Jeff Mendelsohn

Jews and Blacks Converge to Spark Alliance

Last week, the National Black Empowerment Council (NBEC), along with UJA-Federation of New York and the ADL, hosted a powerful event that brought together a group of Black and Jewish leaders to discuss an admittedly difficult topic – Dave Chapelle’s Saturday Night Live monologue and the response of Jews to the antisemitic statements of Kanye West and Kyrie Irving in late 2022.  The National Black Empowerment Council has made reanimating the Black-Jewish alliance part of its overall mission, which is to empower Black Americans to close systemic gaps in economic success, education and social justice.  The conversation laid the foundation for transformational change.

The oft-heralded Black – Jewish Alliance has weathered numerous storms over the past 50 years, and many in both communities have analyzed reasons for the divergence.  Some say that the interests of Blacks and Jews are no longer aligned, making a revived alliance beyond reach.  Last week’s panel discussion demonstrated a new path forward that appears when we are willing to illuminate how we each perceive each other and the events that impact us.

The NBEC gathering marked the launch of a new Convergence Initiative designed to reawaken the Black-Jewish alliance based on intensive relationship building, mutuality and a belief in the power of individual and collective self-actualization.  We took stock of the historical relationship — we recalled not only Jewish solidarity with the Civil Rights Movement, but the critical role that African American allies played in supporting Jewish causes, most notably supporting Israel’s survival and the struggle to free Jews trapped in the Soviet Union.  But it was important not to dwell on the “golden age” of the past but rather the realities of the present and the promises of the future.

Many Jews perceived Dave Chapelle’s monologue as fraught with antisemitic tropes about Jewish control of Hollywood, the entertainment field and even the larger society.  Many Blacks did not see it as antisemitic, in part because they don’t know the history of antisemitism or the genocidal use of these other stereotypes.  From their perspective, Jewish success is something to be admired as aspirational for the Black community.  Chappelle characteristically used humor and satire to address perceived wrongs, particularly about how NBA superstar Kyrie Irving, a Black man who tripped on a live wire and was then publicly shamed for offending those who, as he suggested, appear to be in the power position in this equation.

Jews were shocked by Kyrie Irving’s posting of what they see as an antisemitic movie about Black Israelites because it denies Jewish peoplehood, essentially erasing Jews from the world scene even as Jews are accused of conspiratorial control.  In the wake of Kanye West’s undeniably antisemitic rants, Jews reacted strongly to Irving’s posts to prevent the mainstreaming of antisemitism among Irving’s millions of fans.

Many Blacks, however, did not understand what triggered the reaction and many thought the response was overly harsh.  This movie, even if offensive, sits on Amazon Prime.  Why attack the messenger instead of Jeff Bezos and Amazon who are profiting from the movie?  Moreover, forcing Irving to do penance publicly for his action – temporary suspension from the NBA, paying a fine, being forced to sit down with a white Jewish leader to be taught what he did wrong – created a wildly negative image among Black Americans, evoking racist tropes that have haunted African Americans for centuries.

We could debate who was right and who was wrong, but that would miss the point.  The real lesson is recognizing that we each interpreted these events based on our own historical traumas.  The result is that we interpret key events differently, not out of malice, but out of ignorance of what motivates the other.  It is precisely this chasm of perception that the Convergence Initiative seeks to overcome as a prerequisite to true partnership.  To paraphrase Hillel, a great rabbi of the first century CE, we cannot truly understand another until we have put ourselves in their place.

The NBEC’s Convergence Initiative stands to revive the Black-Jewish dynamic by bringing together leaders from each community to build meaningful relationships that will pave the way for honest, sometimes difficult, conversations.  We will learn how to stand in each other’s shoes, even for a moment, and in so doing open new vistas of mutual understanding.  The initiative will fuel opportunities to address challenges within our communities but even more so to work together for mutual economic, social and political empowerment.   We have much to offer each other, and in creating this model, NBEC is building the engine to fuel real and positive change for Blacks, Jews and the larger American society.

About the Author
Jeff Mendelsohn is a seasoned political and policy influencer based in Washington, D.C. with more than 20 years of experience in legislation, political activism and community engagement. The founder and CEO of Coalition Strategy Group, Jeff works with diverse organizations to turn ideas into success through strategic planning, program development, government relations and coalition building. An expert on U.S.-Israel relations, Jeff has devoted much of his career working beyond the Jewish community, on Capitol Hill as chief of staff for two Texas Hispanic members of Congress and as National Outreach Director at AIPAC, where he launched and grew a program to engage non-Jewish constituencies in pro-Israel advocacy. Jeff also co-founded and ran Pro-Israel America and Pro-Israel America United, their associated PAC and Super PACs to help elect pro-Israel candidates to Congress and advance pro-Israel policies.