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

My Connection to Black Antisemitism

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

Contents

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

2: Introduction: Black Antisemitism Today

3: Black Lives Matters, Jews, and Israel

4: African American celebrities and Black antisemitism

5: History of Black-Jewish Relations Early Encounters with Black Antisemitism

6: The Golden Age: Jewish Support for the Civil Rights Movement

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

8: Black Antisemitism goes Mainstream: Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan

9: Black-Jewish Relations’ Place in History

10: Conclusion: John Lewis and the Hope of a Black-Jewish Reconciliation

Preface

A few weeks ago, I experienced an instance of Black antisemitism from a grocery store clerk, who verbally assaulted me over the phone, she never would have behaved the way she did if I had not been Jewish and we were not living in the height of the resurgence. Someone with impeccable credentials who is well-respected in the city advised me the best thing to do was to take my story to social media. When I tried to publish my story, the publication told me my experience was unverifiable. I could not get any support in the Jewish community with very few exceptions, why because I was framing it as an incident of Black antisemitism. We cannot say anything wrong about Black Americans or Canadians. If we do, we are considered racist despite the fact in any other dynamic; these actions would be wrong. [1]

The surprise reaction came from my cousin living in California; I respect her very much. She read too much into my article. She chose of all days July 4, Independence Day, to attack me publicly on Facebook for saying anything against the Black community. She called my article full of “racist micro-aggressions” and threatening me that I will have to be held accountable for my article. She told me it is “a huge red flag and just so wrong…. You would be better served if you deleted this article, apologized for it, and took the time to educate yourself.” [2]

She took issue at everything from my capitalization of the word “blacks,” the lower case is not disrespectful but the norm in academia to my usage of Martin Luther King’s quote, which she misunderstood my intention. King is one of the people I respect most in recent American history, he was balanced and tolerant and a good friend to American Jews and Israel, my point was that I wish his words were taken more to heart, American society lost a great man the day he was assassinated.

I quoted McGill University History Professor Gil Troy. My cousin attacked him for using in her words “disrespectful language.” Examining history, Troy observed, “Black antisemitism is mainstreamed — and validated by some influential elites… Meanwhile, blacks became red, the color symbolizing anger and signifying the Marxist worldview seeing life as a political power struggle.” [3] Troy has the most balance positions, he is a moderate, who responsibly looks at both sides of an issue, and he is often attacked for being the grown-up in a room full of impassioned an uneducated viewpoints. Yes, he was my professor and mentor, but sometimes people have to hear the truth even if they do not like hearing it, he tells it as he sees it without bias.

My cousin was appalled that I brought up antisemitism and the atrocities of the Holocaust to show how hated Jews have been in recent history. The Black Lives Matter movement is still fighting slavery. It impossible to erase those horrible atrocities the hatred towards Jews has caused. Let us not forget the two synagogue shootings in 2018 and 2019, the attacks in New Jersey and New York in December 2019, Jews are still dying for being Jews. No Jew should die simply for praying on Shabbat, Passover, and celebrating Hanukkah.

My cousin would have a different reaction if she had known a family secret about a terrible instance of Black antisemitism our family experienced during World War II, one my mother remembered as a young child and told me about what happened. In the 1940s, African-American teenage boys brutally attacked my cousin’s father, my mother’s first cousin. He nearly died because, as they had taunted he was a “Jew boy.”

My mother’s family was a spin on the classic story of Jewish immigration. In the post World War I years, they immigrated to America from outside Kyiv, Ukraine. They settled in Pennsylvania, with my great-grandfather opening a dry-goods store in Philadelphia. My grandmother arriving just a few years later after the revised immigration laws were sponsored and came to Canada instead and stayed separated from her siblings and parents that lived in Philadelphia. During World War II, they lived as many Americans and Canadians did as middle class and participating in the war effort. My mother’s brother, my cousin’s grandfather served in the U.S. Army stationed in Saratoga, New York. It pleased my grandmother very much to host and cook for her brother as often as possible. My grandfather was unable to sign up for the army and built fighter planes throughout the war.

Towards the end of the war, my cousin’s father was a small boy his father away at a military base, when some African American teenagers who bullied him decided to take the boy and teach him a lesson, tied him up, attached him to a city bus and dragged him nearly a block. My mother was very young, and she does not remember too much only the commotion, the calls back and forth from Philadelphia to Montreal, and my grandmother’s worry over her young nephew, who was near death from the incident. His father was able to get leave to be with his son.

Proud Jews, who felt assimilated in North American life, they hide the story, hushed it up, such things shouldn’t be known it would tarnish the reputation, ruin the store. Jim Crow laws ravaged African Americans in the South. Some African American boys in the North took it upon themselves to do the same thing happening to their brethren by whites to a small young boy because he was Jewish. A tragic incident of the oppressed, oppressing a group they deemed more vulnerable and more despised then they were by society. What is even more horrible about this story, it happened concurrently as the Holocaust was happening in Europe.

So it has remained a secret one my cousin does not know, and her father took to the grave when he died last summer. Had she known, her reaction to my article and to the whole Black Lives Matters cause might have been different. It is difficult to blindly support any movement where antisemitism still spews from the leaders and within the ranks or even from random individuals after experiencing Black-antisemitism.

We are too concerned about micro-aggressions that we do not care about instances of real aggression or downright cruelty. The incident I experienced was not my first time going through Black antisemitism and was not the worst instance either. I witnessed it as a child, a month before my Bat Mitzvah; my father was mugged and beaten up in the subway going home from work by a young African Canadian, who did not even steal anything and only wanted to beat up a “Jew.” In the summer of 1991, racial tensions were high with Crown Heights riots in New York and the Rodney King beating and riots in Los Angeles. My father’s injuries were not life-threatening. He only stayed in the hospital overnight. The incident shook us up, and the police never caught the perpetrator. Personal experiences shape our viewpoint, and while it did not lead me to believe in stereotypes, it did raise my awareness of Black antisemitism as something serious which should not be discounted.

As I was winding down writing this piece, Rabbi Mike Rothbaum had posted an article, “We don’t talk about ‘White antisemitism.’ Stop talking about Black antisemitism” in the Forward. Rothbaum is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim of Acton, Massachusetts, a progressive Reform synagogue. Rabbi Rothbaum was upset and argued the fact that we are now highlighting instances of antisemitism by African Americans. There is a double standard since not enough attention is being paid and to antisemitism by white celebrities and leaders, whom the public is not punishing enough.

Rothbaum writes:

“The message is clear: If you are Black and say something antisemitic, no act of contrition will ever suffice… There would seem to be separate sets of rules at play here. When White folks act out their antisemitism, it’s called “antisemitism.” But when Black folks share antisemitic words or ideas, it’s categorized under the specialized umbrella of “Black anti-Semitism.”…

Of course, setting double-standards for Blacks and Whites is a hallmark of American Whiteness. So is holding all Black folks responsible for the misdeeds of some, falsely blaming White crimes on Black suspects, and casting suspicion upon every Black person, treating one and all as potential transgressors.

The discourse about “Black anti-Semitism,” ultimately, is a distraction from an antisemitism that is resurgent throughout all facets of American culture. Let’s insist that our country — all citizens of our country — talk about that.[4]

Rabbi Rothbaum is wrong in his argument, and that is partially the reason why I wrote this short history. The fundamental difference between Black antisemitism and White antisemitism is that African Americans are the ones that throughout history have screamed racism calling anyone who slights them, racist, they are demanding we tear down history, change names, and cancel people is because they feel they were racist or slighted them. The call for heightened sensitivity is hypocritical when they continually attack a minority, Jews just because they feel superior to them because white antisemitism or overly blame American Jewry for their problems while ignoring white America. Throughout history, African Americans have adopted antisemitic opinions of whites. The double standard is not from Jews to African Americans but from African Americans to the world. White America is racist and antisemitic. They are not asking for special treatment and victimizing themselves.

When my cousin called on me to educate myself, I decided to do the opposite to write a short history of the Black-Jewish alliance and the complicated history of Black antisemitism, because she and many other American Jews are supporting a movement without knowing the history. The term “educate” is too widely used. Unfortunately, everyone today is a so-called expert on social media, blogs, or even op-eds, but not everyone has the background to be these “so-called” experts. Founding editor of the History News Network, Rick Shenkman had the right idea when he said he was limiting op-eds on HNN to doctorates. Everyone short of doctorates writing on their specific research areas can benefit from reading and researching more before writing. My essay is just a starting point. The bibliography and sources contain books by experts in the field to read further. I hope my essay will lead North American Jews to support the Black Lives Matter Movement if they want but armed with the knowledge necessary.

Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

Montreal, Canada, July 20, 2020

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.

Written by

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

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store