Opinion |

We Jews Need a Real Reckoning With Our Role in American Racism

The Biden administration is proposing changes in how U.S. schools teach the history of racism and the lasting legacies of white supremacy. It’s time we Jews do the same

March in solidarity with George Floyd and against police violence against Black Americans
March in solidarity with George Floyd and against police violence against Black AmericansCredit: David Bachar

After a painful year of public violence against American communities of color, the Biden White House is now proposing important changes to how educators should teach the history of racism and the lasting legacies of white supremacy in American schools.

Following President Biden’s campaign promise to address the growing acknowledgement of racial inequities, a Department of Education’s memo released on April 19 proposes that certain curricula take into account the "systemic marginalization, biases, inequities, and discriminatory policy and practice in American history" that have long been overlooked by generations of white Americans.

It’s time we Jews do the same.

In many ways, the American Jewish community has mirrored the modern historical trends of white America. Yet despite this, the communal history we tell is one of liberal exceptionality in comparison to other whites. We emphasize that Jews overwhelmingly vote Democrat, overwhelmingly donate to charity. We narrowly recall our moments of racial liberalism and center them in our historical narrative ("We were once enslaved and endured centuries of antisemitism, thus in America we naturally abhorred Black slavery and racism!")

We praise that Jews were some of the founding members of racially progressive organizations like the NAACP and the ACLU, that we overwhelmingly participated in the Freedom Summer of 1964, that Rabbi Abraham Heschel famously linked arms with Martin Luther King, Jr. as they crossed Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

Freedom marchers stop at the first night's encampment east of Selma, Alabama., during the landmark voting rights march to Montgomery in 1965 Credit: ,AP

There is good reason to celebrate Jewish civil rights activism, and such moments deserve to be commemorated. Yet the near-exclusive repetition of celebratory episodes have contrived a fanciful image of the American Jewish experience that largely disregards the actual historical record. Likewise, they can be countered by many neglected moments of Jewish racial hostility.

In the nineteenth century, a significant number of prominent rabbis, including the much-lauded Isaac Mayer Wise, failed to condemn slavery (and in some cases, like New York’s Rabbi Morris Jacob Raphall, delivered sermons that supported southern secession).

While some courageous Jews did travel South to register Black voters in the Civil Rights Era, many others fiercely opposed their intervention. In a remarkable showing of racism, for example, a Jewish White Citizens Council member from Mississippi published a pro-segregationist pamphlet in 1956 entitled "A Jewish View on Segregation," where he maintained that "any white Southerner, Christian or Jew, must do all he can to help maintain segregation."

Such regressive racial politics wasn’t just limited to southern Jewish voices: In a survey conducted by the New York Times in 1964, nearly half of Jews in New York were shown to believe that the Civil Rights Movement was moving too quickly and should "slow down."

A nuanced Jewish history goes beyond mere episodes of racial liberalism or bigotry during moments of racial flux (like the Civil War and twentieth-century civil rights). More telling is to study the broader cultural trends of white America that Jews migrated toward, particularly following the Second World War when the majority of Jews achieved middle-class status.

Although the majority of Jews did (and do) vote for liberal political candidates, they also joined the postwar "white flight" from the city to the suburbs, structurally redefining the American racial landscape and leaving Black and Brown inner-cities impoverished.

Faced with issues like school desegregation and busing in the late 1950s and 1960s, Jewish parents likewise embodied the racial separatism of white America. As historian Michael Staub shows, a survey of Jews in Jackson Heights, Queens in 1963 found that only 28 percent favored school desegregation (five percent lower than their Catholic neighbors).

The 101st Airborne Division take up positions on Sept. 26, 1957, outside Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., after President Eisenhower ordered them to enforce integration at the schoolCredit: ,AP

Notable Jewish intellectuals publicly condemned desegregation efforts as well, including the Harvard historian Oscar Handlin and the labor Zionist leader and Brandeis professor Marie Syrkin.

While no doubt wanting to instill Jewish values in their children’s education, the proliferation of private Jewish day schools in the postwar decades was similarly imbued with the reactionary response to desegregation.

In surveys conducted among the parents of non-Orthodox Jewish day school students in Los Angeles in 1977, between a quarter and a third of participants admitted that their decision to enroll their children in private Jewish day schools was influenced by "integration" (about a tenth openly wrote it was to "escape the public school and/or because of busing.")

Much like the South’s "white" or "seg" academies, writes historian David Sorkin in a book on global Jewish emancipation, the private Jewish day school movement "began as a form of religiously legitimized ‘white flight’ from desegregation."

Protesters in New York City. Sign in Hebrew reads: 'Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue.'Credit: C. Carolina Kroon

The Jewish integration into white America – and the racial implications which it entailed – has long been recognized by Black Americans. Five and a half decades before James Baldwin wrote his now-famous 1967 essay "Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White," which asserted that Black animosity toward Jews merely reflected a broader frustration toward white Americans, early twentieth-century Black civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson aptly described that:

"[The American Jew] knew that to sanction Negro oppression would be to sanction Jewish oppression, and would expose him to a shot along that line from the old soldier, who stood firmly on the ground of equal rights and opportunity to all men; yet long traditions and business instincts told him, when in Rome to act as a Roman."

More than we generally embrace, acting as a Roman – in this case, aligning with other whites – has been the dominant story of American Jewry.

While we should celebrate and promote our moments of racial liberalism, we must not cherry-pick from the more widespread history of a population that integrated into the white side of racial divide, which in turn perpetuated lasting damage against communities of color. In doing so, we erase our responsibility from the continuing legacy of American racism.

Jacob Morrow-Spitzer is a PhD student in the Department of History at Yale University, where he researches modern Jewish history with an emphasis on American Jews, politics, and race. His most recent work was an investigation of shifting Black perceptions of Jews in the American South since the time of slavery. Twitter: @Morrow_Spitzer

This article was shaped by conversations with the Yale University Slifka Center’s Judaism and Race Working Group, and comments from Rabbi Jason Rubenstein, Rabbi Isaama Goldstein-Stoll, and Dalia Moallem

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