In her 1991 autobiography, Deborah, Golda, and Me , Letty Cottin Pogrebin argued that black-Jewish relationships rested on a common history of oppression. "Both blacks and Jews have known Egypt," she wrote. "Jews have known it as certain death (the killing of the firstborn, then the ovens and gas chambers). Blacks have known it as death and terror by bondage." Paul Berman agreed. "It was the past that made the blacks and the Jews almost the same," he wrote in the February 28, 1994 issue of the New Yorker , "and the past has the singular inconvenience of never going away." Jewish attitudes toward blacks have developed within the context of this faith in a common history and destiny. Of the many pieties of American Jewry, few have been accepted so readily and widely at face value or have been so influential as the easy assumption that blacks and Jews share vital interests arising out of what the rabbi-historian Arthur Hertzberg termed the "comradeship of excluded peoples."
The dismay of American Jews regarding the current status of black-Jewish relations arises from the presumption that blacks and Jews should stand side by side through thick and thin. "The truth is that Jews do feel different vis-a-vis the black community," Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith, recently stated. "There is a history, there is a kinship, and it goes beyond the rhetoric. Look, there’s never going to be a crisis in Irish-black relations or Italian-black relations, because they have no relations. But we do."
Jews have supposed that they, more than any other group, could and did empathize with the plight of blacks, and that blacks recognized this. Jewish newspapers early in the twentieth century compared the black movement out of the South to the exodus from Egypt, noted that both blacks and Jews lived in ghettos, and described anti-black riots in the South as pogroms. Even European Jews voiced compassion for the American black. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was translated into both Yiddish and Hebrew. In his 1902 book Old New Land , Theodore Herzl wrote:
There is still one other question arising out of the disaster of the nations which remains unsolved to this day, and whose profound tragedy only a Jew can comprehend. This is the African question . . . . I am not ashamed to say, though I may expose myself to ridicule in saying so, that once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.
Among Jewish leaders, if not the Jewish man-in-the-street, it became an article of faith that the fates of blacks and Jews were intertwined. Jews were propelled into the civil rights movement by the belief that Jews and blacks shared the same agenda. Joel and Arthur Spingarn helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Jack Greenberg succeeded Thurgood Marshall as head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Jewish organizations such as the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and the ADL were in the forefront in the campaign against racial prejudice. The financial contributions of Jews were crucial in the work of the NAACP, the Urban League, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and other civil rights organizations. More than half of the whites who went to Mississippi in 1964 to challenge Jim Crow were Jews, and about half of the civil rights attorneys in the South during the 1960s were Jews. No white ethnic group voted more readily for blacks than Jews. This was true in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, in Chicago and New York. Tom Bradley, Harold Washington, and David Dinkins would not have been elected the mayors of Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City had Jews voted the same as Italians, Poles, and the Irish.
Jews have been far more interested in blacks than blacks have been interested in Jews. George Gershwin wrote Porgy and Bess , while Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson spent much of their stage careers in blackface. In academia there is not one black scholar, apart from Julius Lester, a convert to Judaism, whose major field of interest is Jewish studies. By contrast, many of the most prominent authorities on black history and black sociology have been Jews. One thinks immediately of Melville J. Herskovits ( The Myth of the Negro Past ), Frank Tannenbaum ( Slave and Citizen ), and Charles Silberman ( Crisis in Black and White ), among others. The field of black history in America is studded with such names as Herbert Aptheker, Ira Berlin, Philip Foner, Herbert Gutman, Lawrence W. Levine, Leon F. Litwack, Gilbert Osofsky, George Rawick, and Seth M. Scheiner. Robert W. Fogel, the cowinner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Economics, coauthored the most controversial economic analysis of slavery, Time on the Cross , and Stanley Elkins wrote Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life , the most debated study of the impact of slavery on blacks.
The historian Peter Novick in his 1988 volume, That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession , noted a difference in the way that gentile and Jewish historians have approached black history. While white historians who wrote of white attitudes and behavior toward blacks-George Frederickson, Winthrop Jordan,
C. Vann Woodward-were usually gentiles, those white historians who wrote of blacks as subjects were generally Jews. Jews seemingly were better able to write about blacks from the black point of view. Thus Herbert Gutman wrote a mammoth history of the black family and Lawrence Levine wrote an outstanding book on Afro-American folk culture. Nell Painter, a contemporary black historian, claimed that while most white historians wrote from a white perspective, historians such as Levine and Gutman "are able to think about history in what I’d call ‘black’ ways."
Jewish spokesmen emphasized that this affinity of Jews toward blacks stemmed not only from idealism but also from self-interest. Jews would benefit the more America moved toward a society of merit in which religious, ethnic, and racial barriers were unimportant. One year before the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation in the 1954 Brown decision, the Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council declared, "In a still imperfect society, Jews, together with many other groups, suffer from inequalities of opportunity and other forms of discrimination." Jewish leaders stressed the similarities rather than the differences between the Jewish and black experience in America. Both groups, they asserted, were powerless and victims of persecution. Both included in their ranks martyrs to American intolerance, Leo Frank in the case of Jews and Emmett Till in the case of blacks. The murder of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi in 1964 strengthened the presumption that the fates of blacks and Jews were intertwined.
This presumption has continued to resonate among American Jews. One curious manifestation of this was the Public Broadcasting System documentary film Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II . This film and an accompanying book that appeared simultaneously described the role of black soldiers in liberating Jews from the Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps in April 1945. The film opened on November 9, 1992, the fifty-fourth anniversary of Kristallnacht , at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center with Jesse Jackson and other luminaries in attendance. One month later it was screened at the Apollo Theater in Harlem under the sponsorship of a group calling itself the Liberators Commemoration Committee. The screening was followed by a reception attended by black leaders, black veterans of World War II, and Holocaust survivors.
Liberators could not have appeared at a more fortuitous time for new York City politicians and black and Jewish leaders. Mayor Dinkins hoped that it would lessen tensions between blacks and Jews that had been exacerbated by the 1991 riot in Crown Heights and the refusal in October 1992 of a Brooklyn jury to convict Lemrick Nelson of the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum. Dinkins had been elected in 1989 as the city’s first black mayor, and he had emphasized during the election campaign that he could best heal the city’s ethnic and racial divisions. Dinkins’ hope for reelection depended on support among Jewish voters, and Liberators , with its premise that Jews and blacks shared a common agenda, was grist for his political mill. The New York City Board of Education planned to distribute copies of the documentary to all of the city’s public junior and senior high schools, and Jewish philanthropists competed for the privilege of funding the operation. They hoped that the film could help stem the tide of increasing black anti-Semitism and repair the badly frayed black-Jewish liberal coalition.
Liberators received an Academy Award nomination for best documentary even after doubts had been raised by black World War II veterans, Holocaust survivors, and Holocaust historians regarding the film’s veracity. It soon became clear that black soldiers had never liberated Dachau and Buchenwald, although they had been in the vicinity. Jeffrey Goldberg, the New York bureau chief for the Forward , a Jewish Eng lish language weekly, blew the whistle on Liberators . In an essay titled "The Exaggerators," which appeared in the February 8, 1993 issue of the New Republic , Goldberg quoted the denials of both black soldiers and survivors that blacks had liberated Dachau and Buchenwald. The American Jewish Committee issued a fifteen-page report which concluded that Liberators contained "serious factual flaws well beyond what can be written off as ‘artistic license.’"
The black veterans were particularly angry regarding the liberties that had been taken with the truth. "I first went to Buchenwald in 1991 with PBS," one black soldier who appeared in the film told Goldberg. The black soldiers had had an enviable record of service in Europe in 1944 and 1945, and they did not want this record sullied by fantasies which, once discredited, could bring into question their wartime performance. E. G. McConnell, one of these soldiers, said, "We had been stripped of our history in our slavery, and I didn’t want to come up with anything that could tarnish our record. But apparently some other people didn’t mind a few lies."
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the controversy surrounding Liberators was not the deceit practiced by Nina Rosenblum, the film’s Jewish cocreator, but her continuing refusal to recant even after the movie’s misrepresentations had been exposed and the film and videotape had been withdrawn from circulation. She described as racists those whites who would deprive the black units of credit for liberating Dachau and Buchenwald. This she argued even though the black veterans themselves had been the first to raise doubts about the film. Rosenblum in fact described McConnell as "severely brain-damaged" due to being hit in the head with shrapnel during the war. The black veterans were not the only blacks who objected to the film. Blacks who had been involved in making the film soon realized that their artistic integrity had been compromised for the sake of Rosenblum’s political and social agenda.
Rosenblum was not the only Jew unwilling to allow the minor point of historical accuracy to detract from the laudable effort to cement black-Jewish relations. If the film was not factually true, they seemed to be saying, so much the worse for truth. Peggy Tishman, one of the cohosts for the Apollo showing, asked rhetorically, "Why would anybody want to exploit the idea that this is a fraud? What we’re trying to do is make New York a better place for you and me to live." The truth of the film was subsidiary to its role in reviving the black-Jewish alliance. For Jews on the left, Liberators was a disaster not because it was a fraud but because it encouraged those elements within the Jewish community who were skeptical of the black-Jewish alliance.
Letty Pogrebin, writing in the radical Jewish magazine Tikkun , feared that the controversy engendered by the film played into the hands of those political forces who sought to capitalize on black-Jewish hostility. For her, the dispute mandated a search for truth "at a level deeper than facts." "The film presents us with a problem of ethical slippage and well-intentioned embellishment," she wrote, but "not a hoax." "Truth must be defended, yes; but so must the liberal vision of Black advancement and the struggle for Black-Jewish harmony."
It is precisely because Jews have presumed that blacks and Jews have common interests that they are so disappointed by the reluctance of Jesse Jackson and other black leaders to strongly condemn the anti- Semitic rantings of Louis Farrakhan and his ilk. This disappointment stems not only from the belief that blacks have not shown the proper gratitude for all that Jews have done for them. More important is the fact that black anti-Semitism throws doubt on an important element of the identity of American Jewish liberals and radicals-the presumption that blacks and Jews comprise a community of the oppressed and that Jews are never acting more true to their religious and ethnic heritage than when they are working side by side with blacks to create a society free of racial and religious prejudice. If anything, this belief of Jews in their special relationship with blacks encourages anti-Semitism. As Arch Puddington has argued ("Black Anti-Semitism and How it Grows," Commentary , April 1994), anti-Semites such as Farrakhan are encouraged in their anti-Semitism "in the knowledge that Jews, unlike other whites, will react not simply with anger, but with wounded innocence and appeals for ‘dialogue’ and ‘healing.’ Abandoning the fiction of the special relationship might thus have the paradoxical effect of contributing to a reduction of racial tensions."
Black anti-Semitism, however, is simply incomprehensible to Jews who would like to believe that their own history of affliction, culminating in the Holocaust, has made them incapable of racism. This ignores the sociological and historical context within which black-Jewish relations have evolved. A curious effort along these lines was the editorial "Victims and Victimizers" that appeared in the March-April 1994 issue of Tikkun . It argued that the color of people’s skins was determined not by pigmentation but by political correctness.
[W]ho gets labeled "white" and who gets labeled "persons of color" derives not from the color of one’s skin . . . but from the degree to which one has been a victim of Western colonialist oppression. By that measure, Jews have been the greatest victim of Western societies throughout the past two thousand years and must certainly be understood to be one of the "peoples of color." Our literature was systematically excluded from the academic canon and so deserves to be part of the multicultural corpus. And our history ought to be studied as a prime example of oppression.
For Jews on the left an entente with blacks was necessary in order to define their sense of self. This entente vindicated Jewish liberalism and encouraged a Jewish identity free of religious obscurantism. "We are all forced to confront . . . the question of what is a Jew and what does this all mean," Ellen Willis, a Jewish radical, said in 1982. "And to me the status of Jews as outsiders and as persecuted outsiders is the core of what Judaism and Jewishness is all about." It is this Jewish need for close cooperation between blacks and Jews that accounts for their strong response to the bluster of Khallid Abdul Muhammad. Catholics have every right to feel equally aggrieved, since Muhammad called the Pope a "cracker." But most Catholics have taken his comments with a pound of salt, perhaps because they don’t expect much better.
Jews have continued to call for the maintenance of the black-Jewish alliance despite the socioeconomic differences between the two groups. Leonard Fein, the founder of Moment magazine, has been among the most eloquent spokesman for this position. In his 1988 book Where Are We? The Inner Life of America’s Jews , Fein admitted that American Jews were no longer among the oppressed. Nevertheless, Jews should continue to identify with blacks because of "our continuing need to see ourselves among the miserable-or, at least, the still- threatened." The involvement of Jews in the civil rights movement, Fein concluded, "has helped preserve our sense of ourselves as still, and in spite of all the successes we’ve known, among the oppressed, hence also among the decent, the just, the virtuous." Those familiar with the history of anti-Semitism in Europe, the Middle East, and even the United States would hesitate before conflating, as does Fein, being oppressed with being decent, just, and virtuous.
Even a cursory examination of the history of black-Jewish relations in the United States reveals that they were never as warm as Pogrebin and Fein would have us believe, nor are they today as frigid as alarmists claim. If support for blacks is an ineluctable result of Jewish values, then one would expect that the most Jewish of American Jews-the Orthodox of Brooklyn-would be the most sympathetic toward blacks. The exact opposite, however, is true. Secure in their Jewish identity, they do not require close relations with blacks to define their Jewish identity. Their Jew ishness rests on more substantial grounds.
One does not have to be Orthodox, however, to be wary of blacks. Norman Podhoretz’s 1963 essay in Commentary , "My Negro Problem-and Ours," reveals how wide was the cultural gulf between immigrant Jews and their children who resided in the solidly Jewish neighborhood of Brownsville in Brooklyn and the blacks in adjacent neighborhoods. Podhoretz and his friends were simultaneously repulsed by and attracted to the superior athleticism and sexuality of the blacks, an attitude also reflected in Norman Mailer’s famous essay "The White Negro."
If the most Jewish of Jews are the least receptive to blacks, Jews most alienated from Jewish culture and religion have been the most supportive of black demands. It is difficult to draw any connection between the fact that the parents of Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were Jews and the fact that their children risked and ultimately lost their lives working in behalf of blacks in Mississippi. Goodman and Schwerner evidenced little attachment in their daily lives to things Jewish. Goodman’s parents were radicals, and his father was president of the board of directors of the radical New York City radio station WBAI. Schwerner professed to be an atheist. It was fitting that, just as they had lived their lives remote from Jewish concerns, so neither Goodman or Schwer ner had Jewish funerals. What was true of Goodman and Schwerner was also true of many prominent Jews in the civil rights movement. The Spingarns were hardly ardent Jews. William Chafe’s recent biography of Allard Lowenstein shows the extent to which Lowenstein was embarrassed by his Jewish background, as evidenced by his decision to attend the University of North Carolina rather than a northern university where there would be a sizable Jewish enrollment. Jack Greenberg did not participate in Jewish political or social affairs, and he seldom set foot in a synagogue. Indeed, it would seem that for Greenberg and Lowenstein, as well as for Howard Zinn, William Kuntsler, and others, an involvement in black causes was a surrogate identity that helped fill the vacuum in their lives stemming from their estrangement from things Jewish.
The myth of black-Jewish identity also mistook the nature of black- Jewish relations and the attitude of blacks toward Jews. It is true that in a variety of ways blacks ever since the time of slavery have modeled their lives on the Jewish experience. As indicated by black spirituals such as "Go Down, Moses," blacks drew parallels between their own situation in the South and that of the Jews in Egypt. Just as Jews escaped from slavery and, in the process, inflicted punishment on their taskmasters, so blacks anticipated flight from slavery and the chastisement of the South. The popularity of "Zion" in the names of black churches shows the extent to which the experience of the exodus resonated among blacks. Black nationalists used the Zionist movement as a model for their own back-to-Africa movement. Finally, blacks used the example of the upward social and economic mobility and bourgeois values of Jews as a model for their own people. For groups such as the Black Jews of Harlem this admiration for Jews led to syncretic religious cults containing Jewish elements.
Despite, however, what affinity they might have felt to Jews, blacks believed that there was still a vast racial gulf separating the two groups. No matter how much Jews did for blacks, in black eyes Jews were whites with all the privileges accruing to those with white skins. For blacks, the great fault line in America was not between the oppressors and the oppressed, including Jews, but between those with white skins and those with black skins. The rapid decline of American anti-Semitism after 1945 combined with the nation’s continuing pervasive racism was proof to blacks, if they needed any such proof, that the condition of American Jews bore little resemblance to that of blacks.
Even during the first two decades after World War II-the supposed "golden age" of black-Jewish relations-James Baldwin, Kenneth Clark, and other blacks warned liberal Jews that their image of a close black- Jewish affinity was a fiction of their imagination, and that candor and realism were now required. As Baldwin noted in a famous statement, "Georgia has the Negro and Harlem has the Jew." Whenever the black had to pay rent to a Jewish apartment house owner, or shopped at a Jewish- owned store, or was taught by a Jewish school teacher, or was supervised by a Jewish social worker, or was paid by a Jewish employer, the fact of black subservience to Jews was driven home. The title of one of Baldwin’s essays was revealing: "Blacks are anti-Semitic because They’re Anti-white."
The constant advice to blacks to look to the Jewish experience as a model exacerbated the problem. That advice assumed that if Jews could make it in American society then presumably so could blacks; but this assumption ignored the crucial fact that Jews were white. Furthermore, the fact of Jewish social and economic advance was painful to blacks in the face of their own less rapid progress. It was as if Jewish success was a constant insult, drawing continual attention to their own inadequacies and failures. One could hardly think of a more effective way to increase anti-Semitism among blacks than to encourage blacks to emulate Jews and to harp continually on the disparity between black and Jewish economic and social development. If Jews and blacks were really oppressed brothers, how could one account for the disparity in their social and economic conditions?
One can only imagine the impact on blacks of Eric Hoffer’s comparison of blacks and Jews. The example of Jews, Hoffer wrote,
shows what persistent striving and a passion for education can do . . . even in the teeth of discrimination. This is a fact which the Negro vehemently rejects. It sticks in his gullet . . . . The Jew impairs the authenticity of the Negro’s grievances and alibis. He threatens the Negro’s most precious possession: the freedom to fail.
From this perspective, the success of the Jew was a continual contradiction of the cult of victimization fostered by black spokesmen.
Blacks had a far more realistic attitude of the black-Jewish connection than did Jews, and they were not as concerned as Jews by the unraveling of the black-Jewish alliance in the 1960s and 1970s. Jews needed blacks to authenticate their image of themselves as liberals, but blacks did not need Jews to authenticate their image of themselves as blacks. They merely had to look in the mirror. "Jews interested in rebuilding coalitions," Julius Lester said, "had to get to know blacks better, had to get to know them as people instead of as liberal icons."
Blacks also realized that they were hardly the equal of Jews, and that relations between the two groups reflected this disparity in economic and social status. As much as Jews might have done for blacks, the relationship was essentially one of paternalism. A paradigm of this association was the one between Jack Benny and Rochester on the popular radio and television show of the 1940s and 1950s. As close and warm as the dealings between the two men might be portrayed, there was never any mistaking the fact that Benny was the boss and Rochester the servant.
Letty Pogrebin’s dismay concerning the debate over Liberators derived from her fear that it could prevent a refashioning of the traditional relationship between the two groups. The furor over the film’s historical accuracy, she claimed, had obscured the "deeper" truth of the film, namely, that in the past blacks had helped Jews just as Jews had helped blacks. The opponents of the film, in her view, hoped to obliterate the memory of this reciprocity. "Any such reshuffling of the power balance between our two peoples," she said, "disturbs the well- burnished narrative that for decades has reflected the Jewish self-image in warm, flattering tones."
Blacks had resented Jews not because they did not do enough for them but because they did too much. This gave rise to the joke about the man who was shocked to find himself attacked by blacks. "I haven’t done anything for them," he responded. Harold Cruse’s 1967 book, The Crisis of the Black Intellectual , was a revelation for its Jewish readers, indicating as it did the extent to which blacks resented Jewish involvement in black affairs. The pervasive anti-Semitism of The Crisis of the Black Intellectual stemmed from Cruse’s bitterness over the fact that the black drive for self-determination had been deflected by Jewish radicals into causes, such as communism, that were of little relevance to black nationalism.
For decades sensitive observers warned Jews that black-Jewish relations were not what they presumed. In 1964, Rabbi Richard C. Hertz discussed the "Rising Tide of Negro-Jewish Tensions" in the black magazine Ebony , and two years later the sociologist Dennis Wrong prophesied that "Negro anti-Semitism is not a passing phenomenon." This prediction seemingly has come to pass. Recent polls have revealed that 63 percent of New York City’s blacks believe Jews to have too much influence in the city and that blacks are twice as likely to hold anti- Semitic views as other Americans. Gary E. Rubin of the Amer ican Jewish Committee has raised serious doubts about the methodology of these polls, and he insists that they overestimate the extent of overall American anti-Semitism. Still, there seems little question that anti- Semitism is more widespread among blacks than whites. American blacks are the only major American ethnic group that has leaders who are clearly anti-Semitic.
Black anti-Semitism seems to have repealed the traditional sociological laws of anti-Semitism. Whereas for whites anti-Semitism is more prevalent among those older, less affluent, less educated, and more religious, among blacks the exact opposite is true. Within the black community there is a positive correlation between youth, schooling, income, and lack of religiosity on the one hand and anti-Semitism on the other. Yet are these results so surprising? Is it really so strange that upwardly mobile blacks would see Jews as part of an undifferentiated mass of whites bent on limiting their advancement? Is it so odd that blacks, after contrasting their economic and social status with that of Jews (or Asians), would hold ambivalent, frustrated, and resentful attitudes toward them? Nevertheless, Jews continue to assume that black anti-Semitism is irrational and transitory. Since blacks and Jews have supposedly been close in times past, black anti-Semitism appears incongruous. Hence Gary Marx’s 1967 book, Protest and Prejudice , which discounted the presence of black anti-Semitism.
Some Jews on the left would prefer to explain away black anti-Semitism because its existence casts doubt on the myth of black-Jewish comradeship. Thus one participant in a roundtable on "Beyond Crown Heights," published in the January-February 1993 issue of Tikkun , asserted, "It’s no surprise that we might expect a problem with anti-Semitism after twelve years of Reagan and Bush in which social inequalities have grown." Jews were forced to resort to such bizarre arguments because they consistently misunderstood the history of black-Jewish relations and the relative status of the two communities. Hillel Levine and Lawrence Harmon’s The Death of an American Jewish Community: A Tragedy of Good Intentions (1992) exemplifies another attempt to hold on to the black-Jewish alliance. This study of the transformation of the Jewish neighborhood of Roxbury- Dorchester-Mattapan in Boston into a black slum blamed the hostility of blacks and Jews on unscrupulous bankers, realtors, and politicians, who presumably were only too happy to pit the two groups against each other.
The problems between Jews and blacks, however, go much deeper. American Jews, whatever their problems with prejudice, never experienced anything remotely resembling the enslavement, discrimination, and racism encountered by blacks, while blacks, whatever their gains in status, never experienced the economic and social prosperity of Jews. Blacks and Jews derived different lessons from American history. "The Jewish travail occurred across the sea and America rescued him from the house of bondage," Baldwin wrote in 1967. "But America is the house of bondage for the Negro, and no country can rescue him." Their own experience convinced Jews that America was an open society in which education and merit would eventually win out. Hence their firm opposition to affirmative action. History, however, suggested to blacks that American society was irredeemably stacked against them and that something more than the merit principle was necessary if the legacy of three and a half centuries of racism was to be overcome.
On every possible social and economic index-and for whatever reasons-blacks have lagged far behind Jews. Jews, who comprise less than 3 percent of the American population, made up over 25 percent of the names on the most recent Forbes magazine list of the four hundred richest Americans. By contrast, there was only one black on the list, the entertainer Bill Cosby, even though 12 percent of Americans are black. Blacks are still waiting for one of their number to be selected to head an elite American university, while Jews have already served as presidents of Princeton, Dartmouth, Columbia, Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago, and the University of Pennsylvania. Blacks have also lagged behind Jews in national politics. There are ten Jewish United States Senators and thirty-three members of the House of Representatives. Jews are overrepresented in the Senate by a factor of four and in the House by a factor of three. Although blacks comprise roughly 10 percent of the House of Representatives, there is only one black Senator-Carol Mosely Braun of Illinois.
While Jews constitute an economic and social elite group within contemporary America, a significant minority of blacks comprise what sociologists call the "underclass." The disparities between Jews and blacks regarding crime, family breakdown, drug addiction, alcoholism, and educational achievements are well known. There is nothing in the American Jewish experience similar to what exists today in the inner city and what the sociologist Oscar Lewis called "the culture of poverty." Jewish criminality, such as that found on the Lower East Side of New York and in Brownsville, Brooklyn back in the 1920s and 1930s, was largely a one-generation phenomenon, as was the Jewish working class. Jewish membership in the American labor union movement is concentrated in the white collar unions of teachers, government employees, and social workers. While the major problem facing America’s Jews today is maintaining Jewish identity in the midst of affluence, acculturation, and declining anti-Semitism, the major problems facing most blacks are the more immediate ones of economic survival, family breakdown, and continuing racial prejudice. If the comradeship of Jews and blacks as victims was not a mirage in times past, it certainly is one today.
Black-Jewish relations can never be on a sound footing as long as Jewish leaders remain wedded to romantic notions regarding the links between the two groups. The fact is that on a whole host of issues the interests of Jews and blacks diverge, and there is nothing unusual or surprising about this. It is demeaning to both blacks and Jews to argue that each must reflexively support the other’s agenda in order to avoid antagonisms. As Michael Meyers, a black leader in New York City, recently asserted, Jews should face "the tough realities":
It’s true that Jews and Blacks have been allies, but we’ve also been rivals. To many Jews racial quotas are affirmative action must be distinguished from exclusionary quotas. We have rivalry about housing . . . . We have disagreements about how and where there are double standards in the criminal justice system.
Meyers could also have added that Jews and blacks have disagreed as well over Jesse Jackson, Israel, and multiculturalism.
Two centuries ago George Washington in his Farewell Address laid down the standards by which the United States should conduct itself with other nations. Here he warned American citizens not to take sides in European conflicts engendered by the French Revolution.
In the execution of such a plan nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachments for others should be excluded, and that in place of them just and amicable feelings toward all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges toward another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. . . . Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists,. . . gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation) facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country without odium, sometimes even with popularity . . . . I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs that honesty is always the best policy.
Washington’s advice-above all that honesty is the best policy-is equally applicable to relations between blacks and Jews.
Edward S. Shapiro is Professor of History at Seton Hall University and the author of A Time For Healing: American Jewry After World War II.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?