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Authors: Cornel West

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Chapter Six

On Black-Jewish Relations

 

For if there are no waving flags and marching songs at the barricades as Walter marches out with his little battalion, it is not because the battle lacks nobility. On the contrary, he has picked up in his way, still imperfect and wobbly in his small view of human destiny, what I believe Arthur Miller once called “the golden thread of history.” He becomes, in spite of those who are too intrigued with despair and hatred of man to see it, King Oedipus refusing to tear out his eyes, but attacking the Oracle instead. He is that last Jewish patriot manning his rifle at Warsaw; he is that young girl who swam into sharks to save a friend a few weeks ago; he is Anne Frank, still believing in people; he is the nine small heroes of Little Rock; he is Michelangelo creating David and Beethoven bursting forth with the Ninth Symphony. He is all those things because he has finally reached out in his tiny moment and caught that sweet essence which is human dignity, and it shines like the old star-touched dream that it is in his eyes.

LORRAINE HANSBERRY, “An Author's Reflections: Walter Lee Younger, Willy Loman and He Who Must Live” (1959)

R
ECENT
debates on the state of black-Jewish relations have generated more heat than light. Instead of critical dialogue and respectful exchange, we have witnessed several bouts of vulgar name-calling and self-righteous finger-pointing. Battles conducted on the editorial pages, like the one between Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the eminent Harvard professor, and John Henrik Clarke, the distinguished pan-African scholar, in the
New York Times
and the
City Sun
, respectively, do not take us very far in understanding black-Jewish relations.

Black anti-Semitism and Jewish antiblack racism are real, and both are as profoundly American as cherry pie. There was no
golden age
in which blacks and Jews were free of tension and friction. Yet there was a
better
age when the common histories of oppression and degradation of both groups served as a springboard for genuine empathy and principled alliances. Since the late sixties, black-Jewish relations have reached a nadir. Why is this so?

In order to account for this sad state of affairs we must begin to unearth the truth behind each group's perceptions of the other (and of itself). For example, few blacks recognize and acknowledge one fundamental fact of Jewish history: a profound hatred of Jews sits at the center of medieval and modern European cultures. Jewish persecutions under the Byzantines, Jewish massacres during the Crusades, Jewish expulsions in England (1290), France (1306), Spain (1492), Portugal (1497), Frankfurt (1614), and Vienna (1670), and Jewish pogroms in the Ukraine (1648, 1768), Odessa (1871), and throughout Russia—especially after 1881 culminating in Kishinev (1903)—constitute the vast historical backdrop to current Jewish preoccupations with self-reliance and the Jewish anxiety of group death. Needless to say, the Nazi attempt at Judeocide in the 1930s and 1940s reinforced this preoccupation and anxiety.

The European hatred of Jews rests on religious and social grounds—Christian myths of Jews as Christ-killers and resentment over the disproportionate presence of Jews in certain commercial occupations. The religious bigotry feeds on stereotypes of Jews as villainous transgressors of the sacred; the social bigotry, on alleged Jewish conspiratorial schemes for power and control. Ironically, the founding of the state of Israel—the triumph of the quest for modern Jewish self-determination—came about less from Jewish power and more from the consensus of the two superpowers, the United States and USSR, to secure a homeland for a despised and degraded people after Hitler's genocidal attempt.

The history of Jews in America for the most part flies in the face of this tragic Jewish past. The majority of Jewish immigrants arrived in America around the turn of the century (1881–1924). They brought a strong heritage that put a premium on what had ensured their survival and identity—institutional autonomy, rabbinical learning, and business zeal. Like other European immigrants, Jews for the most part became complicitous with the American racial caste system. Even in “Christian” America with its formidable anti-Semitic barriers, and despite a rich progressive tradition that made Jews more likely than other immigrants to feel compassion for oppressed blacks, large numbers of Jews tried to procure a foothold in America by falling in step with the widespread perpetuation of antiblack stereotypes and the garnering of white-skin privilege benefits available to nonblack Americans. It goes without saying that a profound hatred of African people (as seen in slavery, lynching, segregation, and second-class citizenship) sits at the center of American civilization.

The period of genuine empathy and principled alliances between Jews and blacks (1910–67) constitutes a major pillar of American progressive politics in this century. These supportive links begin with W. E. B. Du Bois's
The Crisis
and Abraham Cahan's
Jewish Daily Forward
and are seen clearly between Jewish leftists and A. Philip Randolph's numerous organizations, between Elliot Cohen's
Commentary
and the early career of James Baldwin, between prophets like Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr., or between the disproportionately Jewish Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Presently, this inspiring 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 entree of most Jews into the middle and upper middle classes during this brief period—an entree that has spawned both an intense conflict with the more slowly growing black middle class and a social 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.

In the present era, blacks and Jews are in contention over two major issues. The first is the question of what constitutes the most effective means for black progress in America. With over half of all black professionals and managers being employed in the public sphere, and those in the private sphere often gaining entree owing to regulatory checks by the EEOC, attacks by some Jews on affirmative action are perceived as assaults on black livelihood. And since a disproportionate percentage of poor blacks depend on government support to survive, attempts to dismantle public programs are viewed by blacks as opposition to black survival. Visible Jewish resistance to affirmative action and government spending on social programs pits some Jews against black progress. This opposition, though not as strong as that of other groups in the country, is all the more visible to black people because of past Jewish support for black progress. It also seems to reek of naked group interest, as well as a willingness to abandon compassion for the underdogs of American society.

The second major area of contention concerns the meaning and practice of Zionism as embodied in the state of Israel. Without a sympathetic understanding of the deep historic sources of Jewish fears and anxieties about group survival, blacks will not grasp the visceral attachment of most Jews to Israel. Similarly, without a candid acknowledgement of blacks' status as permanent underdogs in American society, Jews will not comprehend what the symbolic predicament and literal plight of Palestinians in Israel means to blacks. Jews rightly point out that the atrocities of Africa elites on oppressed Africans in Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia are just as bad or worse than those perpetrated on Palestinians by Israeli elites. Some also point out—rightly—that deals and treaties between Israel and South Africa are not so radically different from those between some black African, Latin American, and Asian countries and South Africa. Still, these and other Jewish charges of black double standards with regard to Israel do not take us to the heart of the matter. 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. At the same time, Jews tend to view black critiques of Israel as black rejection of the Jewish right to group survival, and hence as a betrayal of the precondition for a black-Jewish alliance. What is at stake here is not simply black-Jewish relations, but, more importantly, the
moral content
of Jewish and black identities and of their political consequences.

The ascendance of the conservative Likud party in Israel in 1977 and the visibility of narrow black nationalist voices in the eighties helped solidify this impasse. When mainstream American Jewish organizations supported the inhumane policies of Begin and Shamir, they tipped their hats toward cold-hearted interest group calculations. When black nationalist spokesmen like Farrakhan and Jeffries excessively targeted Jewish power as subordinating black and brown peoples they played the same mean-spirited game. In turning their heads from the ugly truth of Palestinian subjugation, and in refusing to admit the falsity of the alleged Jewish conspiracies, both sides failed to define the
moral
character of their Jewish and black identities.

The present impasse in black-Jewish relations will be overcome only when self-critical exchanges take place within and across black and Jewish communities not simply about their own group interest but also, and, more importantly, about what being black or Jewish mean in
ethical terms.
This kind of reflection should not be so naive as to ignore group interest, but it should take us to a higher moral ground where serious discussions about democracy and justice determine how we define ourselves and our politics and help us formulate strategies and tactics to sidestep the traps of tribalism and chauvinism.

The vicious murder of Yankel Rosenbaum in Crown Heights in the summer of 1991 bore chilling testimony to a growing black anti-Semitism in this country. Although this particular form of xenophobia from below does not have the same institutional power of those racisms that afflict their victims from above, it certainly deserves the same moral condemnation. Furthermore, the very
ethical
character of the black freedom struggle largely depends on the open condemnation by its spokespersons of
any
racist attitude or action.

In our present moment, when a neo-Nazi like David Duke can win 55 percent of the white vote (and 69 percent of the white “born-again” Protestant vote) in Louisiana, it may seem misguided to highlight anti-Semitic behavior of black people—the exemplary targets of racial hatred in America. Yet I suggest that this focus is crucial precisely because we black folk have been in the forefront of the struggle against American racism. If these efforts fall prey to anti-Semitism, then the principled attempt to combat racism forfeits much of its moral credibility—and we all lose. To put it bluntly, if the black freedom struggle becomes simply a power-driven war of all against all that pits xenophobia from below against racism from above, then David Duke's project is the wave of the future—and a racial apocalypse awaits us. Despite Duke's resounding defeat, we witness increasing racial and sexual violence, coupled with growing economic deprivation, that together provide the raw ingredients for such a frightening future.

Black people have searched desperately for allies in the struggle against racism—and have found Jews to be disproportionately represented in the ranks of that struggle. The desperation that sometimes informs the antiracist struggle arises out of two conflicting historical forces: America's historically weak will to racial justice
and
an all-inclusive moral vision of freedom and justice for all. Escalating black anti-Semitism is a symptom of this desperation gone sour; it is the bitter fruit of a profound self-destructive impulse, nurtured on the vines of hopelessness and concealed by empty gestures of black unity. The images of black activists yelling “Where is Hitler when we need him?” and “Heil Hitler,” juxtaposed with those of David Duke celebrating Hitler's birthday, seem to feed a single fire of intolerance, burning on both ends of the American candle, that threatens to consume us all.

B
LACK
anti-Semitism rests on three basic pillars. First, it is a species of anti-whitism. Jewish complicity in American racism—even though it is less extensive than the complicity of other white Americans—reinforces black perceptions that Jews are identical to any other group benefitting from white-skin privileges in racist America. This view denies the actual history and treatment of Jews. And the particular interactions of Jews and black people in the hierarchies of business and education cast Jews as the public face of oppression for the black community, and thus lend evidence to this mistaken view of Jews as any other white folk.

Second, black anti-Semitism is a result of higher expectations some black folk have of Jews. This perspective holds Jews to a moral standard different from that extended to other white ethnic groups, principally owing to the ugly history of anti-Semitism in the world, especially in Europe and the Middle East. Such double standards assume that Jews and blacks are “natural” allies, since both groups have suffered chronic degradation and oppression at the hands of racial and ethnic majorities. So when Jewish neoconservatism gains a high public profile at a time when black people are more and more vulnerable, the charge of “betrayal” surfaces among black folk who feel let down. Such utterances resonate strongly in a black Protestant culture that has inherited many stock Christian anti-Semitic narratives of Jews as Christ-killers. These infamous narratives historically have had less weight in the black community, in stark contrast to the more obdurate white Christian varieties of anti-Semitism. Yet in moments of desperation in the black community, they tend to reemerge, charged with the rhetoric of Jewish betrayal.

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