9: Black-Jewish Relations’ Place in History

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

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

The old historiography celebrated the Jewish-African American alliance during the civil rights movement in the 1950s and early 1960s, however, according to historian Marc Dollinger there were always differences between the two groups that caused friction and revisionist historians recognize the animosity underneath the fragile collaboration. Dollinger observes:

“For many years, historians (and journalists and even participants) in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s celebrated the alliance of two persecuted minorities working together to end Jim Crow segregation, pass a federal civil rights law, and realize Dr. King’s dream of ending racism in America. These articles and books, no matter their specific topic, centered their arguments on the hopeful and optimistic creation of an inter-racial alliance in the mid-1950s. They lionized white Jewish civil rights workers who justly deserve credit for the personal risks they took to advance the movement. When the black-Jewish alliance fractured in the mid-1960s, writers lamented the rise of black antisemitism, the purge of Jews from civil rights leadership, and the end of what they described as the “golden age” of black-Jewish cooperation.” [1]

Historian Cheryl Lynn Greenberg also concurs that usually the civil rights movement is viewed as “golden age.” Greenberg writes in her book, Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century:

“When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marched side by side from Selma to Birmingham in 1965, the image symbolized for many the powerful “black-Jewish” alliance. Certainly, a shared commitment to equality and concerted joint action between blacks and Jews had helped produce substantial civil rights advances. By the late 1960s, however, this potent coalition seemed to unravel as the two groups split over both style and policy. The decline of cooperative action has led many to bemoan the passing of a “golden age” when Jewish Americans and African Americans not only worked together but shared a vision of the just society.”

However, Greenberg realizes that was a moment both groups needed each other to further their agenda, and with this, it is easier to understand that post-movement break:

“Focusing on liberal political organizations as sites of interaction, I seek to temper the idealized vision of perfect mutuality by demonstrating that blacks and Jews had different but overlapping goals and interests which converged in a particular historical moment; that both communities recognized that convergence as well as an opportunity for cooperation, and came political realities changed.”

Unfortunately, writers and journalists still lament the break and that recreation is part of the almost unanimous support for the Black Lives Matter movement now by American Jewish clergy, congregations, and organizations.

Judith Rosenbaum argues that after the series of breaks and confrontations, Jews and African Americans look back with nostalgia at the Civil Rights movement as a “golden age” in the relationship between the two groups but questions there was ever one. Rosenbaum writes:

“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…. Of course, some argue that there never was a real alliance, just a checkered history of connections and collaborations. But for some blacks 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.” [2]

There is a consensus among American Jewish historians that the post-1967 period is that of rising Black antisemitism. Although they tried to justified African-American’s behavior as a difference of policy, they could not it was simply racist. The historiography reflects the differing perspectives of either side, some are proponents of the great alliance, those who find the bitterness was always simmering underneath, and on the African American side, they deride perceived Jewish racism against them. Most Jewish historians, however, agree antisemitism is the dominant part of the relationship now. Diner indicates:

“Since 1967 American Jews have debated how best to respond to what they saw as a new phenomenon: black antisemitism. Jews saw themselves as Jews, not just as whites. Most believed that they did not deserve to be attacked, verbally or physically, by anyone — but especially not by blacks, with whom they believed a close alliance, had once existed. Jews too had been victims of racism, if not now, then in the recent past…. When incidents flared up between Jews and blacks, some Jews wondered exactly how comfortable and how safe they really were in the United States. The end of the Jewish-black alliance made them turn inward. They became disillusioned with their own past actions.” [3]

There were longstanding differences between the two groups before, during, and after the alliance broke. According to historian and civil rights activist Murray Friedman in his book What Went Wrong?: The Creation & Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance those simmering tensions led to the break between the two groups but also makes it surprising that they ever were able to work together towards a common goal. Friedman writes:

Thus, most observers have proclaimed the end of a black-Jewish alliance that existed since the beginning of this century. And the end of that alliance certainly seems to be a fact, despite occasional efforts of both groups to patch things up. Those who lament its passing usually speak from the perspective of the civil rights revolution, which marked — for many Jews, especially — a kind of golden age in black-Jewish relations, when the natural sympathy between the two groups found its highest and most active expression. However, such memories obscure a more complex reality. Conflicts such as those recently experienced erupted long before the halcyon days of the 1960s. Tensions over landlord-tenant disputes, the business practices of merchants in Harlem and Detroit in the thirties and forties, quarrels over racial preferences, the forced resignation of UN ambassador Andrew Young — these and other fractious but largely forgotten incidents are no less typical of this long-standing but troubled relationship. Those who wax nostalgic lack the historical perspective necessary for a full appreciation of this complex American partnership. In light of these recur- ring conflicts, the remarkable thing is not that the black-Jewish alliance is now in eclipse but that it held together for so long — or indeed that it ever existed.[4]

Historian Marc Dollinger is one who believes there never was an alliance, and the break was “inevitable.” Dollinger argues this position in his book, Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s:

“It reconsiders even the early postwar era with knowledge that the racial differences between blacks and Jews that split the coalition in the mid-1960s existed from the very start of the movement. In this account, the classic story of blacks and Jews marching together to forge a just nation reframes to a narrative of different groups with often- conflicting experiences of America. 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.”[5]

Even in the 1950s, Dollinger notes, American Jewish leaders understood the limits of any alliance with African Americans and were surprisingly supportive of the Black Power movement until it has turned on American Jewry.

“Even as black and Jewish leaders their African American counterparts.” There was also “strong American Jewish organizational support for the rise of the Black Power movement. White and mostly male, Jewish leaders predicted the rise of black militancy, understood its origins, agreed with its need, and discounted the threats posed by rising black antisemitism. In the 1950s, I learned, Jewish leaders, offered impressive public images of working together, behind the scenes communications and even several published articles revealed a keen awareness of the limits inherent in white Jews seeking to partner with African Americans. The old idea of two oppressed minorities joining together just didn’t work when white Jews understood the privilege they enjoyed relative to offered encouraging words to the Nation of Islam. With the current controversy over Louis Farrakhan and the Women’s March, this seems quite surprising.”[6]

Historian Jonathan Kaufman indicates in Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times Between Blacks and Jews in America, King’s death was the break in the alliance and the two groups no longer could see eye to eye on the issues because the civil rights movement and African Americans became more angry and militant in their methods.

“It was clear long before 1984 that the alliance that fought for civil rights in the South in the 1950s was becoming shredded and wary. The growth of Black Power, coupled with the growth of city crime, much of it by blacks, unnerved [Jewish] lives and neighborhood in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. When Martin Luther King was killed in 1968, it seemed to break the final link many white felt with a black movement that was becoming angrier and more frightening, filling the TV screens with images of people carrying guns and demanding reparations. The disputes over Israel in the 1970s and the 1980s, the debates over affirmative action — all were evidence of blacks and Jews drifting further and further apart. In the 1984 presidential election, blacks and Jews were two of only a handful of groups — the others were Hispanics, Asians, and the unemployed — who deserted the Reagan landslide to vote for Democrat Walter Mondale, but the electoral coalition masked deep fissures in black-Jewish relations. The campaign of Jesse Jackson, the controversy over his ‘hymie’ and ‘hymietown’ remarks, highlighted pain and anger that had been brewing for a long time.” [7]

Recently the historiography on the side of African Americans has vilified American Jewry and their involvement in the civil rights movement. This viewpoint gained popularity in the 1990s after Black antisemitism reached academia. Friedman recounts:

“These and other incidents have taken place against a background of intensifying mutual recrimination, with charges of Jewish racism and paternalism on the one hand and countercharges of black antisemitism and ingratitude on the other. Some revisionist historians of the civil rights movement maintain that Jews, wishing to enjoy the benefits of assimilation without assuming responsibility for the injustices perpetrated against blacks by the old system of American race relations, betrayed and misled black people by promoting a vision of assimilation that has turned out to be an impracticable option for many. Jews for their part resent this refusal of the moral credit for being virtually the only white group to have gone to the side of blacks in their long and painful struggle for equality at a time when this had little appeal.”[8]

Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates explained why African-Americans continue antisemitic attacks on Jews.

“The bid of one black elite to supplant another. . . . The strategy of these apostles of hate . . . is best understood as ethnic isolationism — they know that the more isolated black America becomes, the greater their power. And what’s the most efficient way to begin to sever black America from its allies? Bash the Jews, these demagogues apparently calculate, and you’re halfway there.” [9]

Cornel West is the Class of 1943 University Professor in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University he has also taught African-American studies, religion and divinity at Harvard University and Yale University. West made observations about the rise of black antisemitism, and he equates it with the rhetoric of white supremacists on the right. West wrote the article “Black Antisemitism and the Rhetoric of Resentment” in 1991 after the Crown Heights riots. The Jewish publication Tikkun published the article. West late included the article as a chapter in his book Race Matters in 1994 entitled “On Black-Jewish Relations.” According to West:

“Black antisemitism and Jewish anti-Black racism are real, and both are as profoundly American as cherry pie. There was no golden age in which blacks and Jews were free of tension and friction. Yet there was a better age, where the common histories of oppression and degradation of both groups served as a springboard for genuine empathy and principled alliance. Dashed hopes on both sides have exacerbated the rift. . . . What’s clear is that in the post-civil rights era, a once-powerful political consensus fractured…. It is downplayed by blacks because they focus on the astonishingly rapid entry of most Jews into the middle and upper-middle classes during this brief period — an entry that has spawned … resentment from a quickly growing black, impoverished class.”[10]

West argues:

“Black antisemitism rests on three basic pillars…. First, it is a species of anti-whitism…. Second, black antisemitism is a result of higher expectations some black folk have had of Jews…. Third, black antisemitism is a form of underdog resentment and envy, directed at another underdog who has “made it” in American society.” [11]

Dinnerstein concludes, Jews should not blame themselves for the rise of Black antisemitism and the strained relationship between the groups:

“Jews are not responsible for the plight of African Americans. If anything, they have done more to promote civil rights for all groups than any other identifiable American people. Nonetheless, as non-Christians, as “oppressive allies” who even the white establishment seems wary of sometimes, and as the traditional scapegoat in the Christian world, many blacks have internalized the thought that Jews are the sources of their woes.

Jews have tried in many ways to avoid that role but have not yet been able to solve that dilemma. Jewish defense organizations, and most Jewish individuals, support liberal and progressive domestic programs that would benefit economically disadvantaged people. They are zealous in their defense of equal rights and opportunities for all Americans, and they use every opportunity to speak out against prejudice and discrimination….

As with white antisemitism, there is little that Jews can do or refrain from doing to combat black antisemitism. It is possible that some African Americans proclaim what millions of whites believe but are afraid to say publicly because of the social stigma attached to the utterances of bigoted remarks. African Americans suffer no such constraints. Their antisemitic verbiage seems to make them more, rather than less, popular among their peers. The opposite is the case among whites, especially on campuses where members of the dominant culture are continually admonished to be respectful and tolerant of the values and backgrounds of different groups.” [12]

[1] https://ajhs.org/blog/black-power-jewish-politics-reinventing-alliance-1960s

[2] Jewish Women’s Archive. “Tensions in Black-Jewish Relations.”

https://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/tensions-in-black-jewish-relations

[3] Diner, Jews in America, 128–129.

[4] Murray Friedman, What Went Wrong?: The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance, (New York: Free Press, 1995).

[5] Dollinger, Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s.

[6] https://ajhs.org/blog/black-power-jewish-politics-reinventing-alliance-1960s

[7] Kaufman, Jonathan. Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times between Blacks and Jews in America, 3.

[8] Friedman, What Went Wrong?: The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance.

[9] Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, 226.

[10] https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1993-05-07-me-32319-story.html https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/2893950/7-1-Black-AntiSemitism-and-the-Rhetoric-of.pdf

[11] Cornel West, Race Matters. Boston: Beacon Press, 2017, 75–76.

https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/2893950/7-1-Black-AntiSemitism-and-the-Rhetoric-of.pdf

[12] Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, 225.

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.

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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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