. The first was in 1968 when New York University appointed militant John Hatchett the director of the Afro-American Center. Hatchett was known for accusing Jews of controlling the school system. Although Jewish leaders tried to get NYU to reverse the appointment they could not only when Hatchett accused Presidential nominees, Democrat Hubert Humphrey and Republican Richard Nixon and Shanker as “racist b***” did the university fire him.

After the teachers’ strike was over, two other incidents happened, another which directly threatened Shanker. New York City’s WBAI radio station had an African-American school teacher from Junior High School 271 in the Ocean Hill Brownville district, Leslie Campbell on a show. Campbell refused to read an antisemitic poem by a student, however, the host Julius Lester convinced Campbell to read it. The poem read, “Hey, Jew boy, with the yarmulke on your head You pale-faced Jew boy — I wish you were dead.” Campbell was already on suspension for inciting his students during the teachers’ strike leading to clashes with police.

It took over two weeks for the New York Times to cover the story, which they did on January 16, 1969. In the backlash, Jewish leaders called for the station to have their license revoked and for Campbell to be let go from his teaching position. Then again on January 24, Lester had another guest who spouted antisemitic remarks, Tyrone Woods, a New York University student, who said, “As far as I am concerned, more power to Hitler. He didn’t make enough lampshades out of them.” [23] The incident only increased tensions between the two groups, with Jewish leaders calling any attempt at reconciliation a failure.

On January 18, 1969, an exhibit opened at the at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, entitled, “Harlem on My Mind.” The museum meant for the exhibition to be a tribute to African American artistic achievements. The introduction to the catalog written by a fifteen-year-old African-American girl, however, accused Jewish shop owners of exploiting African Americans, which caused another outcry. The girl wrote:

“Behind every hurdle that the Afro-American has yet to jump stands the Jew who had already cleared it. Jewish shopkeepers are the only remaining survivors in the expanding black ghettos. The lack of competition allows the already exploited black to be further exploited by Jews.”

Jewish leaders wanted the offensives lines removed from the catalog; by the end of the month, the Met had to withdraw the catalog from public circulation. [24]

All over the country, African American leaders were spreading antisemitic messages hurled accusations against Jews through print and in-person in Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and New Haven. Dinnerstein indicates, “The events of the late 1960s frightened American Jews. The attacks by African Americans, along with the 1967 school board incident in Wayne, New Jersey, combined as the most overt manifestations of bigotry toward Jews in the United States since the end of World War II. And the hostility seemed to spread from New York to several other cities.” [25]

The African American leaders called the civil rights movement “a branch of Zionism,” called Jews, “parasites,” leaders said their communities hated Jews. One of the worst incidents happened in Cincinnati on April 4–5, 1968, after news broke out about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination; African-American rioters broke into Rochdale Temple and destroyed it.

Two members recalled the destruction and discretion of the synagogue.

“They came in and overnight the whole temple was destroyed. They came in and pulled out every fixture, every piece of brass, all the beautiful lights were pulled down…. And it was just unbelievable, the destruction. All the pews were broken and turned over, and the place was just ramshackle… Most of the destruction took place overnight. They just came in and they just ripped the place apart.” [26]

At around the same time in Boston, the local SNCC threatened a Jewish congregation with violence to get to vacate their synagogue building because the neighborhood was increasingly African American. The SNCC leaders threatened the board members of Temple Mishkan Tefila, promising to burn down the synagogue if the board did not give the African American community the building. The SNCC threatened, “We get the temple mortgage-free or else we burn, baby, burn,” and then sent a message which further in their threats, “Put the temple in the hands of the black community or we’ll burn it down with Jews in it.” [27] The synagogue board felt they had no choice but to abandon their building. As Dinnerstein notes, “These aggressive and hostile actions of African Americans left most Jews bitter.” [28]

The increasingly militant attitudes by some in the African American community towards Jews caused many American Jews to decrease or abandon their financial support of civil rights organizations. While “other Jews still believed that Jewish welfare was tied to the improvement of all minorities, however, and they tried to rationalize the viciousness and the assaults because basically, they felt deeply for black people who had suffered so much over the centuries.” [29]

Throughout the 1970s, the merit system for civil service and affirmative action in school admissions remained a contentious issue between the two groups. American Jews were looking at what was best for themselves and the best way to succeed. American Jews believed civil service jobs should be attained by merit, “qualifications and test performances.” Affirmative action in the workplace caused friction, with American Jews firmly believing they should not have to relinquish or be put aside from their jobs to allow opportunities for other minorities. Feingold explains, “Jews felt that to be compelled to surrender their positions because they were of a certain color or belonged to a certain group was unfair to them and a betrayal of basic principles…. The result has been a deterioration of group relations, marked by antisemitic fallout among a minority of blacks and a racist backlash among some Jews.”[30]

In 1974 and 1978, Jewish groups refused to support the NAACP in two Supreme Court cases. American Jewry saw affirmative action as similar to the quota system that kept them out of universities during the middle of the twentieth century and believed that admissions should be based on merit. Quotas had always been used against American Jews and were used to exclude them economically, politically, and socially, keeping them from “schools, clubs, and workplaces.”[31] Diner explains, “Jews were uncomfortable with government policies that took race into consideration. They believed that in the past it had been wrong for society to treat blacks and whites differently — and they felt that racial distinctions, even those intended to favor blacks, should not be written into law. Jewish organizations wanted to help those who had been disadvantaged and victimized by prejudice, but they opposed affirmative action, the use of numerical quotas in education and employment based on race. This placed them in direct conflict with many civil rights groups.[32]

In 1974, in the case of Marco De Funis v. Odegaard two Jewish groups supported the National Urban League in their case, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations provided Amicus Curiae briefs. The case settled before the Supreme Court made their ruling.[33] In 1971, De Funis, a Jew applied to the University of Washington Law School, De Funis claimed he had been discriminated against because the law school had admitted students with lower scores. De Funis’s original trial decided in his favor. The Supreme Court of Washington found against him. Jewish organizations and press divided their support of De Funis and affirmative action.

In 1974, the De Funis case reached the Supreme Court and the Anti-Defamation League decided to write an amicus curie brief in De Funis’s favor. The court ended up not deciding on the case because, in the interim, the University of Washington Law School admitted De Funis and he was about to graduate, and therefore the case was moot. [34] In 1978, in the Regents of the University of California v. Allan Bakke, the Supreme Court ruled in 5–4 verdict “that race alone was not an acceptable criterion for determining school admissions,” but affirmative action was appropriate in some circumstances.[35] Jewish groups filed amicus briefs on both sides of the case. [36]

[1] Jewish Women’s Archive. “Tensions in Black-Jewish Relations.” https://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/tensions-in-black-jewish-relations

[2] Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, 211.

[3] https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/04/23/494790016/black-jewish-relations-intensified-and-tested-by-current-political-climate

[4] Kelley. “From The River To The Sea To Every Mountain Top: Solidarity As Worldmaking,” 69.

[5] Diner, Jews in America, 127.

[6] Ibid., Diner, Jews in America, 127.

[7] Marc Dollinger, Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s, (Waltham, Massachusetts: Brandeis University Press, an imprint of University Press of New England, 2018), 15.

[8] Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, 211.

[9] Ibid., Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, 211.

[10] Ibid., Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, 211.

[11] http://movies2.nytimes.com/books/98/03/29/specials/baldwin-antisem.html

[12] https://www.nytimes.com/1967/04/23/archives/negroes-are-antisemitic-because-they-want-a-scapegoat-a-reply-to.html

[13] Kaufman, Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times between Blacks and Jews in America, (New York: Penguin Books, 1988), 137.

Jewish Women’s Archive. “Tensions in Black-Jewish Relations.” https://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/tensions-in-black-jewish-relations

[14] Feingold, Zion in America: The Jewish Experience from Colonial Times to the Present, 303.

[15] Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, 212.

[16] Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, 212; Jewish Women’s Archive. “Tensions in Black-Jewish Relations.” https://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/tensions-in-black-jewish-relations

[17] Jewish Women’s Archive. “Tensions in Black-Jewish Relations.” https://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/tensions-in-black-jewish-relations

[18] Jewish Women’s Archive. “Tensions in Black-Jewish Relations.” https://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/tensions-in-black-jewish-relations

[19] Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, 212.

[20] Ibid., Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, 213.

[21] Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, 213.

[22] Diner, Jews in America, 128.

[23] https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1969/01/25/77433807.html?pageNumber=15

[24] Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, 214.

[25] Ibid., Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, 213–214.

[26] Ibid., Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, 215.

[27] Ibid., Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, 215.

[28] Ibid., Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, 215.

[29] Ibid., Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, 215.

[30] Feingold, Zion in America: The Jewish Experience from Colonial Times to the Present, 303.

[31] Jewish Women’s Archive. “Tensions in Black-Jewish Relations.” https://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/tensions-in-black-jewish-relations

[32] Diner, Jews in America, 128.

[33] https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/416/312/

[34] Jewish Women’s Archive. “Tensions in Black-Jewish Relations.” https://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/tensions-in-black-jewish-relations

[35] Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, 216; https://cdn.loc.gov/service/ll/usrep/usrep438/usrep438265/usrep438265.pdf

[36] https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/04/23/494790016/black-jewish-relations-intensified-and-tested-by-current-political-climate

About the Author

Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS is a journalist, librarian, & historian. She is the author of Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896, The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish goal of whiteness in the South, and the viral article, “OTD in History… October 19, 1796, Alexander Hamilton accuses Thomas Jefferson of having an affair with his slave creating a 200-year-old controversy over Sally Hemings.”

Ms. Goodman has a BA in History and Art History, and a Masters in Library and Information Studies both from McGill University has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies, where she focused Medieval & Modern Judaism. Her research area is North American Jewish history, particularly American Jewish history, and her thesis was entitled, “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Antisemitism, 1860–1913.”

Ms. Goodman contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is the former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com, where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She currently blogs at Medium, where she was a top writer in history and regularly writes on “On This Day in History (#OTD in #History)” Feature and on the Times of Israel. Her scholarly articles can be found on Academia.edu. She has over a dozen years of experience in education and political journalism.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.

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