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Blacks and Jews in America – an unsatisfying dialogue

I wish Blacks and Jews in America, an Invitation to Dialogue (Georgetown University Press, 2022) had lived up to its promise of a real juxtaposition of amicably conflicting viewpoints. But despite, or perhaps because, Reverend Terrence Johnson (TJ) and Professor Berlinerblau (JB) have been jointly teaching a course on “Blacks and Jews in America” at Georgetown University, well noted for its anti-Zionism, this promising dialogue was disappointingly one-sided. Their self-styled debate was mostly an echo conversation of supposed interlocutors who share the same basic worldview. Both are tied to a conviction that a failed, tilted liberalism continues to oppress blacks and still acts as a sturdy ladder to advance the interests of American Jewry that has somehow come to qualify as “white.”

They are in substantial agreement about what they see as the justifiable grievances of African Americans in 2020. But in doing so, they trivialize worries of today’s American Jews and quite blatantly excuse black antisemitism. While acknowledging the fraying of the “grand alliance” epitomized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior (MLK) and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, they fail to recognize how the relationship and power dynamics between the two peoples have flipped in the last 50 to 60 years. It would have been a much more productive dialogue if the Jewish presenter were schooled in Judaism, Jewish history and the various current of Zionist ideas. JB seems only superficially connected to concerns about old and new forms of discrimination, defamation, demonization and ostracism.

As a teenager and young adult in the 1960s and 70s I knew I was a Jew, feeling Jewish and a somewhat less American “otherness.” I have since been redefined as a “white male,” popularly consigned to a class of privileged oppressors. Worse for me, I am still a Jew and an unapologetic Zionist; that makes me a neocolonialist, Islamophobe and a racist. That is why I take this book seriously and regret its one-sidedness. The passage of time and lived experience gives me perspective that these younger men get from studies.

It is striking to me to see how in two generations the power of African Americans has steadily waxed while that of American Jews has waned commensurately. The normalization of black people in America and their acceptance in American culture is permanent. Bigotry among whites is now taboo and expressions of atavistic attitudes earn denunciation. Whereas the formal rules of power and informal systems were stacked against black people before 1965, it would be determined obliviousness to deny that great progress has been made.

So why do the authors agree that African Americans are still deficient in power compared to Jewish Americans? Jews and blacks had much interaction and parallel experience in the urban ghettos of the first half of the 20th century. The authors point out that liberalism benefitted Jewish immigrants to America of the early 20th century in a way blacks did not enjoy. Particularly after World War II, Jews were more easily able to “pass” as white, facilitated by such assimilating measures as anglicizing family names, giving up conspicuous Sabbath observances, gaining admission to previously restrictive clubs and neighborhoods, and especially intermarriage with Christians.

Political reforms and sweeping reversal of racial attitudes reflect the increasing political power of black Americans. There are some 40+ million (non-Hispanic) blacks in America, some 12% of the total population. There are 4.8 to some 7 million Jews in America, depending on who-how-why is counting. There are 58 members of the current US House of Representatives who identify as black, 13.3% of all seats; 27 identify as Jews, 5.7%. (Of this 85, all but 4 are Democrats.) In 1965 there were but 6 black members of the House of Representatives; 15 were Jews. Not until 1967 was there a black mayor in a major US city (Stokes in Cleveland and Hatcher in Gary were the first). Today there are 470, reflecting the normalization of black political power today. It is indisputable that a substantial black middle class has prospered due to the widening of opportunity.

One cannot ignore mass culture. The presence, really prevalence, of blacks in popular culture, entertainment, business, sports and especially advertising—both as actors and consumer targets—indicate a sea change from their political, cultural and economic omission and suppression up until 1965.

I inferred from the author’s conversation that as assertions of black power emerged and achieved more and more tangible results following civil rights legislation, the “grand alliance” personified by MLK and Rabbi Heschel was in large measure replaced by black leaders’ resentment that post-war American Jewry benefitted faster than did black Americans. Was the distancing of Jews from black organizations not just a matter of the assertion of black pride but a bit based on envy; why them, not us?

The authors devote most of their conversation to the experience of black Americans and their reactions to Jews. They observe that Jewish elites and the suburbanizing Jewish middle class came to feel hurt by the criticisms of black militants, who in turn, came to feel that their former grand allies were blinded by their accession to “white society.” TJ and JB concur that black power leaders grew inured to the Jewish experience of antisemitism in America and to the public remembrances of and for Holocaust refugees from their horrors. It may well be true that Jews were growing less invested in what black power leaders pronounced as the unrelieved inferiority of their situation. Was it because American Jews saw that a rising tide of laws and culture was lifting the black community in general which no longer needed or wanted much white Jewish involvement, let alone leadership? If mutual neglect was benign, why the explosion of black antisemitism? On the Jew hatred propounded by such prominent black nationalists as Louis Farrakhan (whose principles of self-help, stable two-parent families, moral rectitude and communal solidarity are admirable), both authors excuse not only the rhetoric but the ideology as trivial, as unworthy of worry, even if uncouth.

I digress here to our current time of metastasizing Jew hatred from both left and right to observe that by assimilating, keeping our heads down, by not asserting Jewish pride, we Jews have contributed to the withering of whatever cultural and political power we had previously attained. We should learn much from the way blacks organized and took risks to demand and compel change. I see that acceptance of African Americans as rightful and full citizens is not only a respectable attitude, but commonplace, axiomatic and normal. It is evidence of their success.

In giving short shrift to this success, the authors keep stressing their beef with classical liberalism. In their 21st century progressivism, the authors call for the amplification of black identity, rather than its channeling into the total American “salad bowl.” Their warmness to Marcusian critical theory, embraced and revivified as Black Lives Matter, belies the progress and benefits earned by the majority of black Americans. This book went to press prior to the current backlash to CRT and the cultural Marxism of prominent politicians. Thus the authors did not rise to the test of suggesting how our system could be replaced with one that would enshrine identity entitlement.

As mentioned above, the authors cannot but help keep returning to the theme of liberalism’s shortcomings as it affects black Americans while minimizing how the empowering of black Americans may be seen by some as diminishing the status or power of Jews. In these chapters, citing or interviewing prominent Jewish intellectuals, such as Zev Chafets or Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik would have offered a much fuller and more nuanced perspective than JB. Bringing Prof. Jason Hill or Jason Riley, un-woke Christian thinkers, into the conversation would also have offered a non-radical counterpoint to TJ. These commentators would certainly argue that it is a system of merit that has benefitted both blacks and Jews, albeit at different rates of progress in different spheres. This is where TJ and JB ignore a basic article of faith for American Jews, that discrimination to prefer or restrict an individual or group is morally wrong, is antithetical to the betterment of society, is anti-American and is absolutely unconstitutional. Thus, the belief that institutionalized affirmative action and the credo promoted by black retaliationists that antiracism is the cure for racism is anathema to most American Jews.

Many Jews of my generation worry that a step in any direction of race preference, particularly when pushed to a cultural norm, is a is a frictionless slope to an abyss for any conspicuously successful minority, such as the Jews (many Asian-American subgroups are by now hypersensitive to this movement). When resentment of a group immersed in a sense of aggrievement builds, the potential toward violence multiplies.

Thus, we are seeing an eruption of physical attacks by some urban blacks against Jews who are easily identifiable. Quite often the perpetrators are thugs with felonious motives, the deranged, but also easily incited young adults who gang up to beat the objects of their directed rage. These are not Nazi brown shirts, but angry people who are incited by an atmosphere that points to a scapegoat, the usual one. Silence about attacks and beatings (many posted on social media) from black leaders is deafening. Jews who marched in the South, who were disgusted by lynchings, who worked and suffered for civil rights for blacks feel abandoned by black leadership that does not speak loudly to condemn this thuggery. This hurts because such silence comes from an ally with similar needs for status, respect and equal treatment. We Jews know that white and other visceral antisemites need no coaxing to demean and to do violence to Jews. We know that Islamist newcomers to our shores were never allies of Jews, so we are not surprised at rhetorical and physical attacks by them. Thus, the silence from the Black Caucus is particularly shattering when so many of their Democrat colleagues in Congress are Jews.

That brings me to the most egregious, but not unexpected, blind spot of the authors’ shared worldview. Despite JB’s reminder to TJ that Israel exists under the constant and explicit threat of annihilation, TJ seems unable to concede that most Jews are correct to associate if not equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. TJ is wedded to a strain of thinking that Israel is a white colonial power, even as it fought British imperialism for its independence; even that it has absorbed half or more of its population as “colored” refugees from nonwhite Middle East countries; even at it confers full citizenship and equality for Israeli Arabs; even with its historically unique benign and generous occupation of a large and growing population of Arabs as a result of winning a defensive war; even when it retaliates against rockets with the utmost care for the human rights of its assailants (more than any country in history); TJ and only nominally JB, are able to cut Israel any slack for operating humanely under stress.

The authors naively or willfully misread the social justice origins of Israel. The key founding political parties of Israel were socialists (even part of the International). The fact that Ben Gurion and his followers from all sides of the political spectrum allied with the US is because the ISSR and its socialist bloc abetted Israel’s enemies’ program to destroy it while the “nonaligned” bloc of newly independent countries acquiesced. Israel was lucky to have a Cold Warrior supporter, reluctant at first, and more warmly, until Obama and Biden acted as tacit agents of BDS. I might add that TJ felt obliged to blurt out that Trump is a racist (p.154) while he and JB repeat the progressives’ canard that the lack of peace is due to Jewish settlements in historic Judea and Samaria (lands actually designated to a Jewish state by the League of Nations and part of the UN’s founding documents). Neither author acknowledges that the Arabs of mandatory Palestine have for a century rejected every offer of peace and territorial compromise because their leaders will not countenance a Jewish state in any part of the land.

Black progressives and indeed, many Jewish progressives, are quick to condemn Israel when it acts badly, but I hear silence even today from black leadership on the massive killings and other atrocities or gross injustices in Ethiopia, Nigeria and other black or African societies. Being subjected to this double standard from a “grand ally” causes Jews, particularly of my generation, to feel maligned and betrayed.

I have no doubt that both TJ and JB are sincere in seeking better understanding and wish for a more constructive relationship between Blacks and Jews. This book, and I would guess, in their classroom, the perspective is mainly from the side of black experience and goals not yet achieved. Though TJ and JB open the book by discussing how the Hebrew Bible informs the thinking and actions of both groups, they are much more attuned to the way African Americans use these ideas and tropes than do the Jews. It is fine that blacks and Jews interpret the Hebrew Bible to meet their own particular needs. How can each group manage its ever-evolving situations internally and in relation to each other? Can the more numerous and increasingly powerful black community, with hundreds of years of chattel slavery and Jim Crow experience in America have a constructive relationship with Jewish Americans who have suffered millennia of persecution, tacit slavery, confinement and state-sponsored murder at the hands of world religions and totalitarian isms? I hope that this critique will spur the authors to more completely study the black-Jewish relationship, especially in their teachings.

About the Author
Retired technology executive residing in Skokie Illinois, with a background in history and Middle East studies,committed to argue for preserving Western values.
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