Rabbi-Washing and Other Issues in Black-Jewish Relations

[A note to my readers: We celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 21. I hope that the thoughts I share in this post will stimulate discussion and debate among those who honor the legacy of Dr. King.]

One characteristic of long-held resentment is that the people

one resents can never make things right.

Over the past two decades, public opinion surveys by the Anti-Defamation League have shown that the proportion of Americans holding anti-Semitic beliefs has decreased. But, compared to other groups, blacks have consistently shown higher levels of anti-Semitism.1

More disturbing yet, was the finding that while only 9% of whites held anti-Semitic beliefs, 36% of blacks held such beliefs. That means more than one out of every three black Americans was anti-Semitic. Education did ameliorate the effects of this prejudice: Among blacks, the higher the level of educational attainment, the lower the anti-Semitism. In ADL’s 1998 poll, 43% of blacks with no college education fell into the group with the highest level of anti-Semitism. The comparable figure for blacks with some college was 27% and with a four-year college degree, 18%. These figures are shocking.

Anti-Semitic beliefs include the ideas that Jews: are too powerful; control many American institutions such as government, banks, the news media and the entertainment industry; are subversive or Communist; form secretive and powerful cabals that promote the interests of Jews above others; are too materialistic, socially aggressive, boorish and clannish; are more loyal to Israel than to the US; are willing to use shady business practices; and like to control everything.

Economic Disparity

Why are blacks more anti-Semitic than other groups? There are many reasons.

There is an historical basis for friction between black and Jewish communities. Most US Jews today are descendants of Jewish immigrants who came to the US in the period from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Most of these immigrants started out poor, just as blacks were poor at the time. But within a generation, Jews achieved social and economic success, while many blacks remained behind. The lack of economic success in black communities led to resentment against Jews. Blacks believed that Jews, who were white, were accepted by the wider community. More importantly, blacks believed that Jews did not face the same discrimination and social hostility that prevented blacks from getting ahead.

Putative Exploitation

For many years, Jews owned small businesses that served poor urban black communities. Jews were landlords and shopkeepers. In a 1967 New York Times op-ed, James Baldwin described the resentment felt by blacks during this period:2

When we were growing up in Harlem our demoralizing series of landlords were Jewish, and we hated them. We hated them because they were terrible landlords, and did not take care of the building…… The grocer was a Jew, and being in debt to him was very much like being in debt to the company store. The butcher was a Jew and, yes, we certainly paid more for bad cuts of meat than other New York citizens, and we very often carried insults home, along with the meat. We bought our clothes from a Jew and, sometimes, our secondhand shoes, and the pawnbroker was a Jew—perhaps we hated him most of all.

Competitive Struggles

Both Jews and blacks have struggled to achieve full equality and civil rights. Both groups have been largely successful. Yet blacks may feel that Jews achieved success at their expense. At a minimum, Jews stole their thunder. That is, the Jewish struggle for equality distracted from the black struggle. This is behind the resentment blacks feel when Jews claim that their own history of oppression qualifies them to understand black oppression. Blacks feel that their own history of slavery, Jim Crow and repression has been longer, harder and more lethal than the struggle of American Jews. Jews can point to relatives they lost in the Holocaust, but they point from their comfortable nests in affluent suburbs, while many blacks are still mired in grim urban neighborhoods. Despite these beliefs it is still true that some Jews are poor and that the black middle class has grown. But resentments remain.

Affirmative Action

Affirmative action has been another point of contention between blacks and Jews. Since the 1970s, Affirmative Action policies have been implemented in government hiring and contracting, in colleges and universities and in the business world. Blacks see Affirmative Action as just redress for four centuries of exploitation and discrimination. They understand that Affirmative Action has been an important part of the rise of the black middle class.

Although many Jews support Affirmative Action, others see it as an unfair infringement. Jews are particularly sensitive to any form of quota in hiring and in college admissions. In the early part of the twentieth century, an era of widespread anti-Jewish discrimination, Jews were further disadvantaged by college admissions quotas that ensured few Jews would gain college admission and entrance to the middle class. Despite pretty words about justice and fairness, in a zero sum game—-there are a finite number of slots to fill—either one side or the other loses. This has pitted blacks against Jews.

Anti-Semitism: Blaming the “Other”

Some black community leaders have turned to anti-Semitic rhetoric as a way to animate their followers and build their organizations. No black leader has been more harmful in this regard than Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam (NOI).

NOI has tens of thousands of followers in the black community.3 Farrakhan espouses a racist anti-white narrative. But he reserves special venom for the Jews. Farrakhan has called Judaism a gutter religion and he has praised Hitler. Recently he compared Jews to termites, echoing the Nazi theme of the “Jew as vermin.” He has been a vocal proponent of the false charge that Jews played an out-sized role in the African slave trade. Like the Nazis before him, he has effectively used hate and resentment in order to attract followers eager to believe there is a simple cause for their problems. In this case that cause is the Jew.

Other black leaders have been less odious, but they have influenced large numbers of blacks. When Jessie Jackson referred to Jews as “hymies” and New York City as “hymietown” his followers may have believed his comments were innocent. But they legitimized an open season on denigrating Jews. And they fostered the damaging stereotype that Jews control, at the very least, an entire city. Other black leaders—-like Al Sharpton—-have occasionally uttered anti-Semitic comments.4 Liberal white enablers have empowered this behavior by holding blacks to a lower standard of conduct than whites. These liberals may feel that a different set of rules applies to “powerless and oppressed” blacks, thereby rendering them immune from criticism.

Recently, Tamika Mallory, one of the leaders of the National Women’s March, has described Jews as exploiters of black and brown people, and leaders of the American slave trade.5

A few black entertainers have joined the fray against the Jew. The singer, Michael Jackson, once complained that while talented black artists produced great music, their Jewish managers stole the money generated from that music. Recently another singer, Kanye West, rationalized that the reason Jews have succeeded is because they have “connections.” (Presumably, according to West, Jewish success has nothing to do with smarts or effort.)  These accusations are drawn from ancient anti-Semitic tropes that say that Jews are powerful and dishonest money-grubbers.

Finally, a 1991 incident in Crown Heights, Brooklyn ignited tensions between Jews and blacks. In a tragic accident, an Orthodox Jewish driver killed a young black child. Black community residents rioted for several days and one Jewish resident was killed.6 Since then black-Jewish relations have improved.

The View from Black America

James Baldwin’s 1967 New York Times op-ed was a brutally honest accounting of the famous author’s feelings about Jews. The article is dated by its archaic use of the word “Negro” and by a reference to an upcoming black-led massacre of white South Africans. (At the time, South Africa was under apartheid rule by whites. Subsequently, the black African National Congress ended white rule—-peacefully.) But Baldwin could have written the piece about America in 2019 and it would still be an accurate assessment of the views of many black Americans.

As Baldwin described his youth, his resentment jumps off the page. His hatred for Jews infected his feelings about America in general:

The Army may or may not be controlled by Jews; I don’t know and I don’t care. I know that when I worked for the Army I hated all my bosses because of the way they treated me. I don’t know if the post office is Jewish but I would certainly dread working for it again. I don’t know if Wanamaker’s was Jewish, but I didn’t like running their elevator and I didn’t like any of their customers. I don’t know if Nabisco is Jewish, but I didn’t like clearing their basement. I don’t know if Riker’s is Jewish, but I didn’t like scrubbing their floors. I don’t know if the big, white bruiser who thought it was fun to call me “Shine” was Jewish, but I know I tried to kill him — and he stopped calling me “Shine.”

Baldwin’s sentiments were a precursor to the words of First Lady Michelle Obama in a recent commencement speech. With bitterness, she told her audience of young black college graduates: “When you enter a store THEY look at you.” Presumably, “they” were white people. The First Lady taught these young people they had the right, and even duty, to carry resentment into their future lives.

One characteristic of long-held resentment is that the people one resents can never make things right, however hard they may try. Again, in the words of James Baldwin:

It is bitter to watch the Jewish storekeeper locking up his store for the night, and going home. Going, with your money in his pocket, to a clean neighborhood, miles from you, which you will not be allowed to enter. Nor can it help the relationship between most Negroes and most Jews when part of this money is donated to civil rights. In the light of what is now known as the white backlash, this money can be looked on as conscience money merely, as money given to keep the Negro happy in his place, and out of white neighborhoods.

Erasing Jewish Contributions to the Black Struggle

And what of Jewish support for black civil rights? Too little credit today is given to the Jewish community’s long-standing support for black civil rights. This support was not limited to financial assistance.

One example: The movie Selma depicted the now-famous civil rights march that launched the modern era of the black civil rights movement. There is a famous photo of the leaders at the head of the march. Prominent rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who joined the march, was visible in the photo, standing side-by-side with black leaders. Rabbis were involved in the Selma march. During the Selma era many rabbis participated in civil rights marches and demonstrations and quite a few were arrested. Yet in the film Selma, not a single rabbi appears.7 I call this rabbi-washing.

Another movie, Mississippi Burning, is the story of the murder of three young civil rights workers who had travelled to Mississippi to register black voters. The young men were murdered by white racists. Today few people remember than two of the three boys were Jewish—Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. (The third murder victim, James Chaney, was black.)8

The Futility of Resentment

To his credit, at the end of his op-ed, Baldwin recognized the folly of his youthful anti-Semitism. He acknowledged the futility and senselessness of racism:

All racist positions baffle and appall me. None of us are [sic] that different from one another, neither that much better nor that much worse. Furthermore, when one takes a position one must attempt to see where that position inexorably leads. One must ask oneself, if one decides that black or white or Jewish people are, by definition, to be despised, is one willing to murder a black or white or Jewish baby: for that is where the position leads. And if one blames the Jew for having become a white American, one may perfectly well, if one is black, be speaking out of nothing more than envy.

In the post-Obama era, America still has a race problem. I am encouraged by public opinion polls that show that greater education among blacks is an antidote to anti-Semitism. This implies (but does not prove) that as educational achievement for blacks increases, black anti-Semitism will continue to decrease.

Despite a childhood filled with deprivation and discrimination, in the end, James Baldwin offered a lesson about the futility of resentment and the common humanity of all Americans.

I hope we can all hold onto that lesson.

Footnotes

  1. Anti-Semitism in the United States. Wikipedia. Retrieved May 31, 2017 from:

htpps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antisemitism in the United States#African-American community

 

“Although anti-Semitic Americans are in the minority, their numbers are still disturbing. In a 2005 ADL survey, 14% of Americans held beliefs that were “unquestionably anti-Semitic.” That represented nearly 35 million adults.”

  1. Baldwin, J. Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They Are Anti-White. New York Times On-Line, April 9, 1967. Retrieved June 1, 2017 from:

http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/03/29/specials/baldwin-antisem.html

  1. Nation of Islam, Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved June 3, 2017 from:

https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/group/nation-islam

See also:

Nation of Islam, Wikipedia. Retrieved June 3, 2017 from:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nation_of_Islam

  1. Ross, C. Al Sharpton Defends Anti-Jewish Remarks. The Daily Caller. May 22, 2014. Retrieved June3, 2917 from:

http://dailycaller.com/2014/05/22/al-sharpton-defends-anti-jewish-remarks-video/

  1. North, A. The Women’s March Changed the American Left. Now Anti-Semitism Allegations Threaten the Group’s Future. VOX, December 21, 2018. Retrieved December 6, 2019 from:

https://www.vox.com/identities/2018/12/21/18145176/feminism-womens-march-2018-2019-farrakhan-intersectionality

At a November 2016 organizing meeting of the Women’s March, leaders Carmen Perez and Tamika Mallory proclaimed that “Jewish people bore a special collective responsibility as exploiters of black and brown people.” They claimed that Jews were proven to be leaders of the American slave trade.

At a subsequent meeting, Perez and Mallory berated Jewish organizer,

Vanessa Wruble, for being Jewish. They complained to Wruble, “Your people this, your people that.” Perez and Mallory claimed that “your people [Jews] hold all the wealth.”

  1. Moore, M. Jews and Non-Jews: Black-Jewish Relations Today. 2007 [no day or month]. My Jewish Learning. Retrieved June 3, 2017 from:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/black-jewish-relations-today/

  1. Dreier, P. Selma’s Missing Rabbi. Huffington Post. January 17, 2015. Retrieved June 3, 2017 from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-dreier/selmas-missing-rabbi_b_6491368.html
  2. Mississippi Civil Rights Workers’ Murders, Wikipedia. Retrieved June 3, 2017 from:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi_civil_rights_workers%27_murders

About the Author
The author is a life-long Zionist and advocate for Israel. He believes that a strong Jewish state is invaluable, not only to Jews, but to the world-wide cause of democracy and human rights. Dr. Berger earned a PhD in Social Welfare from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has twenty-seven years of teaching experience. He has authored and co-authored three books as well as over 45 professional journal articles and book chapters. His parents were Holocaust survivors. Dr. Berger also blogs at: https://realbulletpoints.wordpress.com/
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