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From Swastika to Jim Crow

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Black-Jewish Relations Pages: 1 | 2


"Even amidst anti-Semitism, the anti-Black situation confers white-skin privilege on Jews."
- Cornel West

"By calling Jews 'white,' Blacks are in effect denying [the Jewish] history of oppression.... Jews have been socially and legally discriminated against, have been the subject of racism and genocide, and in those terms Jews are not white."
- Michael Lerner

from Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin by Michael Lerner and Cornel West


Black Power and Division
With the late 1960s came the birth of the Black Power movement, emphasizing self-determination, self-defense tactics and racial pride, and representing a radical break from the nonviolence and racial integration espoused by the Reverend Martin Luther King. The separatist rise of Black nationalism was just one of the difficulties facing the Black-Jewish alliance since the end of the Civil Rights movement. The rapid decline of American anti-Semitism since 1945, combined with the nation's continuing pervasive racism, convinced Blacks there was an insurmountable racial gulf separating the two groups. Blacks no longer perceived the division as one between the persecutors and their victims - including Jews - but between those with white skin and those with black. Through the eyes of Blacks, Jews became Whites with all the privileges their skin color won them, regardless of alliances they had in the past.

As early as the first two decades after World War II, James Baldwin, Kenneth Clark and other Blacks encouraged liberal Jews to give up the "special relationship." This came in part from a fear that the Jews' determined belief in their bond with Blacks would eventually become offensive and, paradoxically, provoke Black anti-Semitism. The prospect of this shift was incomprehensible to Jews who believed that their own history, culminating in the Holocaust, defined them as oppressed and thus incapable of being the oppressor. And yet, as Baldwin pointed out in Georgia has the Negro and Harlem has the Jew, each time a Black person paid his Jewish landlord, shopped at a Jewish-owned store, was taught by a Jewish school teacher, was supervised by a Jewish social worker, or was paid by a Jewish employer, the fact of Black subservience to Jews was driven home.

Jews continued to call for the maintenance of a Black-Jewish alliance despite the socioeconomic differences between the two groups. Positions hardened around such divisive issues as affirmative action in the schools, Louis Farrakhan's anti-Semitic rhetoric, the Crown Heights/Harlem riots and the Million Man March - all exacerbated by the use of stereotypes in sensationalized media coverage.

Hatred and Misunderstanding
In 1991, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York, a car driven by an Lubavitch Jew spun out of control onto a sidewalk, killing one Black child and injuring another. As angry Black residents beat the car's driver, the privately run Jewish Hatzolah ambulance arrived and workers began attending to the child pinned under the car. When a New York city ambulance arrived, the technician instructed the Hatzolah driver to remove the Lubavitch driver from the escalating scene and take him to the hospital. Black onlookers were infuriated and rumors of the Jew being aided first flew through the neighborhood. The streets filled with shouts of "Get the Jews!" and that night, a mob of 10 to 15 angry Black teens and men fatally stabbed a young Orthodox Holocaust researcher.

For three days Jewish residents of Crown Heights and reporters were beaten, cars overturned and set afire, and stores looted and firebombed by angered Black residents. Finally hundreds of police officers in riot gear restored a relative calm. The state's official investigation into the riots found that city authorities and police failed to respond appropriately. Lubavitchers say this was an experience few have forgotten.

That same year, an anonymous group of African Americans associated with the Reverend Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam published The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews, detailing the involvement of Jews in the Atlantic slave trade and Pan-American slavery. Though Jewish historians had already produced a significant body of scholarship on the subject, the information had never appeared in a publication written for a non-scholarly audience. The book caused quite a furor because none of its data was placed in any context that would indicate its broader historical significance. The role of Jews in the enslavement of Blacks was exaggerated - not with misinformation but through calculated misrepresentation.

Over the years Farrakhan has angered Jews, Catholics, gays, feminists and others with various slurs, including his description of Judaism as a "gutter religion" and Jewish landlords as "bloodsuckers." In 1995, Farrakhan spoke for over two hours to over 400,000 listeners at the Million Man March. Many believe that was more the result of a desperate need for leadership than a widespread anti-Jewish feeling. "It's not about Farrakhan," said one marcher. "[It's about] Black men uniting for a cause."


"Once again, sons and daughters of slavery and Holocaust survivors are bound together with a shared agenda, bound by their hopes and their fears about national public policy."
- Jesse Jackson

"[The election debacle is] an opportunity for Jews and Blacks to come back together."
- Rabbi Steven Jacobs


Coming Together?
In Palm Beach, Florida after the November 2000 presidential election, the Reverend Jesse Jackson asked that Jews and Blacks unite as they did in the Civil Rights Era - this time to push for an accurate vote count in the presidential race.

American History has taught Blacks and Jews two very different lessons. In the Jewish experience of the U.S., education and hard work eventually pay off and thus the future is full of possibility. Blacks, however, face a legacy of three and a half centuries of racism on American soil and the irrefutable sense that something more than dedication is required. Currently there exist huge disparities between Jews and Blacks in terms of crime, family breakdown, drug addiction, alcoholism and educational achievements. The "culture of poverty" that exists in today's inner city is incomparable to anything in the American Jewish experience.

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