One Hundred Years Ago today, WEB Dubois, Julius Rosenthal, Lillian Wald, Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, Stephen Wise and Henry Malkewitz formed the NAACP. You may not know that.
Mostly, you won't know it because the press has very carefully hidden that fact in most of the stories running today about the NAACP's Centenial. I know it is very fashionable to completely sanitize all Jewish references from the history of the NAACP--or, worse, blame Jews for "using the civil rights movement"--as I have seen on some very racist websites.
The truth of the matter is that Jews have always been at the forefront of civil rights of all types for all kinds of people. Why? Because we know what it is like to be hated. We are told in Torah that we are to be kind to strangers because we were once strangers. We know what it is like to be thought of as "strange" and "the other" in a very real sense of the word, so we are very sensitive to issues of race, creed, and nationality and always have been.
This short article makes the point that blacks started to see Jews as whites during the black power movement. The blacks believed that Jews were able to make strides in the society with hard work and education, but blacks were not. In my opinion, this view is only half right. The other part of this story is that many American Jews stopped being religious, intermarried, and assimilated into American society so that they were, essentially, not really Jewish any more.
The thing that makes it hard to be a Jew and the object of ridicule and discrimination is not the way we look, but the requirements of our religion. If we give up being kosher and we give up being Shomer Shabbat, and we intermarry with non-Jews, we do get rid of nearly all the things that make us discriminated against.
Most of my life, living as a non-religious Jew, I was living as a white person, and completely accepted as so. It wasn't until I became religious that my Jewishness became a "problem" with my friends, my family, and my job.
I couldn't attend holiday parties or other "family picnics" at work because they were on Shabbat, and I couldn't eat at non-Kosher restaurants with my coworkers or enjoy the monthly employee potluck. I couldn't attend certain cultural events or open houses. My children couldn't participate in sports because all the games were on Shabbat. I couldn't go over to eat at the homes of non-Jewish or non-religious friends because I couldn't eat their food.
So, the other side of the "Jews and whites and not as brothers" in the area of race relations, I think, came also in the 1960s when a lot of young Jews gave up their religious responisbilities. They were not longer discriminated against to the same degree they had been before (I know there is still some discrimination against non-Religious Jews--but it isn't nearly as bad as against religious Jews. I am absolutely positive of that!)
In addition to that extra strain on relations, blacks began to regard Jews with hatred and suspicion--mostly due to the influence of the Nation of Islam movement.
The loss of understanding and knowledge of this joint history is a very sad turn of events because it not only keeps both groups from knowing their shared history in America, but it also signals a willingness to change history to suit the needs of hatemongers and essentialists.
This is a beautifully done short history of Blacks and Jews in America, a synopsis of a nice PBS documtery. I urge you to see it if you have the opportunity. It is a history that is rich, dignified, and TRUE . . . despite what the hate mongers on either side want you to believe.
From Swastika to Jim Crow--Black-Jewish Relations
The segregationists and racists make no fine distinction between the Negro and the Jew.
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The story of Black-Jewish relations in the United States is a long and complex one.... Jews were among those who worked to establish the NAACP in 1909. African-American newspapers were among the first in the U.S. to denounce Nazism.... FROM SWASTIKA TO JIM CROW creates hope and reminds us of a time in U.S. history when the two communities came together.
- David Horowitz, Washington Review
- David Horowitz, Washington Review
The tension between Blacks and Jews remains a visible symbol of America's racial divide. The history of this relationship is a tumultuous one, ironically full of ugly twists and turns interspersed with moments of real human transcendence.
Since the time of slavery, Blacks have in some ways identified with the Jewish experience. They compared their situation in the American South to that of the Jews in Egypt, as expressed in Black spirituals such as "Go Down, Moses." The longing for their own exodus inspired the popularity of "Zion" in the names of many Black churches. Black nationalists used the Zionist movement as a model for their own Back-to-Africa movement.
Over the years Jews have also expressed empathy with the plight of Blacks. In the early 1900s, Jewish newspapers drew parallels between the Black movement out of the South and the Jews' escape from Egypt, pointing out that both Blacks and Jews lived in ghettos, and calling anti-Black riots in the South "pogroms". Stressing the similarities rather than the differences between the Jewish and Black experience in America, Jewish leaders emphasized the idea that both groups would benefit the more America moved toward a society of merit, free of religious, ethnic and racial restrictions.
From the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, Blacks and Jews marched arm-in-arm. In 1909, W.E.B. Dubois, Julius Rosenthal, Lillian Wald, Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, Stephen Wise and Henry Malkewitz formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). One year later other prominent Jewish and Black leaders created the Urban League. Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington worked together in 1912 to improve the educational system for Blacks in the South.
Thus, in the 1930s and '40s when Jewish refugee professors arrived at Southern Black Colleges, there was a history of overt empathy between Blacks and Jews, and the possibility of truly effective collaboration. Professor Ernst Borinski organized dinners at which Blacks and Whites would have to sit next to each other - a simple yet revolutionary act. Black students empathized with the cruelty these scholars had endured in Europe and trusted them more than other Whites. In fact, often Black students - as well as members of the Southern White community - saw these refugees as "some kind of colored folk."
The unique relationship that developed between these teachers and their students was in some ways a microcosm of what was beginning to happen in other parts of the United States. The American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and the Anti-Defamation League were central to the campaign against racial prejudice. Jews made substantial financial contributions to many civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, the Urban League, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. About 50 percent of the civil rights attorneys in the South during the 1960s were Jews, as were over 50 percent of the Whites who went to Mississippi in 1964 to challenge Jim Crow Laws.
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."