MLK Day Injects Historic Urgency to Bond Between African Americans and Jews

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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People participating in a Jewish solidarity march across the Brooklyn Bridge on January 5, 2020.
People participating in a Jewish solidarity march across the Brooklyn Bridge on January 5, 2020.Credit: Jeenah Moon/Getty Images/AFP
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON – Communities across the United States will mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday. For the American Jewish community, this is not only a day of commemoration for the legendary civil rights activist; it is also an opportunity to reflect on the history and current state of relations between Jews and African Americans.

Discussing this relationship is especially relevant now, in light of events that have made national headlines in America. Both communities are facing a growing threat from far-right extremists, who have targeted black churches and Jewish synagogues across the country – from Charleston to Pittsburgh – in recent years. Furthermore, there has been a wave of anti-Semitic incidents in the New York area in recent months, with the state’s attorney general telling Haaretz that a majority of these attacks were committed by “young people of color.”

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Haaretz has been speaking with community leaders, religious leaders and historians on the subject, asking them if the two communities are experiencing a crisis and whether the historic partnership between Jews and African Americans – which reached its peak in the 1960s – is still relevant in the 21st century.

New York State Attorney General Letitia James told Haaretz earlier this month that when discussing the recent wave of anti-Semitic incidents, “We can’t shy away from obstacles, and we can’t shy away from the facts.” James, the first African American to serve as the state’s attorney general, was among elected local officials participating in the thousands-strong march against anti-Semitism that took place in New York on January 5.

She also told Haaretz that young black Americans “need to understand that Jewish blood was shed for the freedom of our community,” referring to the Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement. “There is so much history there. We need to teach people how Martin Luther King Jr. stood with the Jewish community,” she added.

Rabbi Everett Gendler listening to Martin Luther King Jr. at the Rabbinical Assembly convention, March 1968.Credit: courtesy Rabbi Everett Gendler

Another prominent African American politician from New York marching with the Jewish community was Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. Jeffries told JTA earlier this month: “It’s not clear what is going on [with the spate of anti-Semitic incidents], but we are going to get to the bottom of it, and that’s why you’ve seen African-American leaders ... step up to speak out and to say we’re not going to tolerate this in our community.”

‘Natural bond’

In the aftermath of the anti-Semitic attacks – most notably the stabbing of five people at a rabbi’s home in Monsey, New York, during a Hanukkah celebration last month – many Jewish communities around the country received messages of support and solidarity from partners in the African American community.

“There are so many examples of cooperation and support between our communities,” says Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. “I don’t think these terrible events in New York represent the larger state of the relationship.”

Halber adds that the relationship “has been a focus for Jewish organizations and communities for decades now, it’s not a new thing. A lot of factors shape this relationship – I would argue most of them positive. There is a natural bond between two communities that are minorities in America and that often are in the same coalition on different social and political issues. There is a history of joint efforts on civil rights and social justice. And all around the country, you will find so many examples of strong partnerships between synagogues and black churches. So it would be a big mistake to look at these terrible events in New York as representative of the broader relationship,” he says.

A Jewish and black man passing the boarded-up kosher grocery store in Jersey City, N.J., where three people were killed days earlier on December 10, 2019. Credit: Mark Lennihan,AP

Cheryl Greenberg, a history professor at Trinity College who has written extensively on relations between the two communities, tells Haaretz she doesn’t think the recent events in New York represent a broader crisis.

“I think most American Jews look at this as a hate crimes issue, an anti-Semitism issue, not a black-Jewish issue: In Pittsburgh, the [October 2018] attack on the synagogue was committed by a white supremacist,” she notes. “If you look around the country, strong relationships between Jewish and black organizations are continuing – and maybe there’s even a case to be made that they are getting stronger in response to the threats both communities are facing.”

Greenberg adds that “there is plenty of anti-Semitism in America right now, and it’s coming from different parts of the country. You have white anti-Semites and black anti-Semites, and you also have instances of racism within the Jewish community. But that doesn’t mean you can make a broader argument about any of these demographic groups. You have people like Louis Farrakhan, who is truly an anti-Semite and an all-around hater. But I think the height of his power was actually in the 1990s and today he has somewhat faded.”

Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam organization, has been mentioned in many news stories discussing the wave of attacks in New York. He is one of the most famous and influential anti-Semitic leaders in America over recent decades, certainly within the black community. But Greenberg reiterates that she believes he is actually losing influence. “I remember years when the Nation of Islam was very active on college campuses, would have speakers do outreach there – something that caused a lot of concern in Jewish communities,” she says. “That’s much less common nowadays.”

Nation of Islam founder Louis Farrakhan holding his book "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews," during a speech at Jackson State University, Mississippi, in 2011. Credit: AP

The problem, Greenberg says, is that anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that Farrakhan and others have spread over the years are now gaining traction online, finding new adherents via websites, discussion forums and social media sites like Facebook.

“It’s becoming easier for people to find this stuff on the internet, and sink deeper and deeper into the conspiracy theories,” she warns. “This, again, is not a black-Jewish problem; it’s a larger problem. In fact, Jews are not the only targets. You find the same kind of hate directed at African Americans, at Muslims, at immigrants. It’s a scary time for many people in America.”

Rev. Christopher Zacharias, pastor of the John Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Washington, offers a similar view. “What we’re seeing in these awful attacks in New York goes to a larger concern of mine: hate in America,” he tells Haaretz. “I can tell you that in my community, we feel the pain of our Jewish brothers and sisters because we have also experienced hate – and this is something, sadly, that brings our communities together.”

Zacharias says that in light of the anti-Semitic attacks in New York, he invited two rabbis from local Jewish congregations to speak at his church about the Jewish faith and “the many things we have in common with one another.” Religious leaders, he adds, “have a commitment to work in unity and promote better understanding between communities.”

He cautions, however, that it is also important to discuss frankly the different experiences of the two communities.

“We can’t fully relate to the Jewish experience in every aspect, or to the experience of Muslims currently in America. And I don’t expect others to fully relate to my experience and that of my community,” Zacharias says. “We shouldn’t ignore our differences; that’s not my point. But we need to improve our knowledge of one another, learn more about the history that brought us to this place. That’s how we can build trust and empower each other.”

Grafton Thomas, accused of stabbing five people at a Hanukkah gathering in December 2019 in Monsey, New York, talking with his attorney, Michael Sussman, in Rockland County Court, New York, January 16Credit: MIKE SEGAR/ REUTERS

‘Very real challenge’

In 2016, the Anti-Defamation League released a national survey on attitudes toward American Jews, examining how common “anti-Semitic propensities” were among Americans. The survey found that, overall, “the number of Americans who hold the most anti-Semitic propensities stands at 14 percent,” and that “anti-Semitic propensities within the African American population continue to be higher than the general population but are in decline.”

The survey examined respondents’ responses to several anti-Semitic views and theories, including that the Jews “were responsible for the death of Christ”; that Jews “still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust”; that American Jews are “more loyal to Israel” than the United States; that Jews “have too much power”; and that Jews “don’t care what happens to anyone but their own kind.”

Twenty-three percent of African American respondents held such views. The rate among Hispanic respondents born in the United States was 19 percent (and 31 percent among foreign-born Hispanic respondents), while the rate among white Americans was 10 percent.

A senior official in a national Jewish organization involved in efforts to foster ties between the Jewish and African American communities tells Haaretz that “the challenge of anti-Semitism in some parts of the African American community is a very real one, and people are wrong to dismiss or ignore it.”

The official, who asked not to be identified in order to speak freely on the subject, adds that “it’s also wrong to try to turn this into the Jewish community’s number one problem. The worst anti-Semitic attack we’ve experienced – the massacre in Pittsburgh – was the work of a white supremacist. Let’s not forget that either.”

The official says “the question of how you deal with anti-Semitism in the African American community isn’t very different from the question of how you deal with it in any other community, in my view. Some people hold anti-Semitic views because of a lack of knowledge, or they simply don’t know any Jewish people – and you can change that by ways of education, dialogue and cooperation. Other people are beyond repair. I don’t think this is different anywhere else in the world, and it’s not a question of race or color. It’s just the nature of this challenge.”

The same official also warns against “turning the entire debate about black and Jewish relations in America into a narrow debate about anti-Semitism. This really doesn’t do justice to the relationship, and we actually have great challenges that have nothing to do with anti-Semitism. When people talk with a sense of nostalgia about the alliance that existed during the civil rights movement, we tend to forget that there was anti-Semitism back then as well, and there was also racism against blacks in some parts of the Jewish community – and that’s something that hasn’t gone away either.”

New era, new problems

Prof. Marc Dollinger, from the Department of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University, believes it is possible to rebuild the political alliance between the communities, but says that adjustments have to be made in order for that to happen.

“There was a moment in history, mostly in the 1950s and early 1960s, when this alliance was very strong,” says Dollinger, author of the 2018 book “Black Power, Jewish Politics.”

“You saw it in the sacrifices made by white Jewish activists who went to the Southern states to participate in the civil rights movement. But that moment ended with the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. And now we are in a different moment in American history,” he says.

Dollinger adds that several Jewish organizations are, in his opinion, doing impressive work to build such an alliance. He mentions Bend the Arc, a progressive Jewish group founded in 2012, and also the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “You have leftist Jews who want to build an alliance, but they realize it can’t be the 1960s all over again,” Dollinger says. “And they’re trying first of all to listen and learn and understand how they can be allies. This is something that for many white liberals is new and challenging. It starts with face-to-face conversations between communities – but you can’t just drop in and start talking politics.”

Dollinger cautions against adopting “a romantic view of ‘back in the day,’ which ignores the fundamental difference between being a white Jew and an African American in this country. The lived experiences are very different.”

Zacharias says the idea of building a stronger alliance is possible. “It starts with better education and developing a sense of camaraderie. It starts with workshops and community partnerships, and it can grow from there. I really believe it’s possible,” he says. “We come from different places, but we can stand up together against hate.”

Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and an expert on politics within the African American community, tells Haaretz that, at least in the political sphere, Jews and blacks are still aligned on many issues.

“These are two demographic groups that vote for Democratic politicians in higher numbers than almost any other,” he says. In the 2018 midterm elections, for instance, 78 percent of Jewish voters and 90 percent of African American voters supported Democratic candidates. Barack Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote when he first ran for president in 2008 and 95 percent of the black vote in the same election. “With all the tensions and the headlines, it’s worth remembering these numbers,” Johnson concludes.

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