When my father and I would drive “down the shore” on New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway, heading for a boat that would take us to where the bluefish were running, occasionally we would go far enough south to pass the exit for Double Trouble Picnic Area. Whenever he happened to see that sign, my father would make the same ironic comment: “Double trouble … a Negro Jew.”
That was decades ago. “Negro” – not “Black,” not “African American” – was the correct and proper term. In those days I was too young to have developed much of a political or social consciousness, but even then I had the not so vague sense that we Jews and Negroes were somehow bound together by our histories of persecution.
By the time I entered college in the fall of 1962, it seemed that American Jews and Blacks had become natural allies; motivated by our bitter experiences of discrimination, we felt called upon to walk hand and hand to build a nation that would one day be free of bigotry, a land of justice and equality for all.
As we moved together into the ’60s, we Jews and Blacks shared moments of deepest darkness: consider the murders of the young civil rights activists, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner on June 21, 1964, in Philadelphia, Miss. – their bodies found 44 days later in a nearby earthen dam.
On the other hand, there were shared moments in the sun: consider the iconic photograph of the bearded, white-haired Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the much younger Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Hawaiian leis draped festively about their necks, standing in the very front line at the start of the 1965 Voting Rights March in Selma. As Heschel put it upon returning home, “I felt my legs were praying.”
Nevertheless, by the end of the 1960s, one would have had to be blind not to see the widening fissures between Jewish and African-American communities. The Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers’ strike in 1968 pitted Jewish teachers and administrators against the Black residents seeking more community control. By the time of the Bakke affirmative action case in 1978, it had become clear that on many issues Jews and Blacks held diametrically opposite positions. Back then, Blacks overwhelmingly supported affirmative action as a just method for overcoming centuries of racial discrimination, while most Jews eschewed affirmative action as a program which undermined the very meritocracy which enabled them to climb the ladder of success.
Why did the Black-Jewish alliance, which seemed so strong, almost inevitable in the 1960s, unravel so quickly? Prof. Cheryl Greenberg of Trinity College in Hartford provided an answer to this question when she spoke at Temple Habonim in Barrington on a Sunday afternoon Feb. 9. In her challenging talk, titled “Black-Jewish Relations: Why Should We Care?,” Greenberg, contrary to popular opinion, argued that there has never been a “natural alliance” between Jews and African-Americans. Despite our political cooperation which continues to this day – both communities are overwhelmingly Democratic – and despite the fact that we Jews had been disproportionately represented in the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s, deep structural issues of race, of religion, and especially of class have divided Jews and Blacks in significant ways.
In her talk, Greenberg pointed out that, since the Civil Rights era, Jews and Blacks have gradually ceased working together on issues of common concern and have turned inward, pursuing our own parochial interests. For example, while American Jews began to focus more and more upon their involvement with the State of Israel, African-Americans turned their attention to the widespread poverty in their community. Moving further and further apart, we ceased to trust each other and began to accuse each other of outright betrayal. From the perspective of some Blacks, Jews were no better than other white people; from the perspective of some Jews, Blacks were no better than other anti-Semites.
Despite her somber assessment of the rise and fall of Black-Jewish relations, Greenberg ended her presentation on an encouraging note, noting that, though our relationship has been strained, it has never been severed.
She went on to suggest that now would be a propitious time for African-Americans and Jews to reengage, to recommit to our common interest in fighting bigotry anywhere and everywhere; for both of our communities well understand that the burning of a single black church is a threat to every church, to every synagogue, to every mosque throughout our land. Our common task as Jews, as Blacks, as Americans is to make real the vision of the Biblical prophet Amos, who more than 2,700 years ago yearned for the day when “justice rolls down like the waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5.24)
RABBI JAMES ROSENBERG (firstname.lastname@example.org) is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habo-nim in Barrington.