In the 1960s, the Jewish people were synonymous with the civil rights movement. Two-thirds of the white people in the Freedom Rides were Jewish. The two white people lynched along with one black one man during the ‘64 Freedom Summer were Jewish, and the argument for Brown vs. Board of Education was drafted in a Jewish social justice center. Fast forward 40 years and the black and Jewish bond seems to have almost completely vanished. This divide did not suddenly materialize; it developed over time. What happened to weaken this bond? What lead to such a deep disconnect between these two previously close communities?
The golden age of the black-Jewish alliance was created by the heightened awareness of commonalities in the way society oppressed the two groups. Both black and Jewish institutions were victims of KKK terrorist bombings. Both black and Jewish history were filled with bondage, with African people kidnapped and taken to the colonies by white slavers and Jews systematically murdered by the Nazi regime. Both black and Jewish people were discriminated against in restaurants, jobs and colleges, and denied other privileges that white people had. This shared persecution lead to an alliance of Jews and black people who identified with each other’s struggles and worked together to achieve justice.
This bond disintegrated in the late ‘60s for a few reasons. Reason number one: Jews simply aren’t a disenfranchised minority anymore. Jewish educational quotas imposed by schools like Harvard and Yale began to fall like dominoes starting in the mid-sixties. Jewish people currently have the highest household income out of all religious groups. And the barriers against intermarriage, the ultimate symbol of social equality have largely fallen by the wayside. As 58% of Jewish marriages in 2012 were to a non-Jewish spouse. So, naturally, it’s now hard for black people to sympathize with the Jewish community. What is there to sympathize with?
For the black community, America remains a land of bondage which has yet to fully release them from their shackles. While black people’s situation has improved over the past fifty years, serious problems remain. In stark contrast to the Jewish community, the black community has the lowest average family income.
Reason two: the growing anti-Israel views of the black community. Today, particularly among younger blacks activists, Israel is increasingly viewed as an outpost of colonialism, a racist regime that oppresses people of color. In fact, in 2016, the Black Lives Matter Movement added the Palestinian struggle to its official agenda. As black people become more pro Palestinian, they become less connected to the Jewish community. Also, black people who disagree with the Israeli government are often viewed by Jews as anti-Semites.
And that brings us here. Jewish and black people find it increasingly hard to sympathize with each other as they simply share few points of view. We remain with a bond that seems to weaken with every scandal or political issue. We, as Jews, must do everything we can to reconnect with the black community. What can bring us closer to such a lofty goal? Talking. Studies show that encouraging interaction between two groups leads to increased connectivity. Todd Pittinsky, an associate professor at Stony Brook, told me he does not believe conversation, in and of itself, is “transformative” but rather that it “makes certain things possible”. For example the discovery of common goals and collective identity. But, these not goals are not achieved by any and all forms of conversation. To achieve true understanding, to overcome the barriers of mistrust between the communities, to allow each group to see the humanity in the other, we need a conversation that confronts the divides between the two groups.
Thus, we must create an environment that encourages honest, open conversation, that targets the barriers that keep us apart. Don’t allow small differences break something so integral to both of our communities. Reach out to different types of people, even if it makes you uncomfortable.
As time passes, friends come and go. People who we once called family may now seem distant. But our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. We must communicate, even if it requires patience, tolerance, and commitment from both parties. Because if not us, who? If not now, when? If we are indifferent to our divisions, our differences will divide us. And in the words of Martin Luther King, “in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”.