Confronting Black and Jewish relations head-on, Blacks and Jews explores the shared history and the roots of conflict between the two communities. Heading an African-American and Jewish production team, filmmakers Deborah Kaufman, Bari Scott and Alan Snitow go behind the stereotypes and explosive headlines to reveal four riveting stories that tread provocatively on the fault lines of racial coalition and conflict. From death on the streets of Crown Heights, New York, to director Steven Spielberg’s controversial visit to a predominantly Black high school in East Oakland, California, Blacks and Jews resists simple analysis and easy answers. Blacks and Jews will air nationally Tuesday, July 29 at 10 PM ET on PBS (check local listings) as part of the POV series, broadcast television’s only continuing showcase for independent non-fiction film. Celebrating its 10th anniversary season, POV moves into its next decade of in-novative, independent and interactive programming beginning Tuesdays June 3 through August 5.
“I wanted to make this film because I was concerned about this ritual of conflict between Blacks and Jews that I didn’t understand,” says Kaufman. “I had grown up thinking that Blacks and Jews were part of the most important liberal coalition in American history — the civil rights movement, social justice issues — and I didn’t understand how they came to be at each other’s throats. I wanted to reframe the discussion of Blacks and Jews, which we felt, was stereotyped,” she continued. “It’s incredible that there had never been a film about Blacks and Jews,” adds Scott. “And it wasn’t an easy program to make. People in America have a hard time talking about race, and about differences.”
Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert said Blacks and Jews “Will undermine stereotypes, inspire discussion, and help repair a wrongly damaged relationship.” Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. calls the film “An important contribution to our understanding of Black-Jewish relations. It is well-documented, balanced, and sensitive to nuance — an unusual combination in any film, but essential for a documentary on this controversial subject.” Variety said the film, “presents relevant information about the multi-racial structure of U.S. society and has immediate implications for the way two races perceive and interact with each other.” Mixing penetrating on-camera interviews, newsreel footage, archival material and political theater, Blacks and Jews also features commentary and analysis from scholars and critics like Patricia Williams, Cornel West, and Letty Cottin Pogrebin.
Blacks and Jews opens with the 1991 Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn, New York, when long-standing tensions between Caribbean-born Blacks and Hassidic Jews erupted in a widely reported wave of violence that, for many, has come to represent all Black-Jewish relations. But the truth is far more complex. The film depicts the relationship of West Indian journalist Peter Noel and Moroccan-born Lubavitcher Isaac Bitton, the man he protected from an angry mob during the riots. “The next day, there’s a photo of this man lying prostrate on the sidewalk splashed across the front page of The New York Post,” Noel recalls. “It showed the Black people’s inhumanity toward Jews. And I’m saying, ‘Wait a minute. Where is the photo of me trying to help this man?'”
The second story looks back to the civil rights era, as Rabbi Robert Marx, founder of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, and Black housing activist Clyde Ross recall the joint efforts of Black and Jewish leaders to fight racism and real estate speculators in Lawndale, on Chicago’s West Side. As Blacks moving up from the South in the 1960s bought homes in Lawndale, then a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, brokers pressured White homeowners into selling their houses at a loss, then turned around and sold the same properties on contract to Blacks at grossly inflated prices. Working with an interracial, interfaith grassroots coalition, Marx and Ross played key roles in the Contract Buyers League, which picketed banks to demand regular mortgages for Black homebuyers and organized a militant payment strike when realtors — most of them Jews — refused to renegotiate the exploitative contracts. In the third segment, journalist and former Nation of Islam member Salim Muwakkil travels to Washington, D.C. for the 1995 Million Man March and discusses the powerful lure of the rhetoric of Minister Louis Farrakhan. The film also examines how the media seize on extremist speech, provoking a repeated ritual of Black-Jewish recriminations that polarize communities and strangle meaningful dialogue.
The final segment in Blacks and Jews chronicles the media feeding frenzy that erupted in 1994 when students at East Oakland’s Castlemont High School were thrown out of a movie theater for disrupting a screening of Steven Spielberg’s holocaust epic, “Schindler’s List.” Were the students who laughed at the onscreen execution of a Jewish woman guilty of anti-Semitism? Or were they just acting like teenagers? “A lot of students didn’t even know that the Holocaust was a true story,” admits one student. “If we don’t understand our own pain, how are we gonna understand your pain?” asks another. By the time Spielberg announced his plans to visit Castlemont, accompanied by California Governor Pete Wilson, then up for reelection, what began as a breach of teenage discipline had mushroomed into a full-fledged media circus.
“What hasn’t been told until now is the stories of groups who are working together,” says Scott. “There are lessons to be learned for all communities,” add Snitow. “I think the relationship between Blacks and Jews has become a paradigm, a symbol of race relations in this country. These are two groups whose sensitivities are really raw and who have had a great deal of proximity to each other in their history. As a result, we are constantly testing one another’s patience, anger, love, connections, and commitment.”
Grounded in realism, Blacks and Jews offers no easy answers. Instead, it raises some provocative questions and underscores the vital importance of open-minded discussion in an ongoing effort to resolve conflicts and promote problem solving.