On Martin Luther King’s birthday, we’re going to hear a lot of starry eyed reminisces about the glory days of black-Jewish amity during the civil rights movement, and muttered complaints about anti-Semitism among African Americans. And we’re going to hear the usual stories about how King wasn’t a perfect human being and how he sometimes opposed the things most of the Jewish community supports.
What I wonder about is this constant Jewish need to either idealize relationships – or to emphasize the negative in our connections to others, something that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Jews and African Americans have been allies in the past and continue to have many interests in common. But being allies doesn’t mean seeing every issue through the same lens or having all the same priorities.
Yes, Jews played a huge role in the civil rights movement, but that was a long time ago, and can’t possibly define the relationship today. Sometimes it seems like we expect eternal gratitude, and resent it when we don’t get it.
Black anti-Semitism is real, but guess what: so is Jewish racism. Bigotry defines neither community, but it is a factor in both.
King was a great leader who played a major role in freeing our democracy from one of its historic curses. The battle he fought hasn’t been fully won, but the cause of civil rights advanced immeasurably because of his influence, and that’s something that affects all of us in positive ways, not just African Americans.
Was he perfect? Not by a long shot, but then, using perfection as a standard is a sure way of cutting ourselves off from every visionary, every great leader.
Was he sympathetic to Israeli policies? Not a chance, but that’s hardly the sole measure of the man.
It strikes me that our community seems more and more intent on dividing the world into friends – defined narrowly as those who completely agree with us on Israel – and enemies who must be battled rather than courted. We are rapidly losing our ability to meet others where they are and work with them on issues of mutual interest, and maybe try to win them over to our side on issues where we disagree.
The black-Jewish alliance of decades past wasn’t seamless and frictionless, the way some admirers remember it; it was a gritty alliance between groups with much that separated them but much in common, working for common goals despite their differences.
Today, would that alliance be even remotely possible? I suspect not; the black community would never pass our Israel litmus tests, and the imperfections of its leaders would seal the non-deal.
Seems to me like that’s a pretty good way to create a Jewish community that’s isolated and angry, powerful but increasingly alone. And it’s hard for me to see how that will be good for the Jews.