Yitzchak Blau

Of Blacks and Jews

In recent years, the relationship between the Jewish and Black communities travelled down some rocky terrain. A BLM platform inexcusably accusing Israel of genocide reflects a particular low point. That being said, thinking about a commonality of communal experience proves helpful. The Torah tells us to love the stranger (Vayikra 19:34, Devarim 10:19) and not to oppress him (Shemot 22;20, 22:9) because we were once strangers in Egypt. Undergoing suffering should make people more sensitive to others struggling with parallel difficulties.

Jews certainly suffered considerable persecution over the course of history. Limiting ourselves to recent European history, the promise of Emancipation and the Enlightenment turned hollow for world Jewry. Many Jews hold grudges against Germany for the horrors of the Holocaust, against the Ukrainians for collaborating, and against the Russians for the Kishinev pogrom and the anti-Semitic laws of the Soviet Union. Poland calls to mind the Kielce pogrom in which 42 Jews were killed in 1946. Jews would like other ethnicities to study this history in school curricula. We are furious that Bohdan Khmelnytsky is treated as a hero in the Ukraine when his 1648 uprising led to a mass massacre of Jews. Due to mistreatment they suffered under various gentile governments, Jews often developed mistrust for the authorities which still impacts on their behavior.

We now turn to the Black experience in North America. Millions of Africans were forcibly captured and brought to work as slaves in the new world; many of them did not even survive the sea journey across the Atlantic Ocean.  Nikole Hannah-Jones summarizes the status of a slave:

Enslaved people could not legally marry. They were barred from learning to read and restricted from meeting privately in groups. They had no claim to their own children, who could be bought, sold and traded away from them on auction blocks alongside furniture and cattle or behind storefronts that advertised “Negroes for Sale.” Enslavers and the courts did not honor kinship ties to mothers, siblings, cousins. In most courts, they had no legal standing. Enslavers could rape or murder their property without legal consequence (NY Times Magazine 7/17/2020).

Union victory in the Civil War and the abolition of slavery brought great hope for the betterment of black Americans. The Reconstruction Era temporarily fulfilled some of these lofty goals but the Northern army left in 1870 and the Southern states soon found all kinds of means to terrorize and disenfranchise the Black community. I provide several examples here because Jews may be less familiar with the history of Black suffering and because they represent different categories of evil (murder, overthrowing elected governments, destroying neighborhoods, corrupt or collaborating authorities)

In 1868, white supremacists terrorized and killed many blacks (estimates of casualties vary) in Saint Landry Parish, Louisiana. Emerson Bentley, a white Republican newspaper editor and teacher of black children was beaten and fled to New Orleans. Following the massacre, the Republican Party was eliminated in that parish for several years.

In 1898, a mob of white men overthrew a legitimately elected biracial government in Wilmington, North Carolina. The mob attacked and murdered black citizens, destroyed black newspapers, and evicted Republican leaders, black and white, from the city. The Tulsa Race Massacre (Oklahoma, 1921) involved whites destroying an entire upscale black neighborhood.  About 10,000 blacks were left homeless and the property damage was immense.

Isaac Woodward was a decorated black world war two veteran who was on his way home by bus after receiving an honorable discharge in 1946.  South Carolina policeman beat Woodward so badly that he was blinded. When the local authorities were reluctant to pursue the case, President Truman ordered a federal investigation.  An all white jury acquitted the indicted sheriff in South Carolina federal court. Finally, as recently as the 1960s, blacks had to drink from separate water fountains and stay in different hotels than whites in various Southern states.

All of the above naturally generates built up black resentment for how the white majority treated them. Given the frequent indifference of white authorities or their active involvement in the persecution (such as in the Woodward case), we understand developing suspicions about white authority figures.  Perhaps that explains blacks running when white policemen call on them to stop. We could imagine Blacks speaking about the Tulsa or Wilmington episodes as Jews describe pogroms in Russia.

Obviously, no two historical situations are identical but enough overlap exists that two conclusions emerge. First, Jews should recognize the suffering of Black people and show sympathy for the ongoing damage inflicted upon them. We should clearly call out any racism in our community as beyond the pale.

Second, we should realize the parallel moral issues involved. To what degree can we hold grudges against a collective identity and when do we say that great-grandchildren are not responsible for the deeds of their ancestors?  If we maintain anger against Ukrainians or Poles, why should Blacks not feel the same about white America? Conversely, if later generations bear no responsibility, that applies in both scenarios.

What are the dangers of developing a victimization complex which may encourage a posture of passive despair rather than one of active initiative? Furthermore a victim identity can falsely free its practitioners from moral responsibility. Society should criticize those blacks adopting anti-Semitic themes (Louis Farrakhan, Alice Walker, Amiri Baraka, Cornell West, DeSean Jackson)  while praising those (Henry Louis Gates Jr., Kareem Abdul Jabbar) who courageously stand up against members of their own community. Of course, the same holds true for the better and worse expressions from the Jewish community.

If we understandably want students to learn about the Holocaust, they should also study the history of slavery. If we are upset at celebrating people involved in pogroms, we should appreciate black reactions to Confederate symbols. One need not argue for exact parallelism to claim that enough overlap exits to think along these lines.

I am not naive enough to think that the ideas in this essay can alleviate the Black-Jewish tension of recent years nor am I giving out moral grades to each community. However, we might begin a positive process by acknowledging our sharing many centuries of persecution and how that should generate both feelings of solidarity and a sense of joint moral questions facing victimized communities.

About the Author
Rabbi Yitzchak Blau is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta and also teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is an associate editor of the journal Tradition and the author of Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada.
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