Blacks and Jews: Best friends forever?

The following post reflects only the opinion of Stephen Richer.

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Like Jason, I went to Sixth & I’s MLK Shabbat on Friday, January 14.

Like Jason, I enjoyed the event – you can’t go wrong with singing and dancing (Step Up 3 and Stomp The Yard are two of my favorite movies).  I also got to sit next to a whole bunch of high schoolers from BBYO.  Win!

Perhaps unlike Jason, however, I questioned the kumbaya nature of the event.  It seemed to suggest that American blacks and Jews are best friends, and that the only problems we have to deal with are external. I don’t think that’s true.  Perhaps even the opposite.  This skepticism doesn’t stem from a personal experience, but simply from a few statistics and a few lessons in recent American Jewish history that I have a hard time overlooking.

I’m not going out on a limb here.  The decline of black-Jewish relations is the subject of many books.  Time Magazine ran a cover story on the topic as far back as 1969, and in 2008, President Obama addressed black anti-Semitism in a speech on MLK day.  (Huffington Post)  If you want book suggestions, just let me know, but here’s just a quick sample of what I’m talking about:

General anti-Semitism / anti-Israel:

  • In a 2002 study, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) found that 35% of blacks are “strongly anti-Semitic.”  This same study found the national rate to be 17%.
  • In 2009 and 2011, the ADL estimated black anti-Semitism to be at 28% and 29%, compared to 12% and 15% nationally.  (Page 32 of ADL study)
  • Black Americans are far more likely to side with Palestinians over Israelis than the average American.

Physical strife

  • 1991 Crown Heights Riot.  A Lubavitch Jew accidentally spun his car out of control and killed one black child and injured another.  Angry black residents beat the driver.  A group of 10 to 15 black teens stabbed and killed an Orthodox Jew.  “For three days Jewish resident of Crown Heights and reporters were beaten, cars overturned and set afire, and stores looted and firebombed by angered black residents.”  (PBS)
  • 1968 Ocean-Hill/Brownsville teachers’ strike placed black community activists against the heavily Jewish teachers’ union.

Black leaders

  • In the 1990s, Professor Leonard Jeffries – a leading black academic – falsely advanced the idea that the Jews were responsible for the slave trade.
  • Reverend Jesse Jackson – calling New York City “Hymie-town” and supporting Yasser Arafat. (WND)
  • Al Sharpton accusing American Jews of all being diamond merchants that benefitted from the blood of blacks.

Etc., etc.

It’s of course sad.  It’s not how it used to be.  In 1964, northern whites went to Mississippi to help register blacks to vote.  Three-quarter of the helpers were Jewish.  At Sixth & I we heard much about Rabbi Abraham Heschel who marched next to Martin Luther King at Selma.  That pairing was fairly representative of the solidarity between blacks and Jews in the civil rights movement.

But that is no longer.  There is real tension.  We should of course continue to hold events like the one hosted by Sixth & I on Friday, but at these gatherings, there should be fewer fanciful proclamations about our amazing friendship and more assessments of why roughly 30% of black Americans are “strongly anti-Semitic.”

 

*Note:  I realize that black and Jewish are not mutually exclusive (I’ve seen this video).  But it’s a very small group.