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Adventures in Jewish Studies

The Association for Jewish Studies Podcast

Season 2, Episode 7: Re-thinking Black-Jewish Relations

Transcript

Jeremy Shere: In the spring of 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. put out a call to religious leaders across the United States to join him in a civil rights protest march from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery. Among those who responded was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the leading Jewish theologians and philosophers of his time. 

A famous photograph from the Selma march shows Heschel marching arm in arm with King, Ralph Abernathy, and other civil rights leaders. And the photo perfectly encapsulates what many American Jews of the time saw as a special alliance between African Americans and Jews in the struggle for civil rights.

Lewis Gordon: The typical narrative presents rational, reasonable, sober Jews — ethically minded, motivated by great ethical concerns — get involved in the civil rights movement to integrate, as the language goes, Black people into American society and to fight off the injustices of Jim Crow. 

Jeremy Shere: This is Lewis Gordon, a professor of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut and founder of the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies at Temple University.

Lewis Gordon: And within that narrative, they're heroic rabbis, they’re individuals who will march arm in arm against terrible police officers with their dogs, et cetera. 

Jeremy Shere: But then, as San Francisco State University historian Marc Dollinger notes, the typical story takes a dark turn. 

Marc Dollinger: It seems all was good until sometime in the mid-1960s, with the rise of Black militancy, the rise of Black Power, the increase in anti-semitism coming from some in the African American community. And then, the narrative goes, all the good turned to bad, the split happened, and from the mid-1960s, these two communities have been hopelessly apart. 

Jeremy Shere: The problem with this narrative is that it's not the whole story. For one thing, relations and interactions between Blacks and Jews didn't begin in the 1950s. The relationship goes back at least to the early 20th century, as Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and their American-born children strove to assimilate into mainstream American society and become accepted as part of the white majority. They both identified with African Americans and identified themselves in contrast to African Americans.

But not all American Jews followed this path. As Gordon notes, the typical narrative largely ignores the fact that many American Jews of the period were leftists who rejected assimilation and white supremacy, and whose politics allied them with the Black left. 

Lewis Gordon: Nobody speaks about the fact that so many European Jews were involved in radical left organizations, ranging from the Communist Party, different socialist parties. The other part is that at a basic, intimate level, the Communist Party was 40% Black and it was founded in 1919, but throughout its history it had Black leadership. 

Jeremy Shere: This is just one example of how the ways in which Jewish Americans and African Americans have related to each other, thought about each other, and reacted to each other is far more complex than the traditional narrative allows. As we'll hear, even during the late 1950s and early ’60s, while Rabbi Heschel marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr., and many Jews devoted themselves to the struggle for racial equality, Black-Jewish relations were nuanced and complicated by the respective histories and socioeconomic trajectories of Blacks and Jews.

In 1959, the Nation of Islam, an African-American political and religious movement that promoted Black nationalism and self-determination, planned a mass rally in Newark, New Jersey. American Jewish Committee officials, who were well aware of the antisemitic rhetoric of the Nation of Islam's leader, Elijah Muhammad, worked with the city of Newark to send an African American member of the city's Human Rights Commission to attend the rally and report back.

Marc Dollinger: And his report said that 1,500 to 2,000 people attended to hear a nearly two-hour rambling speech where he referred to Jews as Christ-killers. 

Jeremy Shere: Yet, at least publicly, AJC officials didn't consider the remark to be antisemitic. 

Marc Dollinger: Of course it was antisemitic; that’s the classic antisemitic trope. But what I think the AJC was trying to do was not give any more platform to the Nation of Islam, to wall off that thinking in order to make it go away. 

Jeremy Shere: The AJC's response was in line with the larger institutional Jewish American approach to Black-Jewish relations. That same year, Time magazine published a highly critical story on Elijah Muhammad, taking him to task for his anti-white and anti-Jewish message.

But the head of the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization founded to combat antisemitism, downplayed the Nation of Islam as a threat in a memo to regional ADL officers. 

Marc Dollinger: And he said in this memo, “Time magazine not withstanding, we find no documentable evidence of antisemitism on the part of the Nation of Islam.” And this really surprised me, because the ADL should be the number-one organization committed to fighting exactly what Time magazine said. 

Jeremy Shere: Why would the Anti-Defamation League choose to ignore such obviously antisemitic rhetoric? Well, for at least two reasons. First, as Dollinger notes, because from the point of view of the ADL, to confront Elijah Muhammad would serve only to amplify his message.

Marc Dollinger: If you could marginalize the Nation of Islam, if you could make them so irrelevant because they're so radical, then you can remove their platform for good.

Jeremy Shere: The shifting racial dynamics of the period also played a role in the ADL's position. Before World War II, it was commonly accepted that Jews, as well as other ethnic groups, comprised distinct races. But by the late 1950s, American Jewish leadership sought to push back against the Nation of Islam's racial critique of Jews as members of the oppressive white race. Instead, the ADL and other American Jewish organizations strove to depict Jews in distinctly non-racial terms, as Americans who were members of the Jewish religion.

Lewis Gordon: So Jewish religiosity became a means to Jewish citizenship, membership, if one could de-link it from a racial notion of Jewishness. So you could see the problem. Now, here you have these Blacks who are pushing racial identity. Here you have Jews, who are trying to run away from racial identity as much as possible.

Jeremy Shere: Not all American Jews followed this route. As Gordon noted earlier, Jewish Communists mostly rejected affinity with Judaism and Jewishness. And as we explored in the “Are Jews White?” episode from Season 1, many American Jews privately continued to think of themselves in racial terms, as a distinct people. But publicly, the American Jewish establishment disavowed Jewishness as a racial designation in favor of Jewishness as a religious designation.

And so, in Gordon's view, when the ADL downplayed Elijah Muhammad's blatant antisemitisim, it was an attempt to diminish the influence and reach of the Nation of Islam’s focus on race and on Jews as racially white. 

Lewis Gordon: They're against Jewish investment in whiteness. So an anti-white language is being translated into an anti-Jewish language. And this leads to another problem, because it leads to, despite those Jews saying that they're not investing in a racial identity, their Jewish identity is about religion, nevertheless, their membership in American society depended on a racial identity. 

Jeremy Shere: In other words, as the American Jewish establishment tried to pivot from Jewishness as a racial category to Jewishness as a religious category, the Nation of Islam threatened that move by designating and castigating American Jews as members of the white American establishment that sought to keep Black people in their place at the bottom of the social ladder.

American Jewish leaders were not blind to the fact that, for African-Americans, race and racism remained in escapable. In 1960, Nathan Edelstein, governing council chair of the American Jewish Congress, published a report, arguing that conflict between Blacks and Jews was likely to deepen, and that Black antisemitism was going to spike. For Dollinger, Edelstein's report complicates the narrative that the Black-Jewish alliance of the early 1960s ended due to the rise of the Black Power movement. 

Marc Dollinger: This very document contests that idea, because here we have the leader of a national Jewish organization, in the middle of the peace-love-Bobby Sherman-kumbaya era of 1960, alerting all of his colleagues and the general public that it's going to get worse and we should be ready for it.

Jeremy Shere: Instead of ending the relationship between Blacks and Jews, Dollinger argues, the rise of Black Power and Black nationalism change the nature of the relationship. Where once Blacks and Jews were largely aligned, by the mid to late-sixties, they weren't simply misaligned, but were actually operating on parallel tracks, with American Jews repurposing Black Power strategies and tactics to bolster American Jewish religious and cultural identity and ethnicity.

Before World War II, and through the early 1960s, the majority of American Jews, like nearly all immigrant groups, strove to become fully American, by assimilating to the dominant culture and shedding any Old World ethnic remnants. But by the mid-’60s, American Jewish attitudes began to change. And the change was mostly due to two factors: President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs and the rise of the Black Power movement.

LBJ's vision for his Great Society initiative was based on the notion that guaranteeing individual rights for African Americans, which was the central goal of the MLK-led civil rights movement, was not enough. Achieving true racial equality required affirmative action focused on helping groups that had been held back — African Americans in particular — to catch up. For many American Jews, this concept was not difficult to grasp and to support. 

Marc Dollinger: In this moment, American Jews are enjoying whiteness, the privilege that came after 1945, for the most part, while at the same time having within their memory, certainly, the Shoah, the Holocaust, and even domestic antisemitism in the United States, in the ’30s and even through the 1940s.

So as American Jews are wrestling with their own understanding of vulnerability, while they are being empowered, they can see the way in which institutional or systemic racism is playing on Black Americans, and the need to step up a government response; otherwise, there really will be no meaningful change in the racial status quo.

Jeremy Shere: At the same time, the non-Orthodox American Jewish establishment started to see the Great Society’s focus on group identity as an opportunity for American Jews to look inward and focus on strengthening Jewish group identity. The shift in focus was influenced even more strongly by the rhetoric and actions of the Black Panthers and other groups affiliated with the Black Power movement.

For example, many Jewish leaders saw — or, perhaps more accurately, rationalized — Black Power and Black nationalism as an African American version of Zionism. Leading Conservative rabbi Arthur Hertzberg characterized Stokely Carmichael, founder of the Black Power movement, in these terms:

Marc Dollinger: He called him “the most radical kind of Negro zionist.” He talks exactly the language of those Jews who felt most violently angry at the sight of Hitler, and most hurt by the good people who stood aside. Now, the leader of Black Power’s anger is not an example of antisemitism — it’s now an example of how Jews felt when Christians did not rally for us when Hitler was there.

Jeremy Shere: This way of thinking among American Jewish leaders was especially common after the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel launched a pre-emptive strike against Jordan, Egypt and Syria, in the process conquering the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank — including East Jerusalem — and the Golan Heights. 

Where previously, most American Jews had supported Israel financially, but otherwise remained aloof from the fledgling Jewish state, after the Six-Day War, many American Jews became more openly and staunchly Zionist. Jewish institutions raised millions of dollars for Israel, and thousands of Jewish college students traveled to Israel to help in any way they could. In 1967, the number of American Jews who immigrated to Israel doubled from the previous year.

For Dollinger the rise in American Jewish Zionism was in large part spurred by the rise of the Black Power movement.

Marc Dollinger: If white Jews are being purged from leadership positions and civil rights organizations in ’64 and ’65, if there's a rise of anti-Israel antisemitism, and some antisemitism coming from some Black militants in this period, by the time it's June of 1967, or May, there is going to be a whole lot of pent-up political energy, nationalist energy, ethnic expression energy.

Jeremy Shere: Israel's sudden and dramatic victory in 1967, provided a release for all that pent-up energy. 

Marc Dollinger: This was the right victory at the right time at the right place for American Jews, who in that moment could now realign themselves with another aspect of Black Power, which is the rise of ethnic nationalism. And I argue that the strong American Jewish reaction to ’67 was because Black Power gave American Jews the cultural permission they needed to be Zionist, without fear that would invoke a dual loyalty charge. 

It's worth noting that the relationship between Black nationalism and Zionism was complex and dynamic. For example, Marcus Garvey, a leading African American activist who advocated for Black nationalism during the 1910s, ’20s, and ’30s, supported Zionism. 

Lewis Gordon: The Garvey movement had a strong Zionist element in it. And part of that is because one of the advisors to Marcus Garvey was an Ethiopian rabbi. And in fact, he was entrusted to write the Black national anthem. 

Jeremy Shere: The Ethiopian rabbi’s version of the anthem was ultimately replaced by “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson. 

Zionism continued to inspire other Black leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. well into the 1960s, but after the Six-Day War, Black Power activists, especially, began to see Israel as a colonialist and oppressor state, a perception spurred in part by Israel's relationship with South Africa. Although Israel publicly condemned apartheid, like many Western nations, it quietly developed strong economic and military ties to South Africa, the revelation of which angered Black Power activists.

Lewis Gordon: The idea of working with people that ally with a state that is consciously dedicated to the disempowerment of Black people across the globe raised the question of whether Israel is a racist state.

Jeremy Shere: For American Jews, meanwhile, a newfound enthusiasm for Israel was only part of their growing interest in developing Jewish ethnic and religious identity. Spurred on by the group-based politics of Black Power, and by a political culture in America that encouraged groups to express ethnic pride, American Jews embarked on a series of self- focused programs. Chief among them was creating Jewish day schools. 

Marc Dollinger: Non-Orthodox Jewish day schools don't emerge until after the Black Power movement, and they're emerging because there is a generation of now young parents who, let's say, hypothetically, were raised in the consensus suburban 1950s, where they were told by their parents to do all they could to assimilate into the white Christian culture around them.

Jeremy Shere: Many of those young parents had different plans for their kids. 

Marc Dollinger: They want to give their kids what they never had, which was a deep and intensive Jewish knowledge, pride in their Jewishness — Jewish power, we could say, to play on Black Power, in that sense. And they begin creating community- based non-Orthodox Jewish day schools.

Jeremy Shere: At the university level, Jewish students, inspired by the emergence of African American Studies programs, began to advocate for courses about Jewish civilization. And so, Jewish Studies was born, and soon after, the Association for Jewish Studies. 

The development of Jewish Studies vis-a-vis Black Studies is an interesting example of how, while Jewish American identity-building and African American identity-building may have happened in parallel, they often took different trajectories. For example, according to Dollinger, in its early years, the AJS emulated Black Studies and other ethnic studies, by openly advocating for Jewish causes and for Jewish welfare.

Marc Dollinger: And then very soon after, the notion is that we are compromising our scholarly credentials by becoming politically active in our classroom. And we shouldn't do that. 

Jeremy Shere: Black Studies took a different approach. 

Lewis Gordon: The argument of Black Studies, in a nutshell, is that most of American history is a lie, and that there is a form of historical violence in a failure to teach the historical truth. So Black Studies was an effort to bring the other side of history to the forefront, the actual history.

Jeremy Shere: And so for many Black Studies scholars, their mission was not to dispassionately critique American history, but to actively counter the racist ideas and systems that had kept Black people down throughout most of American history. As Dollinger puts it, from the point of view of Black Studies scholars of the period…

Marc Dollinger: If students of color are going to be educated in the university and go out into the world to make it a better place, how could we pretend to be third-person, detached, and critical, without acknowledging and embracing systemic racism and the ways in which students of color’s mere appearance in the university is against the odds of them even getting there?

Jeremy Shere: Arguably the most striking way in which American Jews were inspired by the Black Power movement was the Soviet Jewry movement, which had roots in the late 1950s, but really took off in the late ’60s. The aim of the movement was to persuade the Soviet government, which had clamped down on the practice of Judaism and which had a long history of antisemitism, to allow Soviet Jews to leave. As Dollinger notes, the movement was directly inspired by the civil rights movement and by Black Power.

Marc Dollinger: The Soviet Jewry movement was the American civil rights movement reinvented after Black Power. And the data was stark: one-third of the Soviet Jewry activists were trained in the civil rights movement.

Jeremy Shere: Soviet Jewry activists borrowed openly from the American civil rights movement. 

Marc Dollinger: When I was researching my dissertation, I was looking into the Freedom Rides, and I went in the archives — and what in those days was called a card catalog — and it said, “Freedom Ride 1971,” which is a typographical error because the Freedom Rides were a decade earlier. And I pulled up the folder and it still said 1971. And it turns out it was a Freedom Ride for Soviet Jews. 

Jeremy Shere: Jewish activists drove a bus from Washington, D.C. to Seattle, stopping at cities along the way to raise money and consciousness and give speeches.

Marc Dollinger: And I said, "Wow, they have taken the very language of the civil rights movement, and now turned it inward. They're embracing identity politics, and they are literally going into the streets for their fellow Jews.” 

Jeremy Shere: Thousands of Jews across the United States took to the streets to protest at Soviet consulates and got extensive national media coverage. And they distributed bracelets with the names of Soviet Jews on them, known as refuseniks, to keep their names and the cause in the public eye.

Marc Dollinger: These actually played on the Vietnam War “missing in action” bracelets that were distributed by anti-war activists. So American Jews were playing off civil rights, in terms of these massive street protests, Black Power, and the idea that they were unapologetic and public in their identity, anti-Vietnam War, and having these bracelets.

Jeremy Shere: One of the ironies of the Soviet Jewry movement, as Gordon points out, is that while the American Jews who fought for Soviet Jewish freedom sought Jewish identity in cultural and religious terms, Soviet Jews understood their status as Jews almost entirely in racial terms. Many Soviet Jews were Communists and therefore anti-religious.

Lewis Gordon: They didn't practice kashrut. They didn't eat kosher foods. They love their pork there. They put their cream on their meat. But if you were to say to those Russian Jews, “You're not Jewish, look at how you behave,” they would lose their — “What are you talking about, I’m not Jewish? I am.” How do they know they're Jewish? Because they're discriminated against as Jews. Russians knew who Russian Jews were. They looked at them racially. They were discriminated against racially. 

Jeremy Shere: In a way, Soviet Jews had more directly in common with African Americans and Black civil rights activists than they did with the American Jews who advocated on behalf of Soviet Jewry. 

Still, the Soviet Jewry movement, which ended with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, is a striking example of how American Jewish activists were inspired by, and borrowed from, Black Power activists — even as the two groups increasingly shared little in common in terms of the realities of their daily lives in the United States.

Today, in the era of the Black Lives Matter movement and daily protests and riots around issues of racial equality, it’s worth asking: Where do Black-Jewish relations stand today? In some ways, we see a dynamic similar to the one that emerged in the late 1960s, when American Jews, emboldened by Black Power and by the multicultural movement, created their own version of Jewish empowerment.

Today, even given the recent uptick in antisemitic incidents in the United States, Jews who choose to live Jewish lives, whether in religious or other terms, do so, for the most part, openly and without fear of retribution or reduction in social standing. Many African Americans, on the other hand, are still directly affected by the legacy of institutional racism. And many would argue that they are still far from securing most of the basic freedoms and rights enjoyed by white Americans, including white Jews. 

According to Dollinger, though, Blacks and Jews may be more aligned in what he calls the “fourth era” of Black-Jewish relations than they have been at any time since the early 1960s.

Marc Dollinger: What we may see now is this fourth era that will bring white Jews and Blacks back together, literally side by side again. But unlike the 1950s, which was perhaps too hopeful and naive, what we could be seeing now with this national reckoning on race is a sense that white American Jews understand privilege, they understand systemic racism, or at least they're open to learning about it, so that they can understand it and then take action. 

Jeremy Shere: Dollinger has seen this firsthand in his interactions with American Jewish organizations. 

Marc Dollinger: I just know from my own personal work and emails and phone calls I'm getting, almost every board of directors of Jewish organizations is pretty much all white and pretty much all of them don't want to be all white anymore, and they want to learn and they want to know and they want to change.

Jeremy Shere: For Gordon, who was born in Jamaica to a white Jewish mother and a Black Jamaican father, an important part of that change means not only seeking to diversify the leadership of Jewish organizations — it also means, even more fundamentally, that Ashkenazi American Jews need to recognize and embrace Jews who are Black or Indian or Asian or any number of other ethnic or national backgrounds other than white East European. 

Lewis Gordon: I think the right question to ask is what are the ways in which various communities are made visible and suffer from imposed invisibility? Because there are dimensions, including of Ashkenazi Jews, that are hidden because of problematic questions, even from those communities.

Jeremy Shere: Questions, Gordon says, such as if you're Black or Korean or anything other than white, how can you be a Jew? Such questions, Gordon says, promote division and reveal a lack of understanding of the reality that Jews comprise people from many different backgrounds. Instead, we should ask questions that promote understanding and serve to broaden our vision.

Lewis Gordon: In other words, to say, "What are ways in which various communities, various kinds of Jewish communities, are rendered invisible and what are the problematic ways in which we're made visible?” There are forms of being made visible that actually make you invisible as a human being. So if Jews are going to be visible as stereotypes, let's pass on that visibility. Similarly, Blacks are being presented as stereotypes; that’s problematic. We need to get forms of visibility that bring out our common humanity.

Episode Guests

Marc Dollinger

Marc Dollinger

Marc Dollinger, PhD, holds the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies and Social Responsibility at San Francisco State University. Professor Dollinger is author of four scholarly books in American Jewish history, most recently Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s. He has published entries in the Encyclopedia Judaica, the Encyclopedia of Antisemitism, and the Encyclopedia of African American Education. His next project traces his own experience fighting campus antisemitism at both right-wing and left-wing universities. Professor Dollinger has spoken about his research on Don Lemon’s CNN-podcast Silence Is Not an Option, as well as the NFL Network and ESPN. Just for fun, Dr. Dollinger helped actress Helen Hunt learn about her Jewish roots on the prime-time NBC show Who Do You Think You Are?.

Lewis Gordon

Lewis R. Gordon

Lewis R. Gordon, PhD, is an Afro-Jewish philosopher, political thinker, educator, and musician and Professor and Head of the Philosophy Department at UCONN-Storrs, where he also has affiliations in Judaic Studies, Caribbean and Latinx Studies, Asian and Asian American Studies, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and Global Studies. He is the author of sixteen influential and award-winning monographs and anthologies. His forthcoming books are Freedom, Justice, and Decolonization, 论哲学、去殖民化与种族 (“On Philosophy, Decolonization, and Race”), trans. Li Beilei, and Fear of Black Consciousness. He co-edits the book series Global Critical Caribbean Thought and the journal Philosophy and Global Affairs. He is Honorary President of the Global Center for Advanced Studies and a former president of the Caribbean Philosophical Association, for which he now serves as its chairperson of awards and global collaborations.

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Host

Jeremy-Shere

Jeremy Shere, PhD

Jeremy Shere, PhD, is a podcast producer based in Bloomington, Indiana. Jeremy earned his doctorate in English Literature and Jewish Studies from Indiana University. He is currently the producer of the Frankely Judaic podcast for the Jewish Studies program at the University of Michigan.

Adventures in Jewish Studies

Executive Producer: Warren Hoffman, PhD

Producer: Jeremy Shere, PhD

Associate Producer: Jennifer Richler