"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.

Read more...

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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.

Skin Cream and Anti-Semitism

Ahava Protestors

Who knew beauty products could be so controversial without blinding bunnies? Ahava cosmetics, the Israeli purveyor of delicious skin creams and conditioners has been forced to close its flagship London branch after biweekly demonstrations have cut into its profits. The store at Covent Garden has been hit hard with demonstrators because its cosmetics are produced on a shore of the Dead Sea in an area claimed by Palestinians. Four demonstrators went on trial earlier this year after they chained themselves to a concrete block inside the store.

Ok, apart from the major question of how the demonstrators managed to get a concrete block through the front door, the first thing that comes to mind is that these protestors are barking up the wrong tree. This is reminiscent of this week's protests in NYC. The Occupy Wall Street movement has targeted the actual area of Wall St. to demonstrate against the fat cats despite the fact that very little trading happens on stock market exchange floors anymore. It would be more advantageous for them to target online trading but since that isn't a possibility they turn to a solid geographic location. Just because you're demonstrating on Wall St. doesn't mean you're disrupting trading. It means you're getting yourselves on the cover of the New York Post with a pithy headline.

Going back to the anti-Israel displays outside a skin cream store. The salespeople here are trying to sell you products to cure your rosacea. Trying to promote your position of a two-state solution by victimizing the college student who needs to meet a sales quota is just like the Wall St. demonstrations: pointless. This is thinly-veiled anti-Semitism at its finest. Targeting a store chain because it is connected with Israel, and only because of its connection with Israel, is anti-Semitism no matter how you try and spin it. As Kenneth L. Marcus’ article has shown, the new political anti-Semitism is prolific across the world. He shows that the new anti-Semitism re-racializes and stigmatizes Jews as morally blameworthy and marked for reprisal.

Just as you don't have racism without racists, you can't have anti-Semitism without anti-Semites. The protestors should find another way to vent their frustrations and leave the poor Ahava employees out of their tirades.
 

Mel Gibson, Hannukah Hero?

Yes, it's unfortunately true. Mel Gibson is teaming up with Warner Bros. to recreate the story of Hannukah for the silver screen. In honor of a new school year being upon (some of) us, let's take a short pop quiz of Gibson's latest venture.

Question #1: Mel Gibson can best be described as:

A. A great equal rights champion
B. A raging anti-Semite
C. A lovable curmudgeon

Question #2: Upon hearing the news that he will be producing a movie on Judah Maccabee, the most common reaction from the Jewish community is:

A. Nachas (aka Pride)
B. Incredulity ( are you #%*!? kidding me?!)
C. Agreement that, yes, this does seem like an intellectually sound arrangement

Question #3: What do 'Basic Instinct', 'Showgirls', and the movie adaption of the story of Hannukah all have in common?

A. All three share writer Joe Eszterhas
B. All three share writer Joe Eszterhas
C. No, really. They share the same writer. Meaning that for all we know, Judah Maccabee, pole dancers, and Sharon Stone will all share screen time. 

Do you think Gibson will be able to pull it off?

Galliano Receives Slap on Wrist for Anti-Semitic Ramblings

Bigot Olympian

In honor of New York Fashion Week, it only makes sense to doff our caps to a former great, made social pariah, fashion designer. A man who could design a fabulous handbag but who thought being friends with Gisele made him G-d's gift to the world.

John Galliano, former head designer of Christian Dior, was recently sentenced by a Paris court to a suspended fine and zero jail time after his now-famous expletive-laced rant was videotaped and went viral. In it, Galliano derided Jews, praised Hitler, and in general won himself a first place ribbon in the Bigot Olympics. When Mel Gibson did the same in his puzzling diatribe, his only punishment was to have his less than flattering mugshot blasted on every TV and computer screen worldwide. Galliano, on the other hand, faced court time.

As much as I would have loved to see Galliano be served a harsh punishment from a judge for acting like an imbecile, it is pretty surprising to my American mind that he went to court for expressing his idiotic thoughts. Our first amendment rights are (usually) a wonderful thing. If you want to celebrate Festivus, fine with us. Petition the government for every American to be given a free puppy? Why not. Go off on a racist diatribe? Eh, not as cute as a puppy. But we'll let you get away with it.

Europe, it seems, has other ideas. I don't find their hate speech laws too restrictive, per se. But from a practical standpoint it does seem like a colossal waste of time and money to place every racist moron in court for running their mouths. (See this Institute for Jewish Policy Research report arguing that these laws are also ineffective.) Then again, if Galliano had made the same comments at a cafe in America, he would have walked away from there scot-free.

What do you think?

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:

From the J-Vault: Censorship & Sensitivity

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Last month, the US Supreme Court struck down a California law banning the sale of violent video games to children. Defenders of the law used various (unsuccessful) lines of reasoning, such as arguing that harm to children takes priority over other concerns, and arguing that minors do not have the same free speech rights as adults. None of the law's defenders, however, could be seen explicitly endorsing censorship, or even using the word "censorship".

But that's only because times have changed.

This week, from the J-Vault: Objectionable Films (1915)

This little report from the November 1915 Bulletin of the National Conference of Jewish Charities was obviously not particularly noteworthy at the time, but viewed from 2011, it provides a fascinating glimpse into a time when there was a "National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures".

The National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures has just issued a special bulletin to all producers and directors of motion pictures in the United States. This is the first definite step taken by the Board to check the vilification of the Jewish race in the "movies." Acting in co-operation with the Jewish Community (Kehillah) of New York City, Maurice Simmons, chairman of the Committee for the Protection of the Good Name of Immigrant Peoples, has been in constant touch with the National Board of Censorship. The libeling of the Jew in the "films" had assumed alarming proportions and was the subject of complaint all over the country.

Don't you wish we still had a "Committee for the Protection of the Good Name of Immigrant Peoples"? Americans used to be much better at naming things. Also, isn't it quaint to reflect that there used to be a time when Jews were portrayed in "movies" and "films" as falling into a set of stereotypical roles? Oh, wait a minute...

On a more serious note, it may come as a surprise to modern American Jews, who are accustomed to seeing Jewish communal institutions stand generally on the side of civil liberties, that in 1915 Jewish community institutions apparently felt no tension about, or even any need to explain, appealing to the National Board of Censorship.

Download this publication...

 

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Intermarriage and Complexities of Antisemitism

rings

Jewish Ideas Daily recently highlighted a fascinating gem from the Atlantic Magazine in 1939: I Married a Jew, an anonymous personal reflection by a German-American woman married to a Jewish American man.

The article is an amazing read, deserving of much more detailed discussion than I have time to devote in this post, but I will say in briefest summary that the mix of sympathy for Jews as individuals and revulsion for various expressions of Jewishness which this author displays is incredible. She loves her husband and his family (unless they're all together as a family), and she will even countenance a little (not too much) Jewish pride, especially as relates to Biblical figures such as Moses, Solomon and (naturally) Jesus, but she is also very put off by Jewish cultural distinctions, favoring complete assimilation, and speaking of the world's "Jewish problem" as a product of oppression on one hand, and of Jewish (stereotypical) villainies, which she takes to be very real and very problematic, on the other.

What strikes me as so important about this article is not its being out of date, but rather its relevance to the present. If one removed the dismissive comments about Hitler being unfortunate yet not particularly unique or worrisome, and made only a little subtle revision to the terms, emphases and frames of reference, then this woman's viewpoint could just as easily have been written yesterday as in 1939. (Indeed, a few reader comments below the article reveal that some people apparently thought it was written in the present. Not that internet comments prove anything.) Modern American culture does not embrace all of the anti-Jewish views which are affiliated with traditional Christian anti-Judaism, but modern American culture certainly does share with this author a distaste for Jewish "clannishness" and particularism -- witness the ubiquity of intermarriage among Jewish characters on TV and in movies. Hollywood's usual portrayals of intermarriage assume that intermarriage is not only acceptable, but actually desirable. This perspective differs in many ways from our 1939 author, who blames the Jews for their own persecution during European history. But it shares with her the fundamental assumption that Jewish assimilation is the answer to Jewish problems. This reflexive sense that Jews are okay as long as they aren't too Jewish is very much alive in 2011.

Intermarriage as a catalyst for the exposure of uncomfortable disagreements is another element that makes this 1939 article strangely up-to-date. These marital dynamics are echoed in this recent blog post by Allison Benedikt, another deeply personal reflection centering on an intermarriage, this one from the perspective of the Jewish partner. In the post, which has prompted many strong reactions, especially from Jeffrey Goldberg, Benedkit describes her unquestioningly Zionist childhood and her transformation, as an adult, into a passionate anti-Zionist, influenced significantly by the strong anti-Israel views of her non-Jewish husband. I hasten to add that I'm not making an equation or a conflation with this juxtaposition of the two articles. By comparing them, I don't mean to equate Benedikt's husband to the 1939 author of I Married a Jew, or to equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. But I do mean to note that in both cases, an intermarriage has the effect of forcing the couple to take a stand on an extremely divisive issue of peoplehood. Writing in response to Benedikt's piece, Julie Wiener notes that Intermarried Does Not Equal Anti-Zionist. She's right, of course, but it would be folly not to admit that a marriage across the religio-ethnic divide is more likely than an in-marriage to force a conversation on these, and other, difficult topics.

Not that conversation is a bad thing. One difference between today and 1939, perhaps, is that conversations about these feelings do not tend to occur as openly. Nobody wants to be branded a bigot, and these days Americans of all persuasions tend to throw around such labels quite freely. We seem to think of antisemitism, like other forms of intergroup hatred, as a binary, all-or-nothing phenomenon. To listen to contemporary American discourse, a person is either "an antisemite" (a noun and an identity), or else a "normal" person, who is presumably completely free of anti-Jewish bias. (The same underlying assumption could be cited with regard to homophobia, sexism, racism, etc.) Reality, of course, is much more complicated, as this 1939 article reveals. Love and hate can be present in the same person. Faulty assumptions, negative emotional reactions, and prejudices can (and usually do) coexist in the same brains with genuine love and respect for the "other" group in question. Admitting as much might allow everyone to be more honest with one another, without anyone being afraid of being labeled a bigot, and without anyone else being afraid to point out when an idea is bigoted. The trick is to be able to criticize ideas (even quite strongly) without demonizing the people who hold them (except in the most extreme and obvious cases of open hatred). That would leave space for quite a few difficult -- and necessary -- conversations.

Special J-Vault for Yom HaShoah

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This Monday, May 2, marks Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. In honor of this important occasion of communal memory, we have prepared a special installment of our J-Vault series, which highlights historical materials in BJPA's holdings.

The publications below, written by American Jewish communal professionals in 1937 - 1939, offer a fascinating (and sometimes chilling) glimpse into American Jewish perceptions of the situation of Europe's Jews during a time when Nazi antisemitic persecutions had begun to unfold, but had not yet nearly reached their horrific apogee. They are all from the journal Jewish Social Service Quarterly, which is now the Journal of Jewish Communal Service.

This week from the J-Vault: Publications from the late 1930s

Jewish Morale in the Present Situation (September 1937)
Distressed by the oppression of German Jews, Morris D. Waldman nonetheless held out hope for the project of emancipation and Jewish integration into Diaspora societies. He saw in certain Jewish and Zionist perspectives echoes of the Nazi "theories that the Jews are a distinct race, alien, unadaptable in the western world". "Despite intolerable provocation," he wrote, "...we must place our faith in the substantial values of civilization and submit to the restraints of civilized people."

Jewish Problems and Activities Overseas (September 1937)
Joseph C. Hyman described the coordination of Jewish relief efforts abroad. "The tragedy that is today taking place in Germany," he wrote, is "symptomatic of almost world-wide anti-Jewish activity."

Race and Race Prejudice (December 1937)
Franz Boas endeavored to "show the absurdity of the whole race-theory which is the basis of Nazi political theory." He also discussed prejudice in America: "Unfortunately, we are not free of tendencies that point in the same direction. Prejudice against the Negro is the most striking and probably most dangerous one."

Problems of Minority Groups (September 1938)
 Oscar I. Janowsky described in depth the situation of Jews and other vulnerable minorities in the Europe of 1938. "The Jew is attacked first because he is the weakest and safest enemy," he wrote. But "Behind the smokescreen of anti-Semitism, the liberties of all are destroyed... So long as Nazism and Fascism prevail, there will be no peace for the true Christian, for the true scholar, for the true proponent of a better world, any more than for the Jew."

 The Social Pathology of the Refugee Problem (March 1939)
Melvin M. Fagen examined the web of causes he perceived to be behind the crisis facing Jews. "Though our course is not clear," he declared, "and the future uncertain, there is one thing we can do, one duty we owe to ourselves and to posterity. It is to know why these wars have come about, why the refugee problem or the Jewish problem or the problem of Fascism arises."

Jewish Ideology in the Present Crisis(March 1939)
"[S]ince 1933, millions of Jews have been deprived of either their lives or the means to their livelihood," wrote Ira Eisenstein. "Political rights and economic opportunities have been ruthlessly taken from them and, at the present writing, it appears that no less than four million Jews in Central Europe alone will be compelled to migrate from the lands in which they and their ancestors have lived for centuries." Unaware that the immediate future would yield events far more monstrous than these, Eisenstein nonetheless realized that the happenings of his day would necessitate a reconsideration of the "various alternatives, which Jewish thinkers contemplated as the solution to the so-called Jewish problem during the whole post-emancipation era". Strikingly, he wrote: "It is not assimilation which has failed; it is democracy which has failed, that very democracy which made possible assimilation."

 

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We welcome your reactions in the comments section below.

Have a meaningful Yom HaShoah.

Muslim-Jewish Relations

Our September newsletter focused on Muslim-Jewish relations, and if you've not had the chance to see it yet, it's definitely worth checking out. It gives an overview of our sources on topics from Muslim antisemitism in Sweden, to Jewish-Muslim cooperation, Jewish opposition to the proposed WTC mosque, the ongoing impact of 9/11 on Jewish-Muslim relations in America, memoirs of Jews from Muslim lands, and, of course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - and much more.

On a related note - the following public statement, written by Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer and cosigned by a group of Rabbis and Jewish educators, was recently released:

As inter-religious educators who work with rabbinical students from all denominations, we are deeply dismayed by some of the ignorance and confusion we have heard expressed in the national conversation surrounding the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.” We are especially concerned when we hear such ignorance and confusion coming from within the Jewish community. Whatever happens with the proposed community center in lower Manhattan, the controversy has highlighted a question that, in the post 9/11 world, comes enmeshed in strong emotion: Is the American ideal of religious liberty—an ideal fundamental to the health of our democracy—expansive enough to include Muslim Americans? We urge rabbis across the country to speak out against the bigotry that has been unleashed by this controversy, and to assert leadership on the issue of religious pluralism. As Jews, we know all too well the destructive power of hate speech. We should be in the forefront of efforts to ensure that religious minorities can practice their traditions freely.

We encourage our students and colleagues in the rabbinate—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and independent—to consider using this September 11th, also Shabbat Shuva, as a time to reflect with our communities on our own fears and prejudices, on the need to educate ourselves about Islam, and on the role Jews might play in helping to create a more inclusive and just society. Of course, this is not to preclude any memorial prayers or other ways of remembering those who were killed on 9/11.

We are posting resources of general interest on www.multifaithworld.com. We are also developing a collection of sample sermons. Please be in touch with one of us if you have a contribution you would like to share.

We look forward to hearing your responses.

L’shana Tova,

Rabbi Justus Baird Director, Center for Multifaith Education, Auburn Theological Seminary

Rabbi Reuven Firestone Professor of Medieval Jewish and Islamic Studies, HUC-JIR/Los Angeles Senior Fellow, Center for Religion and Civic Culture, University of Southern California

Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer Director, Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives and Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

Rabbi Or Rose Associate Dean, Rabbinical School of Hebrew College Co-Director, Center for Interreligious Leadership Education

Raquel Ukeles, PhD Golda Meir Fellow, Hebrew University of Jerusalem Academic Director, World Leadership Program Jewish Scholar, Luce Retreat for Emerging Muslim and Jewish Religious Leaders

Rabbi Burton Visotsky Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies and Director, Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies, Jewish Theological Seminary of America