Antisemitism is exponentially expanding in the black community—consider the militancy toward Jews in Louis Farrakan’s Nation of Islam and the Black Hebrew Israelite movement. Consider also Black Lives Matter solidarity with the Free Palestine Movement—a partnership so tightly knit that BLM excused the Hamas atrocities of October 7 by stating, “When a people have been subject to decades of apartheid and unimaginable violence, their resistance must not be condemned, but understood as a desperate act of self-defense.” In the midst of an alarming rise of Antisemitism in the black community, it would be negligent for those of us who advocate for Jewish existence to assume this narrative cannot be challenged or changed.
There are many voices of reason within the black community—those who do not appreciate the militancy the above-mentioned groups hold against Zionism and Jews. Walking away from our black brothers and sisters and assuming a total separation is inevitable would be a grave error. We must find common ground. Perhaps we do this through story. If ever there were two people groups who share parallel orbits, it would be blacks and Jews.
Jews spent 400 years as slaves in Egypt. Blacks spent 400 years as slaves in the European colonies in the Caribbean and the Americas. Prior to being transported across the Atlantic, captive black Africans were forcibly baptized into Christianity. Jews have a long history of enduring the same plight.
Beginning in the early 1500s, an estimated 11,328,000 black Africans were transported by ship across the Atlantic in what was known as the Middle Passage in the slave industry. Slave ships refitted their hulls to carry more slaves, usually about 300. The lower decks had an average height of 30 inches. Men were chained together with iron shackles around their ankles and forced into the dark, claustrophobic decks that had little ventilation, no bedding, or room to raise their heads; coffins had more space. Dysentery spread quickly. Communal bowls were used for meals, and everyone ate with their bare hands, so when one became sick, so did those nearby. The death rate during the Middle Passage was high. Some died of suffocation, others of dysentery, smallpox, and fever. Some even took their lives in despair.
Because the ship captains kept good records (each slave was insured in case he or she died in transport), we know that of the men, women, and children who were taken from their homeland, separated from their families and chained together in the depths of filthy ships filled with vomit and human feces, 1.8 million died, and afterward, their bodies were cast into the sea. Crews of the slave ships have reported that from Africa to the European colonies in the Caribbean and the Americas, the slave ships were followed by schools of sharks because they supplied a constant source of food.
During the Holocaust, Jews were rounded up in every fissure and crack of Europe and pressed by strong Aryan backs into cattle cars for the journey to the crematorium or forced labor in the camps. As did the slave traders, the Nazis kept copious inventories of their Jewish prisoners. During the train transport, Jews were given no food or water, and each rail car had only a single crude bucket to be used as a latrine. A cattle car could hold about 50 people, but the Nazis crammed in 150. On average, a train transport took about four days, and because of the extreme elements inside—either unbearable heat during the summer or freezing temperatures in winter—many Jews died en route of suffocation or exposure to the elements.
Once arriving at their destinations—blacks by ships and Jews by trains—the passengers were constrained into labor. Black Africans labored in plantations and Jews in labor camps. During the slave trade, black Africans were branded with a hot iron on their upper right shoulder to signify whose property they were. Jews who were not sent to the crematoriums but into forced labor were branded with a number. In both cases, the branding dehumanized the victim.
Maafa is a Swahili word used for the years in which European slave traders plundered the tribal groups of Africa, and it means “Great Catastrophe.” Shoah is a Hebrew word used for the years in which the Nazis murdered six million Jews, and it also means “Great Catastrophe.”
August 1, 1834, was the day of liberation from bondage for slaves on the Island of Antigua. A prayer vigil was planned on the eve of their freedom, and at 11 p.m., across the island, 33,000 African men, women, and children gathered to wait for the next day’s dawn. After hundreds of years of their people being cast into the depths of the sea in the Middle Passage, their day of deliverance had come. After midnight, 33,000 slaves with candles in their hands climbed the mountains of Antigua. The younger men and women climbed up trees and rocky peaks and leaned forward, searching into the darkness for the first glimpse of light. Having been deeply influenced and inspired by the idea of liberty from the Jewish scriptures, thirty-three thousand people prayed Psalm 130 from the Jewish Bible through the watches of that long night, lifting both the lament and the petition from the passage of scripture, crying out to the God of Israel:
“Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy! If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you, there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word, I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord, there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption.” (Psalm 130:1-7)
The Negro spirituals written during the years of bondage drew their strength from the Biblical story of the Jewish exodus out of Egypt. One of these songs, “Go Down Moses,” is often sung at Jewish Seder tables during the celebration of Passover:
Go down, Moses
Way down in Egypt land
Tell ole Pharoah
To let my people go!
Oh, when Israel was in Egypt land
Let my people go!
Oppressed so hard, they could not stand Let my people go!
“I’ll Meet You in the morning” is another Negro spiritual that drew strength from the Jewish exodus from Egypt:
I’ll meet you in the morning,
I’m bound for the promised land. On the other side of Jordan, Bound for the promised land.
When the death camps Buchenwald and Dachau were liberated, black soldiers from the 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion in the 8th Core of the US 3rd Army were sent in to help facilitate the freedom of the Jewish prisoners. The Jews called these soldiers their “black angels.” Poet Sonia Weltz wrote:
A black GI stood by the door
I never saw a black before
He’ll set me free before I die.
I thought he must be the Meshia.
During the civil rights movement, there were “Jewish angels” like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner who were murdered by the KKK in Philidelphia, Mississippi, because of their attempt to liberate blacks from oppression. They were buried by the Klan in an earthen grave along with their friend, a black civil rights activist named James Chaney. Those three young men found solidarity in life and in death.
Blacks and Jews share a similar journey of suffering, and we have more in common than we realize. Maybe it’s time that we find common ground. Listening to one another’s parallel stories, songs, and poems is a good place to start