Steven Windmueller
Is it Good for the Jews?

In our Cities and on our Streets: Revisiting Jewish-Black Relations

What we have been witnessing over these past ten days is a tsunami of anger and frustration. While the George Floyd story dramatically brought into perspective the issues of racial profiling and police brutality, the events in recent days have shed light on the larger economic challenges and social inequities facing racial minorities, identifying the distinctive class divisions within this nation, and the specific grievances being raised by Black Americans.

In the process, the street has become its own political and economic platform.  What we are seeing taking place is the evolution of a political movement, framed around the historic issues of racism in America on the one hand and the deep divisions around class and economics on the other, reintroduced around the tragic events in Minneapolis.

 In the aftermath of the COVID-19 with its high unemployment and its more significant health and economic impact on minorities, Jewish leaders are likely to join African American organizations and representatives from other ethnic and racial groups in calling for a new urban agenda for this nation.

 On Reflection:

Jews have exercised a unique and distinctive role within America’s cities as we are rooted and connected to urban culture and to the other ethnic and religious communities that share these urban centers. In fact of all ethnic and racial groups, Jews and Blacks are the most deeply identified with the American city story. Over time, urban neighborhoods have linked our respective communities together. We have enjoyed extraordinary relationships, just as we have also encountered serious urban conflicts over political power and economic control. Both communities have reflected specific concerns about the other, including Black anti-Semitism and Jewish policies opposing quotas.

Over the decades Blacks and Jews have shared an uneven urban connection and have experienced a complex but significant set of relationships. Even as these constituencies differ on specific social and economic policies, shared political interests have contributed to a common bond between the two communities. Within the context of American politics, we need to remind ourselves that these are the two most supportive constituencies of the Democratic Party in this nation.

As with all relationships, these ties must be constantly nurtured and maintained. Indeed, in more recent times, less attention has been given to sustaining some of these vital connections. A more selective set of ethnic and religious coalitions has evolved centered on various national policy areas, including criminal justice reform, educational priorities, immigration and housing issues. Indeed, both communities today hold a common objective in fighting prejudice and hate, now so rampant within this culture.

Israel in the Minds of African-Americans:

Despite a good deal of negative press, African Americans overwhelmingly hold a strong and positive connection with Israel. Often critics of the Black-Jewish relationship have mistakenly suggested otherwise. A 2019 poll offers some helpful insights: [1]

52% indicated support for Israel, 18% oppose Israel, with 30% being unsure. Some African Americans point to religious reasons for their support: 28% say it’s because Jesus was a Jew, 25% say they support Israel’s statehood because it is important for fulfilling biblical prophecy, and 24% say the Bible says Christians should support Israel.

This represents an often forgotten but important layer in the Black-Jewish storyline.

Stepping Back:

 Sometimes identified as the “Golden Age of Black-Jewish Relations”, Jewish leaders joined with the African American community during the 1950’s and 60’s to pursue public policies designed to address the issues of segregation and racial injustice.  National Jewish organizations joined African American groups in securing the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibited religious and racial discrimination in public settings, schools and the Voting Rights Act (1965) that prohibited discriminatory voting practices.

According to historian Cheryl Greenberg:

“It is significant that … a disproportionate number of white civil rights activists were [Jewish] as well. Jewish agencies engaged with their African American counterparts in a more sustained and fundamental way than did other white groups largely because their constituents and their understanding of Jewish values and Jewish self-interest pushed them in that direction.”

Speaking at the March on Washington in August of 1963, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who joined Dr. Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, noted: “America must not be a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. Not merely black America, but all of America.“

 Where Do We Go from Here?

Silence will not be a part of the public discourse moving forward! We are likely to see emerging from these protests and daily demonstrations, a political movement that will be focusing on racial injustice, criminal reform, and may possibly go further to deal with economic priorities and social concerns. The significant Jewish institutional response and individual participation reflect how deeply this issue has impacted American Jews over these past several weeks.

 In that spirit, and in the context of the historic character of the Black-Jewish relationship, some 130 Jewish organizations co-signed a letter this week expressing solidarity with the African American community:

 “The recent murder of George Floyd is a pivotal moment in our country’s history, and we will not sit idly by in the face of the killings of Black men and women by law enforcement and vigilantes.”

Despite a mixed history of cooperation and conflict, Blacks and Jews are viewing this moment in time as a critical for both a public display of solidarity and in establishing a national coalition committed to acting on behalf of racial justice.

These events are likely to re-energize the urban and intergroup agenda of our national Jewish agencies and local community relations structures, as many of these organizations over the past 20-25 years have downsized their portfolios in this crucial arena. What may also drive Jewish “re-engagement” with urban affairs is the corollary rise of anti-Semitism in this nation.

In some measure the American street today, with the impact of this pandemic and the cries for social justice, is redefining and driving the Jewish communal agenda.

[1] https://lifewayresearch.com/2019/11/05/african-americans-have-mixed-opinions-and-often-no-opinions-on-israel/

About the Author
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Prior to coming to HUC, Dr.Windmueller served for ten years as the JCRC Director of the LA Jewish Federation. Between 1973-1985, he was the director of the Greater Albany Jewish Federation (now the Federation of Northeastern New York). He began his career on the staff of the American Jewish Committtee. The author of four books and numerous articles, Steven Windmueller focuses his research and writings on Jewish political behavior, communal trends, and contemporary anti-Semitism.
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