Black-Jewish Campus Dialogue

Face to Face

The scene is a dormitory lounge at a prestigious New Eng land university. Almost a hundred Black and Jewish students have filed in dripping wet from a spring rain for the fourth in a series of dialogues... A young Jewish woman, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, tells of the impact of her parents wartime experiences. A Black man talks about the time just a few years ago when his high school basketball team's bus was overturned by the opposing team in order to keep him, the lone black player, out of the game... Although the words are painful, when the session is over there is buoyancy and hope in this room a sense of growing solidarity and trust between two groups who have discovered common ground.

Continuing our Black History Month series, today we excerpt Face to Face: Black-Jewish Dialogues on Campus, by Cherie Brown, for the AJC.

Blacks and Jews pair up with members of their own groups. Each member of a pair takes a turn repeating the word Jew (for the Blacks) or Black (for the Jews) while the other person shares with as little censorship as possible the first thought that comes to mind at each repetition of the term. This is a way of bringing to the surface attitudes and misinformation--ethnic slurs and stereotypes--the students have absorbed from their environment but know better than to say out loud or believe...

[S]tudents divide into separate Black and Jewish caucuses where each shares what has been good and what has been difficult about belng Black or Jewish... When the caucuses return individual students share their stories with the entire workshop. The others listen carefully without interruption, discussion or questions The stories are often accompanied by tears, shaking and expressions of anger. For many students this is the most moving and transforming part of the workshop...

Every workshop needs to include some time for students to translate what they've learned into concrete goals and programs to effect change on their campus. Toward the end of their time together students brainstorm all the possible programs that might be implemented on their campus to continue the work begun in the dialogue...

The rest of the document includes quotes from participants in these programs, and further guidelines for organizers.


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To read more publications at intersections of Black and Jewish history, see this special Bookshelf for Black History Month.

(Remember, if you're a registered user [it's free], you can create bookshelves like this one to save sets of BJPA documents for later. Keep them private, or publish them to the web to share with colleagues. Sort manually, or automatically by date or title. View or print the lists, or export to MS Word for easy bibliographies.)

"But their God runs Mississippi..."

"Jews have been and remain marginal to the South," writes Deborah Dash Moore:

Their marginality is intrinsic to their existence as southern Jews. African Americans have been and remain central to the South. It is impossible to imagine southern culture, politics, religion, economy, or in short, any aspect of southern life, without African Americans.

Moore's comparison of African American and Jewish American history is presented in her chapter, "Separate Paths: Blacks and Jews in the Twentieth-Century South," from the book Struggles in the Promised Land: Toward a History of Black-Jewish Relations in the United States. Continuing our Black History Month series, some excerpts:

The history of Jews and Blacks in the South reveals enormous contrasts and few similarities. Differences include demographic and settlement patterns, occupational distribution, forms of culture, religion, and community life, even politics and the prejudice and discrimination endured by each group. Visible Jewish presence in the South is considered so atypical that when large numbers of Jews (that is, over 100,000) actually did settle in a southern city, as they did In Miami and Miami Beach after World War II, the entire area of South Florida was soon dismissed as no longer southern and jokingly referred to as a suburb of New York City... In the popular mind as well as in reality, the South would not be the South without Black Americans. Jews, by contrast, offer an interesting footnote to understanding the region, an opportunity to examine the possibilities and cost of religious and ethnic diversity in a society sharply divided along color lines...

Irrespective of where they settled (except, of course, for Miami), Jews usually worked in middleman minority occupations not considered typically southern: as peddlers, shopkeepers, merchants, manufacturers, and occasionally professionals (doctors, dentists, druggists). Main street was their domain. Initially Jews lived behind or above their stores; as they prospered they moved to white residential sections of town...

By contrast, African Americans worked at a wide range of occupations from sharecropper and farmer, to day laborer and industrial worker, to a handful of middle and upper class positions, including storekeepers, teachers, entrepreneurs, and professionals serving a segregated society... Unlike Jews, many of whom were self-employed, Blacks largely worked for others, usually whites, restricted by custom and prejudice to the least desirable jobs in each sector of the economy...

Probably the single most important communal institution was the Black church. Virtually all African Americans, seeking individual salvation and collective spirituality, joined a church, which was usually either Baptist or Methodist. The church not only offered Sunday services and schooling, but it also sponsored social welfare, and civic and cultural activities... Synagogues assumed far less centrality in the Jewish community, though far greater percentages of Jews joined them in the South than in the North...

Usually accepted as white, and not summarily excluded from participation in civic affairs as were African Americans, Jews tried to maintain communal institutions focused upon internal Jewish needs, such as community centers, B'nai B'rith lodges, social welfare organizations, as well as women's clubs and Zionist groups, while supporting white community endeavors not connected wirh the church, such as cultural activities, better business and chamber of commerce groups, and philanthropic endeavors. Their success in this dual enterprise depended upon politics; during the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan after its reestablishment in 1915 in Georgia, Jews generally found themselves unwelcome in both political and civic endeavors. This chilly environment warmed substantially during World War II, and southern Jews faced the dawning of the postwar civil rights era feeling integrated into the white community. Observers in the 1960s discovered even among relatively small Jewish populations that two communities often coexisted, divided sharply by their "degree of Southernness."... Opposition to Zionism, and by extension Jewish nationalism and ethnicity, coincided with a high degree of "Southernness." Irrespective of ideology, however, southern Jews uncovered no antisemitism among their neighbors, although many feared that it might be "stirred up" by political change." Outsiders visiting their fellow Jews rarely understood such sentiments... Coming down to Mississippi to help with legal defense of those involved in the voter registration drive, Marvin Braiterman, a lawyer, decided to attend services at a local synagogue to escape the tensions of the week. "We know right from wrong, and the difference between our God and the segregationist God they talk about down here," his Jewish hosts told him. "But their God runs Mississippi, not ours. We have to work quietly, secretly. We have to play ball. Anti-Semitism is always right around the corner."...

World War II changed southern Jewish attitudes toward politics, but not enough to bring them into convergence with African Americans' increasing demands for equal civil rights and for an end to desegregation. Jews migrating to the South after the war carried their politics in their suitcases, but since 80 percent of these northern newcomers went down to Miami, they exerted little influence on the emerging civil rights movement. A handful of young rabbis joined forces with Christian clergy across the color line, but most feared to speak out lest they lose their positions...

The shift from protest to politics--especially the voter registration drives organized by SNCC in 1964 that drew large numbers of northern Jewish students to the South-exacerbated southern Jewish discomfort. The rabbi of Meridian, Mississippi, urged Michael Schwerner to leave, fearing that white anger at Schwerner might turn against local Jews.

Much more fascinating history follows, including the bitter conflict between the Black and Jewish communities surrounding the Leo Frank case.


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To read more publications at intersections of Black and Jewish history, see this special Bookshelf for Black History Month.

(Remember, if you're a registered user [it's free], you can create bookshelves like this one to save sets of BJPA documents for later. Keep them private, or publish them to the web to share with colleagues. Sort manually, or automatically by date or title. View or print the lists, or export to MS Word for easy bibliographies.)

Jews for "Race Revolution"

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The Negro's insistence that everyday practice in America match its democratic promise is bringing about significant changes in our society. The Race Revolution has already affected and will continue to affect Jews, Jewish life and Jewish communal services.

Continuing our Black History Month blog series, for this week's J-Vault we'll sit in on an educational symposium which took place in 1964. This week, from the J-Vault: Changing Race Relations and Jewish Communal Service (1965)

In February, 1964, over 300 Jewish communal workers in the New York metropolitan area attended a one-day conference at the Educational Alliance in New York City... The keynote speaker, Dr. Arthur Hertzberg, and the workshops, which were organized on an inter-disciplinary basis, were asked to consider the following three key questions:

1. How can and should Jewish agencies participate in the race revolution?
2. How can and should Jewish agencies help their members or clients to deal with their attitudes and behavior toward Negroes?
3. How will this affect the agencies' primary Jewish purposes and services?

The major address was delivered by Arthur Hertzberg:

It requires no great moral courage to assert, and even to mean, that every American who lays claim to personal decency must be involved in the struggle for the equality of the Negro... Speaking only for myself, I have acted on the assumption that the task of a Rabbi is not only to preach abstractly against segregation but involve himself concretely in the realities of the battle and to lead those whom he can influence towards comparable action...

...The moral position is clear: segregation is immoral and abhorrent to Judaism... The mandate of this generation, in the light of the acuteness of the problem of race in American society, is for Jews to be in the forefront in the solution of the problem.

This position has many virtues... Nonetheless, it is only a partial truth. To call it into question runs the risk that he who would do so will forthwith be accused of dragging his feet on segregation... Nonetheless, this danger must be risked, and precisely for the sake of a true and realistic Negro-Jewish understanding.

Hertzberg's address goes on, including sections with the following headings:

Defining Jewish Identity in More Than Negative Terms

A Clear and Positive Value—Philanthropy—Is Losing Its Force for Particularism

The Necessity for Jewish Institutions to Reinforce Particularism

Parallelism and Differences in Negro and Jewish Minorities

He concludes with the following:

The Negro is today fighting for his rights, and Jews, along with all other men of good will, must certainly stand beside him. But Jews are today also continuing to work at preserving and trying to define the meaning of their particular survival and identity, in the light of their own tradition and historic experience. Since this is a parochial concern of their own, they must here stand alone.

Our age does not like aloneness; it seems to prefer togetherness on every level. But any serious Jewishness must live in tension between that which unites it with others even in the most moral of struggles and that which sets it uniquely apart.

Solomon Geld spoke on "Implications for Jewish Homes for the Aged".

Irving Greenberg spoke on "Implications for Jewish Casework Agencies," arguing, in effect, for affirmative action in social services: that such agencies "should set aside a portion of our existing services for Negro clients."

Morris Grumer spoke on "Implications for Jewish Vocational Services."

Albert D. Chernin, speaking on "Implications for Jewish Community Relations," took issue with Hertzberg:

 What troubles me is that Rabbi Hertzberg in posing the issue as a clash between Jewish survival and the civil rights revolution does an injustice to both issues and to his own convictions. I am concerned that his arguments may be seized upon by some as justification for turning aside from the problem searing American society...

...The universal character of the struggle need not pose a threat to Jewish particularism. The particularism of Judaism is the process for perpetuating the universal truths to which it is committed.

Walter Ackerman discussed "Implications for the Jewish School."

Walter A. Lurie addressed "Implications for Jewish Community Organization."

Harold Arian spoke on "Implications for the Jewish Community Center:"

In short, the full weight of the Jewish community center as a social institution, as a business operation, as an educational force and as a participant in planning for community improvement should bear upon its fulfilling an important role in the race revolution.

Every J-Vault post ends with a link to the document so you can "Read More" but in this case, there really is so very much more to read. The above shows only the sparest of skeletons of an amazing 42 page document. If you want to reflect about race in America and our (the Jewish community's) relationship to it, do yourself a favor and avail yourself of these links below.


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To read more publications at intersections of Black and Jewish history, see this special Bookshelf for Black History Month.

(Remember, if you're a registered user [it's free], you can create bookshelves like this one to save sets of BJPA documents for later. Keep them private, or publish them to the web to share with colleagues. Sort manually, or automatically by date or title. View or print the lists, or export to MS Word for easy bibliographies.)

Envisioning Jewish Diversity

Yavilah McCoy

My great-grandmother, who is still alive, was the daughter of an enslaved African. My other great-grandmother, who took the name “Naomi,” was the first in my maternal family line to investigate the spiritual possibilities of Judaism and take steps toward Jewish practice.

Yavilah McCoy discussed Jewish diversity and her experience as a Jew of color for Sh'ma in 2003:

My parents converted to Orthodox Judaism, and raised me and my five siblings as Orthodox Jews. My Jewish education has included a range of perspectives: Hasidic elementary school and Yeshivah University Modern-Orthodox high school, The State University of New York at Albany, and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem...

...As I reflect on my experiences as a Jewish woman of color, I notice immediately that my consciousness of Jewish identity developed in two stages. Initially my education and community environment presented me with a picture of Judaism that was unidimensional in terms of geography, gender, religious status, race, and social class. But eventually I began to acknowledge the need for a more complex and complete picture of Judaism. I began to wrestle with the concept of “otherness” — “us” and “them” — in the Jewish community...

...What does Jewish look like? Is Jewish only a physical appearance with origins in Poland, Germany, and Russia? Or do you also look Jewish if you are from the Middle East and North Africa, India, Yemen, Ethiopia, Iraq, or Iran? By nature of our origins, we are the descendants of a brown-skinned Semitic tribe that migrated from the Middle East and North Africa. Yet, poignantly, an African- American colleague recently asked me why, if Jews are so multicultural, he has only seen in books, in the media, in leadership, and everywhere else, white people?

My husband and I are Orthodox African- American Jews raising three beautiful Jews of color. I do the work of Jewish multiculturalism today, so that they will see the day when “Jewish” will mean a harmonious representation of the diversity of our world. In the blurred space between standard and strange lies a hospitable new reality for all Jews called “home.”


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To read more publications at intersections of Black and Jewish history, see this special Bookshelf for Black History Month.

(Remember, if you're a registered user [it's free], you can create bookshelves like this one to save sets of BJPA documents for later. Keep them private, or publish them to the web to share with colleagues. Sort manually, or automatically by date or title. View or print the lists, or export to MS Word for easy bibliographies.)

Jews & Black American Culture

Jews in the United States today are creating a Jewish culture that draws heavily on African American and, in the case of reggae, Afro-Caribbean styles of expression.

So writes Eric Goldstein in the Fall 2007 issue of AJS Perspectives. Continuing our Black History Month series, let us explore Fashioning Jewishness in a Black and White World:

Although this trend is being pursued by many types of Jews, it owes much of its current vogue to the lively subculture known as the “Jewish hipster” movement and its unofficial organ, Heeb magazine. Since its debut in 2002, Heeb has often linked Jews with blacks as part of its overall campaign to demonstrate that Jewishness can be “cool,” a point often made with Heeb’s special brand of over-the-top comedy. The magazine’s very first cover, for example, featured black hands placing a round piece of shmurah matzoh on a turntable, a theme echoed in a long-running satirical advertisement in which an African American man proclaims a piece of Streit’s matzoh to be “a big ass cracker!”...

...The trend so apparent in Heeb soon appeared in other quarters as well. In 2003, writer-director Jonathan Kesselman presented the first “Jewxploitation film,” the Hebrew Hammer, which used similar comic hyperbole to explicitly link Jews and African Americans. Drawing on the popular blaxploitation genre of the 1970s, the film followed the adventures of a tough Jewish action hero who speaks with “a mix of Black Panther argot and Yiddish”
and “struts through the ‘chood’ instilling Jewish pride in its youth.” The music industry, as suggested above, has become perhaps the most active arena in which young Jews link themselves with black culture. The most famous example is Matisyahu (né Matthew Paul Miller), the Chabad/Lubavitch devotee who was named top reggae artist of 2006 by Billboard magazine...

...In all of these cases, it is apparent that the use of black images and style allow young Jews to link themselves to what they perceive as the assertiveness and independence of African Americans. Despite contemporary society’s claim to be a “multicultural” one, the black-white divide is still a powerful enough construct to make African Americans the most powerful symbol of difference in American society. As a result, they are an attractive touchstone for Jews who have become frustrated with the constraints placed on them by their membership in the white mainstream...

...In the 1920s and 1930s, Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker and other Jewish performers were well known for their blackface routines, which lampooned blacks but also contained elements of tribute and identification... As memoirs of the interwar years record, Jewish youth frequently listened to “race records” and invited black musicians to perform at their dances. Some made excursions to Harlem and other black neighborhoods in the urban north to seek out nightclubs and dance halls and sometimes romantic liaisons...

...What, then, separates the contemporary Jewish appropriation of black culture from these earlier examples? First and foremost, prewar Jews who experimented with black culture did so under a very different set of social circumstances. Not yet fully vested as a part of the white mainstream, Jews before 1945 were often described, and described themselves, as members of a distinct “race.” Although this did not necessarily mean that they were seen as nonwhite, it did mean that they occupied an uncertain place in America’s racial constellation...

...In this context, Jews who bristled under the pressures of acculturation often found black culture to be a welcome escape valve...

...After 1965, however, two major shifts began to occur in American Jewish identity. First, a growing acceptance of difference in American culture lessened the pressure on Jews to downplay their distinctiveness. Second, the emergence of Black Power movements and civil rights legislation that identified minority status with peoples of color made many Jews uneasy with how they were now defined as part of the white power structure, a designation that cut against their own “outsider” consciousness. Ironically, having begun to achieve the privileged status they had long sought, they now felt troubled by the threatened loss of their group distinctiveness...

...The fact that Jewish integration has continued to reach unprecedented levels in recent years helps explain the intensifying appeal of African American culture, which gives contemporary Jews a powerful tool for asserting their difference. Unlike the flirtations of Jews with black culture in the 1920s and 1930s, today’s Jewish interest in hip-hop, reggae, African American-Jewish celebrities and black cultural style is part of a broader assertion of Jewish particularity.


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To read more publications at intersections of Black and Jewish history, see this special Bookshelf for Black History Month.

(Remember, if you're a registered user [it's free], you can create bookshelves like this one to save sets of BJPA documents for later. Keep them private, or publish them to the web to share with colleagues. Sort manually, or automatically by date or title. View or print the lists, or export to MS Word for easy bibliographies.)

J-Vault for Black History Month

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In honor of Black History Month, throughout February this blog will highlight selections at intersections of Black and Jewish history. Some such publications will make us proud; others -- like this one -- will certainly not. The Jewish community is (rightly) proud of its record in the struggle for recognition of the civil rights of African-Americans, but it is also important to remember that this record is not spotless. The Jewish community too -- and even the profession of Jewish communal service -- was capable of including professionals who might make reference to racist "science" (see the first paragraph quoted below), or refer to African culture with the phrase "tainted with African history" (further below; emphasis added).

This week, from the J-Vault: Negro "Jews" : A Social Study (1933)

The quotation marks in the title speak volumes by themselves about the author's hostility toward his subjects. Excerpts:

Negro Jews as an organization or social unit are non-existent elsewhere than in America. There is an Indian-Negro sect in the West Indies that historically taboos pork and may thus claim a relationship in consideration of its present rite, and its former questionable ancestry. The only dark skinned foreign group that is Jewish in ancestry and practice is the Abyssinian Jew or Falasha, and scientific investigation places this rather pure strain in the white race. Therefore, the Falasha Jew is not included in this study. Our specific problem as social workers is the so-called "Jewish" Negro in New York City...

...Before attempting to analyze the sociological import of these groups of associations of "Jewish" Negroes, it is essential that we be familiar with their history and background, and have a knowledge of social conditions in New York City and in the West Indies from which a large portion of these adherents derive. Exact names and titles have been disguised, without affecting the underlying facts...

...In 1900, Abraham, a twenty-year-old fish peddler of Norfolk, Virginia, and to some extent a religious mystic, convinced himself, aided by the fact of similarity of occupation, that he was the second Jesus Christ. He gathered about him a group of people, and conducted services as the "Church of Eternity." For several years, as father of the new sect, he conducted business at this stand, until 1908 when he was evicted for being a nuisance...

...His method of raising money was to select a small tradesman in the neighborhood and direct group members to deal there. Later Abraham would visit the merchant and convince him that as his customers were mostly members of the group he should join. Of course, as a member, the new constituent gave up his possessions to the church... The women who joined had to forswear their marital ties. Husbands and wives became "brothers and sisters" in their mutual relations. They gave one another up to the group; the women were supposed to be held in common, but actually they were reserved to the priests, and in time largely to. one priest, Abraham. This man had a great number of illegitimate children within the group; in the latter period many were children whom he had by his own children. Pregnant women were kept on a "baby farm" which the group owned in Absecon, New Jersey...

...The second group of importance is known as the Church of the Promised Land and Talmud Torah. It was the parent organization of the Sons of Israel. Rabbi Joseph, formerly mentioned in connection with Rabbi Jacob, was the godfather of this institution in Harlem, with a branch in Brooklyn. Rabbi Joseph of Florida, and a "voodoo" man from a nationalistic Negro association, directed the Talmud Torah, which was organized in connection with this church. The group was incorporated July 1921. The group split up in 1922 and Rabbi Jacob organized the Sons of Israel.

Rabbi Jacob's ideas were gathered from the Abraham group, and the Garvey movement from which he had been ousted. He built up a membership of several hundred. This group was the only authentic one of all the "Jewish" Negro groups, in that services were conducted with Jewish aspects, tinged, however, with Mahommedanism. Its entire life was over six years. Rabbi Jacob employed several white Jews to instruct his congregation in Jewish ways, and arranged for the children to be instructed at the Institutional Synagogue Talmud Torah, which is under the auspices of persons prominent in Orthodox Jewish circles...

...The oldest organization, or parent group, is known as the "Church of Eternity." Its membership is composed of a group of Negroes claiming to be Jews. It is located in Harlem in New York City. The majority of the membership is of West Indian derivation... History unfolds the parable in the West Indies during the Sixteenth Century when some eight hundred Jews are reported to have been exiled from England and to have intermarried with the native and Negro populations. Although Christianity was the prevailing enforced religion, Judaism is supposed to have been/ practiced privately...

...Being left to themselves in the West Indies, the Negroes develop certain stories which are all tainted with African history and preceded by African background. And, when added to this is the story of the Bible, of the Jews being delivered by both the Egyptian and Babylonish captivities, these black natives imagine all sorts of fantastic plans for the redemption of Africa. They identify themselves with the Ancient Jews; they think of themselves as the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea...

...The only reason these groups called themselves Jews rather than something non-Jewish seems to be based on the fact that they, Abraham and Gabriel, had run the entire gamut of Christian beliefs. To do something new, and thus attractive, they could become only either Jews or Mohammedans, as only these groups would not reject them. Abraham and Gabriel could not adopt Mohammedanism because they knew nothing about it and had no way of learning because of their ignorance of Arabic. Jews always recognize Jews as fellows in persecution. Gad (the Arabian) knew Hebrew and Yiddish, and all the group knew the Bible; so it was easy for them to take over the Jewish title. They used to have letterheads with inscriptions in Yiddish and Hebrew, concerning their alleged orphan asylum, old folks home, school, etc. They were thus in a position to prey on the Jews in New York. The movement was almost purely mercenary and lascivious, although some of the leaders were sincere in their misguided beliefs.

Of the entire Negro population of the world which is estimated at 200,000,000, over 224,670 live in New York City within an - area of two square miles. Judaism is professed by four small groups in New York City fast disintegrating because of intrinsic and extrinsic reasons. There is no anthropological verity in their claims. Manifestly engendered by the African desire for free emotional expression and the personal ambition of local religious leaders rather than racial self-assertion, this movement gathered momentum under the Garvey impulse. But being founded in ignorance and self-aggrandizement it has lost power and personnel with the spread of Negro education and Negro internationalism. Therefore, upon analysis, except for its exploitation aspect, the problem resolves itself into a Negro one and, therefore, outside of the realm of Jewish social service— except from the broader humanitarian and internationalistic viewpoint.


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To read more publications at intersections of Black and Jewish history, see this special Bookshelf for Black History Month.

(Remember, if you're a registered user [it's free], you can create bookshelves like this one to save sets of BJPA documents for later. Keep them private, or publish them to the web to share with colleagues. Sort manually, or automatically by date or title. View or print the lists, or export to MS Word for easy bibliographies.)

Podcast: Jewish Values, Jewish Interests

Ruth Wisse

This was easily our most provocative event to date.

On Monday, December 5th, Prof. Ruth Wisse and Rabbi Joy Levitt joined BJPA Director Prof. Steven M. Cohen at the NYU Law School for a wide-ranging, passionate, broad discussion of how the Jewish community should relate to the outside world.

After a brief ceremony honoring Gail Chalew for her 20+ years as editor of the Journal of Jewish Communal Service (the digitization of which on BJPA was the impetus for the event), Rabbi Levitt spoke of her decisions, as Executive Director of the JCC in Manhattan, to reach out to non-Jewish poor and minority communities, as well as the Muslim community leaders affiliated with the Cordoba Center / Park 51 "Ground Zero mosque" now known as Prayer Space. Prof. Wisse spoke of Israel under attack and an American Jewish community lacking in moral confidence, and judging Judaism based on liberal standards instead of liberalism based on Jewish standards. Our fearless leader, Prof. Cohen, acted as moderator, but without setting aside his own positions on the issues.

Click here to listen.

David Elcott on Interfaith and Interethnic Coalition-Building

For the latest installment in our Office Hours series, Prof. David Elcott discusses his experiences working with leaders across boundaries of religion and ethnicity to build meaningful interfaith and interethnic coalitions.


Crown Heights Riot Anniversary


Friday, August 19, is the twentieth anniversary of the Crown Heights Riots. A number of interesting articles have already appeared marking the milestone, and I imagine more are forthcoming. See especially this by Jane Eisner and this by Josh Nathan-Kazis, but if you read only one article on this anniversary, read Ari L. Goldman's "Telling It Like It Wasn't":

My job was to file memos to the main “rewrite” reporters back in the Times office in Manhattan about what I saw and heard... Yet, when I picked up the paper, the article I read was not the story I had reported. I saw headlines that described the riots in terms solely of race. “Two Deaths Ignite Racial Clash in Tense Brooklyn Neighborhood,” the Times headline said. And, worse, I read an opening paragraph, what journalists call a “lead,” that was simply untrue: “Hasidim and blacks clashed in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn through the day and into the night yesterday.”

In all my reporting during the riots I never saw — or heard of — any violence by Jews against blacks. But the Times was dedicated to this version of events: blacks and Jews clashing amid racial tensions...
... On Aug. 21, as I stood in a group of chasidic men in front of the Lubavitch headquarters, a group of demonstrators were coming down Eastern Parkway. “Heil Hitler,” they chanted. “Death to the Jews.”..
...Suddenly rocks and bottles started to fly toward us and a chasidic man just a few feet away from me was hit in the throat and fell to the ground. Some ran to help the injured man but most of us ran for cover. I ran for a payphone and, my hands shaking with rage, dialed my editor. I spoke in a way that I never had before or since when talking to a boss.

“You don’t know what’s happening here!” I yelled. “I am on the streets getting attacked. Someone next to me just got hit. I am writing memos and what comes out in the paper? ‘Hasidim and blacks clashed’? That’s not what is happening here. Jews are being attacked! You’ve got this story all wrong. All wrong.”

I didn’t blame the “rewrite” reporter. I blamed the editors. It was clear that they had settled on a “frame” for the story. The way they saw it, there were two narratives here: the white narrative and the black narrative. And both had equal weight.

On the anniversary of this low point in the African-American and Jewish relationship, here are some selected publications from our Black-Jewish Relations topic:

Jewish Links for MLK Day

From Allison Keyes at NPR, a story about bringing together African American and Jewish teens for a year-long leadership development program in which the two groups learn about each other's history and culture.

From Sue Fishkoff at the JTA: "A half-century later, rabbis recall marching with Martin Luther King"

From R' Leor  Sinai at eJewish Philanthropy: "MLK and Herzl: Continuous Revelation"

From Hillel's Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, a fantastic Talmud-style text study tool for learning Biblical and rabbinic parallels to, and references in, Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

One Summer Camp in '65: A Theoretical and Practical Civil Rights Education

"Civil rights for African Americans were woven into Judaism in a seamless garment to be experienced and lived." -Jewish Summer Camping and Civil Rights: How Summer Camps Launched a Transformation in American Jewish Culture, 2009

Professor Riv-Ellen Prell's essay studies how denominational (primarily Reform and Conservative) Jewish summer camps aggressively included civil rights programming and education into their vision of American Judaism, and the camper experience in the 1950s and 60s, and how that emphasis eventually fell away. But its story is achingly relevant today.

The pivot point in the essay is a fascinating incident that took place at Camp Ramah Nyack's experimental "American Seminar"program in 1965. The coed program brought sixteen year-olds together for an intensive summer of traditional Jewish learning in the mornings and social action volunteering (largely in/with African American communities) in the afternoon.

Fairly late in the summer, a leader of the African American Jewish youth group, Hatzair Haatid, arranged for group members to spend a weekend visiting American Seminar and share community, learning, and praying, with its campers.  But the camp's leaders were unsure about the halachic Jewish status of the visiting group, and they consulted the Conservative movement's chief legal authority, Rabbi Moshe Zucker.

He ruled that any male in the group (this was prior to women gaining rights to participate equally in religious life in the movement) past the age of bar mitzva who was enrolled in a yeshiva or day school could receive an Aliyah. He reasoned that the educational institution would vouch for the "authenticity" of the young man's Judaism. This ruling was agreed upon by the camp director, Lukinsky and the Talmud professor, who served as the scholar-in-residence and the religious authority for the camp.

But on the morning in question, Rabbi Lukinsky could not bring himself to make the inquiries that would be required for enacting that policy: 

“In any other Jewish setting,” he asserted,” if a person presented himself as a Jew the inquiry would stop there. There was only one reason I asked the young men on a Shabbat morning if they attended a yeshiva and it was because they were Black.” He decided then and there simply to assign Aliyot to the guest campers.

Later that day, the rest of the camp learned that after the service, the Talmud teacher asked a group of young men to stay behind to repeat the entire Torah service, holding based on R. Zucker's ruling that the "the Aliyot taken by the Black Jews rendered it illegitimate."

That decision led to agitation and outrage, and culminated in the two camp leaders holding a public discussion on their positions and their decision making processes. One camper remembers:

I know now that our teacher followed his teacher Zucker, and that is what the halakhic system required. But we heard the rabbi say "I was just following orders.? We had all seen (the film) Judgment at Nuremberg that year and here he was saying that he should have followed orders. He heard it too and tried to explain ten to fifteen more times that this was a halakhic requirement.

(That Talmud professor was a Holocaust survivor whose Auschwitz tattoo campers saw every day).

That one incident called into question the premise of the summer - the possibility of the 'seamless' integration of progressive values and traditional Judaism. In Prof. Prell's interviews with the Rabbis and campers involved, decades later, the challenges and tensions of that day still sound fresh. Interestingly, the Talmud teacher is never named, a presumably voluntary anonymity implying that, in 2009, he preferred not to have his name publicly associated with the incident.

The often implicit tensions made explicit in this incident will, I'm sure, sound familiar to many who are involved in or implicated by topical Jewish struggles around questions of gender, sexuality, intermarriage, and pluralism. The question of the halachic status of African American Jewish communities like that which composed Hatzair Haatid, is, as far as I know, still not more resolved within the Conservative movement.

Eventually, Prof. Prell relates, "civil rights no longer served as medium for expressions of Jewish social justice," but

These campers were to create many revolutions in American Jewish life... Summer camps of the 1950s and 1960s proved to be a powerful testing ground for experimenting with new articulations of Jewish identity.

Are there revolutions fomenting in Jewish summer camps today? Or perhaps the testing grounds of Jewish identity are elsewhere? Or maybe we're still working out, at camp, online, in new and experimental schools and yeshivot, at Limmuds and Havurah Institutes, the struggles that our Boomer forebears cracked open ahead of us.

Meetings and Sports Clubs: the Practicalities of History

When you think of Jewish involvement in civil rights struggles of the 1960s, what activities do you picture? Freedom Rides? Brave marches through Southern cities, as Jews join hands with African-American marchers, all raising voices in song?

Or do you picture JCC board meetings?
Grand events of history are connected to a web of smaller, mundane events which are, in a way, just as important. Glimpses of these more obscure corners of history can be fascinating. Take this 1965 article from the Journal of Jewish Communal Service, for example.
The story begins when a St. Louis JCC hosted "a forum program dealing with the Negro revolution." Ten couples among the center membership "formed a group to deepen their understanding of of the civil rights movement," and "began to meet on a regular basis, invited Negro speakers..., visited Negro neighborhoods... and made a very conscious effort to identify with the problems of the Negro community."
In spring 1964, the group decided the center needed to make a practical commitment to civil rights, and by summer a committee on the center's board responded by drafting a resolution mandating that the center adhere to four points:
  1. "Intensify efforts to do all that is within our power to secure immediate justice and full citizenship rights for all Americans everywhere;"
  2. "Support human rights legislation on national, state and local levels..."
  3. "Deal only with business firms which follow a policy of non-discrimination in employment"
  4. "Schedule meetings, luncheons and dinners only in places which do not discriminate against anyone because of race or creed."
Tellingly, the vote on the resolution was pushed off until autumn, hoping that by then Congress would have passed civil rights legislation that made the resolution "less controversial". Still, when the vote came in September 1964, it passed by an "overwhelming vote."
As simple as it was to put a resolution on paper, it became apparent only a few weeks later that the center would have to put its money - actually, its popular programming - where its mouth was. The center realized that its athletic teams would be henceforth unable to participate in an intra-city athletic league, because some other teams (who would host matches) were private (i.e. whites-only) clubs.
Members of the athletic team protested that they should be allowed to participate anyway. Some argued that the resolution did not cover this particular case. Others argued that their participation might allow them to build relationships with members of discriminatory clubs, and that perhaps this might lead to those clubs reconsidering their policies in the future.
Meetings of the board's physical education committee, and the following meeting of the entire board, became "provocative" and "soul-searching". Eventually, the leadership agreed that "the resolution definitely precluded participation in the League."
The agreement was not unanimous. "It was quite apparent that the board of directors was not at all unified in its reactions to the situation. Several who were members of one of the private clubs under discussion were actually quite conflicted." Over the following year, further meetings saw discussion of the center's principles and actions regarding involvement in the civil rights struggle.
After a year of consideration, however, staff felt "a certain mandate from the board in making the Resolution on Equal Opportunities a viable program tool. Membership on all levels has been helped to examine the stake they have as Jews in the Negro struggle for civil rights. The actions of the board have given a forward thrust to the implementation of the citizenship objectives of the Center... the espirit de corps of the board is at an all time high and people expressed the feeling that the past year's board activity was most meaningful."
It is refreshing to read such a recognizable picture of a Jewish community situating itself relative to an important social movement. The picture that emerges from this account is not a heroic profile of perfect commitment and courage from the very beginning (a la Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel), but rather a very human picture, in which the stakeholders of this JCC hold a spectrum of opinions and a spectrum of levels of commitment to the principle of justice for all. It is a story of learning and growing, a story of non-instant change.
Reading this account might provoke a 2010 Jewish reader to feel shame that the small change in question took so much time and struggle. Or inspired, because ten couples who got together were able to initiate a process that led to a major policy shift in a noteworthy local institution. Or inspired because the mundane actions of the type we engage in every day -- board meetings, amateur sports leagues, conversations with others in our community -- are real parts of the larger drama of history.

South Africa in the Narratives of Public Debate

Today London's The Guardian alleges that Israel negotiated with the government of South Africa in 1975, offering secretly "to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime." Three weeks ago Israel's Yediot Ahronot claimed that South African judge Richard Goldstone (eponymous of the Goldstone Report) "took an active part in the racist policies of one of the cruelest regimes of the 20th century."

These stories have in common an explicit linkage of the powerful historical narrative of South African apartheid to current issues involving the State of Israel: The Guardian claims the newly revealed documents "will be an embarrassment, particularly as this week's nuclear non-proliferation talks in New York focus on the Middle East" and, furthermore, "will also undermine Israel's attempts to suggest that, if it has nuclear weapons, it is a 'responsible' power that would not misuse them, whereas countries such as Iran cannot be trusted." Yediot Ahronot quoted Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin as saying: "'The judge who sentenced black people to death... is a man of double standards... Such a person should not be allowed to lecture a democratic state defending itself against terrorists, who are not subject to the criteria of international moral norms.'"

Clearly the "news" in these articles is not news because of the historical facts being reported in and of themselves, but rather because of the rhetorical usefulness of the facts for certain opinion-holders on contemporary issues.

The South African narrative has intersected with broader themes relating to world Jewry in countless ways in years and decades past, touching a remarkable number of issues. A few examples (out of hundreds) from the BJPA:
  • Eugene Korn of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs noted in 2007 that liberal Christian churches have used "the model of apartheid South Africa" in seeking to pressure Israel with a divestment campaign.
  • Canadian government official Irwin Cotler, reflecting on the virulently anti-Israel activities of the 2001 Durban World Conference Against Racism, noted with dismay the same rhetorical linkage, observing that "A conference to commemorate the dismantling of South Africa as an apartheid state called for the dismantling of Israel as an apartheid state."
  • Writing in The Reconstructionist in 1999, Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan saw the end of South African apartheid as a model applicable all over the world: "It is my belief that the miracle that has occurred in South Africa over the past few years can give us all a renewed hope that we may yet live to see healing throughout the world."
  • The AJC's Jennifer L. Golub, summarizing issues of antisemitism facing South African Jewry in 1993, found South African Jews in an uncomfortable corner of the black-white struggle, facing various types of hatred and resentment from both white and black gentiles.
  • In 1987, Cherie Brown (also of the AJC) noted that Israel's relations with apartheid South Africa represent one sticking point (among many) for dialogue between American Black and Jewish college students.
What makes the South African narrative such a powerful recurring theme in modern issues relevant to Jewry and Israel? One might answer: moral simplicity. After all, what could be more terrible than apartheid's hateful repression, and what more heroic than the struggle against it? This clear case of right and wrong makes linkage of players in other narratives to the protagonists and antagonists of the apartheid struggle a tidy shorthand for asserting similar moral clarity in other conflicts.

One might also answer, however, that the reason this narrative is invoked by so many sides of so many conflicts lies precisely in its moral complexity. Is genuine reconciliation with former enemies possible? Is it right? Does it work? What does it require of each side? How do diplomatic engagement and diplomatic ostracization affect governments? How much oppression obligates members of a society to rebel against that society using force? Are Jews (seen as and/or perceive themselves to be) insiders or outsiders to power?

How do you think the image of apartheid South Africa functions in current public debates, and for what purposes? Share your thoughts in the comments section.