African American–Jewish relations
African Americans and American Jews have interacted throughout much of the history of the United States. This relationship has included widely publicized cooperation and conflict, and—since the 1970s—has been an area of significant academic research. The most significant aspect of the relationship was the cooperation during the civil rights movement, culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But the relationship has also been marred by conflict and controversy involving subjects such as the Black Power movement, Zionism, affirmative action, and the roles of Jews in the slave trade.
- 1 Early 20th century
- 2 Shopkeeper and landlord relationships
- 3 Entertainment
- 4 Civil rights movement
- 5 Black power movement
- 6 Blacks as the chosen people
- 7 Labor movement
- 8 Criticism of Zionism
- 9 Affirmative action
- 10 Black anti-semitism
- 11 Jewish racism
- 12 See also
- 13 Notes
- 14 References
- 15 External links
Early 20th century
Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) was an early promoter of pan-Africanism and African redemption, and led the Universal Negro Improvement Association. His push to celebrate Africa, the original homeland of African-Americans, led many Jews to compare Garvey to leaders of Zionism. One example of the parallels between pan-Africanism and Zionism was that Garvey wanted WW I peace negotiators to turn over former German colonies in southwest Africa to blacks. But Garvey also regularly wrote columns in his newspaper Negro World that criticized Jews for trying to destroy the black population of America.
The widely publicized lynching of Leo Frank, a Jew, in Georgia in 1915 by a mob of southerners caused many Jews to "become acutely conscious of the similarities and differences between themselves and blacks" and accelerated the sense of solidarity between Jews and blacks, but the trial also pitted Jews against blacks because Frank's defense attorneys tried to ascribe guilt to a black janitor, Jim Conley, and called Conley a "dirty, filthy, black, drunken, lying, nigger."
In the early 20th century, Jewish daily and weekly publications were preoccupied with violence against blacks, and often compared the anti-black violence in the South to pogroms—this preoccupation was motivated by principles of justice, and by a desire to change racist policies in United States. During the first few decades of the 20th century, the leaders of American Jewry expended time, influence and their economic resources for black endeavors—civil rights, philanthropy, social service, organizing—and historian Hasia Diner notes that "they made sure that their actions were well publicized" as part of an effort to demonstrate increasing Jewish political clout. Julius Rosenwald was a Jewish philanthropist who donated a large part of his fortune to supporting education of blacks in the south. Jews played a major role in the founding of the NAACP, which was founded in 1909. Jews involved in the NAACP included Joel Spingarn (the first chairman), Arthur Spingarn, Henry Moskowitz, and—more recently—Jack Greenberg.
Shopkeeper and landlord relationships
Following the Civil War, Jewish shop-owners and landlords engaged in business with black customers and tenants, often filling a need where white business owners would not venture. This was true both in northern urban cities such as New York, as well as most regions of the South. Jewish shop-owners tended to be more civil to black customers, treating them with more dignity than non-Jewish merchants. Thus, blacks often had more immediate contact with Jews than other whites.
In 1903, black historian W. E. B. Du Bois interpreted the role of Jews in the South as successors to the slave-barons: "The Jew is the heir of the slave-baron in Dougherty [Georgia]; and as we ride westward, by wide stretching cornfields and stubby orchards of peach and pear, we see on all sides within the circle of dark forest a Land of Canaan. Here and there are tales of projects for money getting, born in the swift days of Reconstruction 'improvement' companies, wine companies, mills and factories; nearly all failed, and the Jew fell heir."
Black novelist James Baldwin (1924–1987) grew up in Harlem, and expressed a view of Jews that was representative of many Harlem blacks of that era: "... in Harlem.... our ... landlords were Jews, and we hated them. We hated them because they were terrible landlords and did not take care of the buildings. The grocery store owner was a Jew... The butcher was a Jew and, yes, we certainly paid more for bad cuts of meat than other New York citizens, and we very often carried insults home along with our meats... and the pawnbroker was a Jew—perhaps we hated him most of all."
Martin Luther King, Jr. suggested that some black anti-semitism arises from landlord-tenant relations: "When we were working in Chicago, we had numerous rent strikes on the West Side, and it was unfortunately true that, in most instances, the persons we had to conduct these strikes against were Jewish landlords... We were living in a slum apartment owned by a Jew and a number of others, and we had to have a rent strike. We were paying $94 for four run-down, shabby rooms, and .... we discovered that whites ... were paying only $78 a month. We were paying 20 percent tax. The Negro ends up paying a color tax, and this has happened in instances where Negroes actually confronted Jews as the landlord or the storekeeper. The irrational statements that have been made are the result of these confrontations."
Jewish producers in the United States entertainment industry produced many works on black subjects in the film industry, Broadway, and the music industry. Many portrayals of blacks were sympathetic, but historian Michael Rogin discusses how some of the treatments could be considered exploitative.
Rogin also analyzes the instances when Jewish actors, such as Al Jolson, portrayed blacks in blackface—Rogin asserts that these portrayals were not overt racism, but simply a reflection of the times, since Blacks could not appear in leading roles at the time: "Jewish blackface neither signified a distinctive Jewish racism nor produced a distinctive black anti-Semitism".
Jews often interpreted black culture in film, music, and stageplays, and historian Jeffrey Melnick argues that Jewish artists such as Irving Berlin and George Gershwin (composer of Porgy and Bess) created the myth that they were the proper interpreters of Black culture, "elbowing out 'real' Black Americans in the process." Despite evidence from Black musicians and critics that Jews in the music business played an important role in paving the way for mainstream acceptance of Black culture, Melnick concludes that "while both Jews and African-Americans contributed to the rhetoric of musical affinity, the fruits of this labor belonged exclusively to the former".
Some blacks have criticized Jewish movie producers for portraying blacks in a racist manner. In 1990, at a NAACP convention in Los Angeles, Legrand Clegg, founder of the Coalition Against Black Exploitation, a pressure group that lobbied against negative screen images of African-Americans, alleged that "the century-old problem of Jewish racism in Hollywood" denies blacks access to positions of power in the industry and portrays blacks in a derogatory manner: "If Jewish leaders can complain of black anti-Semitism, our leaders should certainly raise the issue of the century-old problem of Jewish racism in Hollywood.... No Jewish people ever attacked or killed black people. But we're concerned with Jewish producers who degrade the black image. It's a genuine concern. And when we bring it up, our statements are distorted and we're dragged through the press as anti-Semites." Professor Leonard Jeffries echoed those comments in a speech in 1991 at the Empire State Black Arts and Cultural Festival, in Albany, New York: Jeffries said that Jews controlled the film industry, using it to paint a negative stereotype of blacks.
Civil rights movement
Cooperation between Jewish and African-American organizations peaked after World War II—sometimes called the "golden age" of the relationship—when the leaderships of each group joined in an effective movement for racial equality in the United States, and Jews funded and led many national civil rights organizations. This era of cooperation culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which outlawed racial or religious discrimination in schools and public facilities, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which outlawed discriminatory voting practices.
The reasons for Jewish support of black causes was rooted both in the Jewish appreciation for slavery, and Jewish self-interest—according to historian Greenberg, "It is significant that ... a disproportionate number of white civil rights activists were [Jewish] as well. Jewish agencies engaged with their African American counterparts in a more sustained and fundamental way than did other white groups largely because their constituents and their understanding of Jewish values and Jewish self-interest pushed them in that direction."
Jewish participation in the civil rights movement often correlated with their branch of Judaism: reform Jews participated more heavily than orthodox Jews, because many reform Jews were guided by values reflected in the reform branch's Pittsburgh Platform, which urged Jews to "participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society".
Religious leaders, such as rabbis and Baptist ministers, often played key roles in the civil rights movement, including rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the Selma civil rights march. Sixteen Jewish leaders were arrested while heeding a call from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in St. Augustine, Florida, in June 1964, where the largest mass arrest of rabbis in American history took place at the Monson Motor Lodge. Rabbi Marc Schneier, President of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, authored "Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Jewish Community" about the historic relationship between African and Jewish Americans as way to encourage a return to strong ties following years of animosity that reached its apex during the Crown Heights Riots.
Murder of Jewish civil rights activists
The summer of 1964 was designated the Freedom Summer, and many northern Jews traveled south to participate in a concentrated voter registration effort. Two Jewish activists, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, and one black activist, James Chaney, were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan as a result of their participation. Their deaths were considered martyrdom by some, and temporarily strengthened black-Jewish relations.
Martin Luther King said in 1965,
How could there be anti-Semitism among Negroes when our Jewish friends have demonstrated their commitment to the principle of tolerance and brotherhood not only in the form of sizable contributions, but in many other tangible ways, and often at great personal sacrifice. Can we ever express our appreciation to the rabbis who chose to give moral witness with us in St. Augustine during our recent protest against segregation in that unhappy city? Need I remind anyone of the awful beating suffered by Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld of Cleveland when he joined the civil rights workers there in Hattiesburg, Mississippi? And who can ever forget the sacrifice of two Jewish lives, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, in the swamps of Mississippi? It would be impossible to record the contribution that the Jewish people have made toward the Negro's struggle for freedom—it has been so great.
Questioning the "golden age"
Some recent scholarship suggests that the "golden age" (1955–1966) of the black-Jewish relationship was not as ideal as often portrayed.
Philosopher and activist Cornel West asserts that there was no golden age in which "blacks and Jews were free of tension and friction". West says that this period of Black-Jewish cooperation is often downplayed by Blacks and romanticized by Jews: "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. Jews, on the other hand, tend to romanticize this period because their present status as upper middle dogs and some top dogs in American society unsettles their historic self-image as progressives with a compassion for the underdog."
Historian Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz points out that the number of northern Jews that went to the southern states numbered only a few hundred, and that the "relationship was frequently out of touch, periodically at odds, with both sides failing to understand each other's point of view."
Political scientist Andrew Hacker wrote: "It is more than a little revealing that whites who travelled south in 1964 referred to their sojourn as their 'Mississippi summer'. It is as if all the efforts of the local blacks for voter registration and the desegregation of public facilities had not even existed until white help arrived... Of course, this was done with benign intentions, as if to say 'we have come in answer to your calls for assistance'. The problem was ... the condescending tone.... For Jewish liberals, the great memory of that summer has been the deaths of Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and—almost as an afterthought—James Chaney. Indeed, Chaney's name tends to be listed last, as if the life he lost was worth only three fifths of the others."
Southern Jews in the civil rights movement
The vast majority of civil rights activism by American Jews was undertaken by Jews from the northern states. Jews from the southern states engaged in virtually no organized activity on behalf of civil rights. This lack of participation was puzzling to some northern Jews, due to the "inability of the northern Jewish leaders to see that Jews ... were not generally victims in the South and that the racial caste system in the south situated Jews favorably in the Southern mind, or 'whitened' them." However, there were some southern Jews that participated in civil rights activity as individuals.
Recent decades have shown a greater trend for southern Jews to speak-out on civil rights issues, as shown by the 1987 marches in Forsyth County, Georgia.
Black power movement
Starting in 1966, the collaboration between Jews and blacks started to unravel. Jews were increasingly transitioning to middle-class and upper-class status, distancing themselves from blacks. At the same time, many black leaders, including some from the Black Power movement, became outspoken in their demands for greater equality, often criticizing Jews along with other white targets.
In 1967, black academic Harold Cruse attacked Jewish activism in his 1967 volume 'The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual' in which he argued that Jews had become a problem for blacks precisely because they had so identified with the Black struggle. Cruse insisted that Jewish involvement in interracial politics impeded the emergence of "Afro-American ethnic consciousness". For Cruse, as well as for other black activists, the role of American Jews as political mediator between Blacks and whites was "fraught with serious dangers to all concerned" and must be "terminated by Negroes themselves."
Blacks as the chosen people
Black Hebrew Israelites are groups of people mostly of Black American ancestry situated mainly in the Americas who claim to be descendants of the ancient Israelites and therefore God's chosen people. Black Hebrews adhere in varying degrees to the religious beliefs and practices of mainstream Judaism. They are generally not accepted as Jews by the greater Jewish community. Many Black Hebrews consider themselves—and not Jews—to be the only authentic descendants of the ancient Israelites. Some groups self-identify Hebrew Israelites, others as Black Hebrews, and others as Jews. Dozens of Black Hebrew groups were founded during the late 19th and the early 20th centuries.
Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, claimed that blacks—not whites or Europeanized Jews—are the chosen people. The current leader, Louis Farrakhan, has repudiated the notion that Jews are the chosen people, instead claiming this status for African-Americans. In a 1985 speech, Farrakhan said "I have a problem with Jews ... because I am declaring to the world that they are not the chosen people of God. ... You, the black people of America and the Western Hemisphere [are]."
The labor movement was another area of the relationship that flourished before WW II, but ended in conflict after WW II. In the early 20th century, one important area of cooperation was attempts to increase minority representation in the leadership of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union. In 1943, Jews and blacks joined to request the creation of a new department within the UAW dedicated to minorities, but that request was refused by UAW leaders.
The Jewish Labor Committee (JLC) (affiliated with the AFL-CIO) is an organization dedicated to promoting labor union interests in Jewish communities. The JLC formed approximately two dozen local committees in the United States to combat racial intolerance. The JLC helped found the United Farm Workers, campaigned for the passage of the Fair Employment Practices Act in California and provided staffing and support for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom led by Martin Luther King.
However, during the 1940s and through to the 1960s, the JLC also defended anti-black discriminatory practices of unions in the garment industry and building industry. NAACP labor director Herbert Hill claims that the JLC changed "a black white conflict into a Black-Jewish conflict". The JLC defended Jewish leaders of International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) against charges of anti-black racial discrimination, distored government reports about discrimination, failed to tell union members the truth, and when union members complained, the JLC labeled the members anti-semitic. ILGWU leaders denounced Black members for demanding equal treatment and access to leadership positions.
The New York City teacher's strike of 1968 also signaled the decline of black-Jewish relations: the Jewish president of the United Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker made statements that were seen by some as straining black-Jewish relations by accusing black teachers of anti-semitism.
Criticism of Zionism
After Israel took over the West Bank and Gaza following the 1967 Six-Day War, some American blacks supported the Palestinians and criticized Israel's actions, for example by publicly supporting Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat and calling for the destruction of the Jewish state. Immediately after the war, the editor of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's (SNCC) newsletter wrote an article criticizing Israel, and asserting that the war was an effort to regain Palestinian land and that during the 1948 war, "Zionists conquered the Arab homes and land through terror, force, and massacres". This article led to conflict between Jews and the SNCC, but black SNCC leaders treated the war as a "test of their willingness to demonstrate SNCC's break from its civil rights past".
The concerns of blacks continued, and in 1993, black philosopher Cornel West wrote in Race Matters: "Jews will not comprehend what the symbolic predicament and literal plight of Palestinians in Israel means to blacks.... Blacks often perceive the Jewish defense of the state of Israel as a second instance of naked group interest, and, again, an abandonment of substantive moral deliberation."
The support of Palestinians is frequently due to the consideration of them as people of color—Andrew Hacker writes: "The presence of Israel in the Middle East is perceived as thwarting the rightful status of people of color. Some blacks view Israel as essentially a white and European power, supported from the outside, and occupying space that rightfully belongs to the original inhabitants of Palestine."
Many blacks supported affirmative action, while many Jews did not, preferring instead merit-based systems, and that conflict was an important aspect of the decline of the black-Jewish alliance in the 1970s. The conflict is partially explained by the failure of the civil rights movement to fulfill its early promise of equality for blacks, which provoked an increasing militancy within the black community, which—in turn—led to increased resentment and fear among Jews.
A survey of affirmative-action lawsuits shows that Jewish organizations have generally opposed affirmative-action programs. A widely publicized example of the black-Jewish conflict arose in 1978 affirmative action case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, when black and Jewish organizations took opposing sides.
Some leaders of the black community have made anti-semitic public comments, which often reflect wider anti-semitic sentiments held by some blacks, often involving over-aggressiveness, loyalty to Israel (rather than the United States), alleged participation in the slave trade, and economic oppression. Some analysts attribute black anti-semitism to resentment or envy "directed at another underdog who has 'made it' in American society".
An early example of an accusation of black anti-semitism was black activist Sufi Abdul Hamid, who was accused of anti-semitism for his leadership in 1935 boycots against Harlem merchants and establishments (often owned by Jewish proprietors) that he claimed discriminated against blacks.
Conflict between Jews and Blacks increased as a result of widely publicized anti-semitic remarks made in 1984 by then-presidential candidate Jesse Jackson and former United Nations ambassador Andrew Young, and these remarks extended the era of African-American and Jewish distrust into the 1980s.
During the 1990s, much of the antisemitism in the black community originated on college campuses, and centered on alleged Jewish dominance of the slave trade. Prof. Leonard Jeffries of the City College of New York was a proponent of this idea.
Nation of Islam
The Nation of Islam, a black organization, has issued several anti-semitic pronouncements. The founder, Elijah Muhammad, targeted whites in general, and asserted that whites—as well as Jews—are devils, implicated in the history of racism against blacks. But Muhammad did not consider Jews to be any more corrupt or oppressive than other whites.
But other Nation of Islam representatives have made explicitly anti-semitic remarks. In 1993, Nation of Islam spokesman Khalid Abdul Muhammad called Jews "bloodsuckers" in a public speech, leading to widespread public condemnation. The current leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, has made several remarks that the Anti-Defamation League and others consider anti-semitic, but Farrakhan denies that the remarks are anti-semitic.
Jews and the slave trade
During the 1990s, much of the Jewish-black conflict centered on Jewish involvement with the slave trade. An early controversial comment on that topic was made by professor Leonard Jeffries in a 1991 speech in which he said that "rich Jews" financed the slave trade, citing the role of Jews in slave-trading centers Rhode Island, Brazil, the Caribbean, Curaçao, and Amsterdam. His comments drew widespread outrage and calls for his dismissal from his position.
One of the sources that Jeffries cited was The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, a book published in 1991 by the Nation of Islam. That book alleges that Jews played a major role in the African slave trade, and it became the source of tremendous controversy, and resulted in several scholarly works rebutting its charges. Most mainstream scholars concluded that Jews had little major or continuing impact on the history of New World slavery, and possessed far fewer slaves than non-Jews in every British territory in North America and the Caribbean, and - except in Brazil, Suriname, and Curaçao—they did not play leading roles as financiers, shipowners, or factors in the transatlantic or Caribbean slave trades.
Henry Gates, head of the department of Afro-American studies at Harvard University, called the book "the bible of new anti-Semitism" and added that "the book massively misinterprets the historical record, largely through a process of cunningly selective quotations of often reputable sources".
Political scientist Andrew Hacker documented an African-American author who said: "Jews tend to be a little self-righteous about their liberal record, ... we realize that they were pitying us and wanted our gratitude, not the realization of the principles of justice and humanity... Blacks consider [Jews] paternalistic. Black people have destroyed the previous relationship which they had with the Jewish community, in which we were the victims of a kind of paternalism, which is only a benevolent racism."
Historian Taylor Branch in his 1992 essay "Blacks and Jews: The Uncivil War", asserts the Jews have been "perpetrators of racial hate", citing the example where three thousand members of a sect of Black Jews from Chicago were denied citizenship under the Israeli law of return because of what he described as anti-Black sentiment among Israeli Jews. Branch was criticized by Seth Forman, who said the claims seem baseless, particularly in light of Israel's airlift of thousands of black Ethiopian Jews in the early 1990s. A group of American civil rights activists led by Bayard Rustin investigated and concluded that racism was not the cause of Black Hebrews' situation.
Historian Hasia Diner writes: "Never a relationship of equals, [many blacks] assert, Jews sat on the boards of black organizations and held power in black institutions but never allowed for the reverse. [Jews] gave money to civil rights organizations and demanded the right to make decisions by virtue of the power of their purses."
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- In a related analysis, biographer Joan Peyser quotes British critic Constant Lambert who wrote "[t]he importance of the Jewish element in jazz cannot be too strongly emphasized, and the fact that at least ninety percent of jazz tunes are written by Jews undoubtedly goes far to account for the curiously sagging quality … of the average foxtrot…. There is an obvious link between the exiled and persecuted Jews and the exiled and persecuted Negros, which the Jews, with their admirable capacity for drinking the beer of those who have knocked down the skittles, have not been slow to turn to their advantage. But although the Jews have stolen the Negroes' thunder, although Al Jolson's nauseating blubbering masquerades as savage lamenting, although Tin Pan Alley has become a commercialized Wailing Wall, the only jazz music of technical importance is that small section of it that is genuinely negroid." – Peyser, Joan, The Memory of All That: The Life of George Gershwin, Hal Leonard Corporation, 2007, p. 237.
- Peyser is quoting Lambert, Constance, Music ho!: a study of music in decline, Penguin Books, 1948
- See also: Funny, it doesn't sound Jewish: how Yiddish songs and synagogue melodies influenced Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood, Volume 1, by Jack Gottlieb, SUNY Press, 2004, p. 193.
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- Adams, Maurianne (Ed). (1999), Strangers & neighbors: relations between Blacks & Jews in the United States. See Part II: "African-Americans as the Chosen People", especially pp. 84–101
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- Tony Martin, "Incident at Wellesley College: Jewish Attack on Black Academics", www.blacksandjews.com, no date. Retrieved April 18, 2010.
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