Black-Jewish contacts, and thus black-Jewish relations, date from the earliest years of settlement. Many of the tiny number of Jews who came to America in the colonial period, especially those from Spain and Portugal, engaged in international trade and thus were directly involved in the triangle trade of slavery, sugar, and rum. Others settled in many of the American colonies. In northern cities like Newport, New York, and Boston, Jewish merchants and early industrialists found their livelihoods intertwined with various aspects of slavery and the slave trade; in the South a few Jews owned or traded slaves. By and large, these early Jews reflected the views of their white Gentile neighbors; most Northern Jews opposed slavery, while most Southern Jews supported it. Few were outspoken or active on either side, although there were notable exceptions like abolitionist August Bondi; Rabbi
, who spoke out against slavery in Baltimore and had to leave the city for his own safety;
, Jefferson Davis's secretary of war and later state; and Rabbi
, who used biblical passages to justify slavery. By and large, however, there was very little direct "relationship" at all between them. Most African Americans lived in the rural South, and Jews clustered in the urban North.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, they began to meet in Northern urban centers as two major migration streams intersected: African Americans moving North and into cities in a decades-long flight from oppression, violence, and discrimination called the Great Migration, and East European Jews fleeing the same forces in a different setting. Both groups often ended up in the same cities, sometimes even in the same neighborhoods. Similarly poor, they had few housing options. And Jews, who were considered not fully white themselves, who had had less exposure to American racism, were less violent than others, and by and large more radicalized by egalitarian ideologies like communism, socialism, and trade unionism, put up less resistance when African Americans moved into their neighborhoods. This is why, over time, many Jewish neighborhoods became black, not without tension but generally without violence.
These migrations enabled both communities to organize politically to address concerns about opportunity and equality. At the same time blacks and Jews met one another face to face, often for the first time, in economic interactions that more often revealed differences between the two communities than any sense of common cause. Both developments were critical in shaping what we call black-Jewish relations.
Migrants from both communities needed help settling in. Both were poor, subject to discrimination and bigotry, and both needed to help others left behind. So both communities established defense and protective organizations. Mutual aid societies, fraternal and trade union groups such as the
and the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs encouraged economic development and sustained social and community ties; other agencies like the NAACP and
*American Jewish Congress
concerned themselves explicitly with political issues affecting their group. Others joined multiracial political organizations like the Communist, Socialist, Democratic and Republican parties, and brought their community's social and cultural values with them. The political Left in particular participated actively in civil rights efforts benefiting blacks and Jews, and stressed interracial action.
Faced with similar challenges, however, there was virtually no cooperation between organizations from the two communities except on the Left. On the individual level, elite or politically well-connected Jews and African Americans often cooperated with one another. Black socialist labor leader A. Philip Randolph considered Jews among his most reliable supporters; Jews were disproportionately represented on the founding boards of the NAACP and National Urban League. The NAACP's first two presidents, Joel and Arthur Spingarn, were Jewish. African American Judge Hubert Delaney defended Jewish interests; Jewish Julius Rosenwald underwrote black educational endeavors; before his appointment to the Supreme Court
offered his legal services and his contacts to the NAACP. The black press described East European pogroms and the Jewish press covered lynchings. Beyond these individual or informational contacts, however,
formal organizations rarely contacted their counterparts in the other community for cooperative action.
Too poor, too overwhelmed with their own needs, black and Jewish agencies were small and limited in resources. Blacks and Jews stayed apart as well because of black antisemitism and Jewish racism. These attitudes were less potent there than they were among white Christians but they had an impact nonetheless. And there was one more concern, at least from the Jewish side. Jewish organizations struggling for acceptance recognized that racism was the stronger force and feared that any association with such a pariah group as blacks would hurt their own efforts. When Jewish
was convicted of murder in 1913 on the testimony of a black man in an antisemitic trial in Atlanta, and lynched two years later, it prompted the newly formed Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to proclaim its commitment to defending the rights of all. But in practice, Frank's murder convinced many Jews that life in the United States was dangerous enough without taking on black people's problems as well.
While relatively few blacks and Jews interacted politically (outside of the Left), far more encountered each other in economic venues. In virtually every case, Jews had the upper hand. Because Jews were white, they were able to benefit from the American system that apportioned opportunity more by race than by ethnicity or religion. Their white skin and the urban skills they had brought from Europe enabled Jews to succeed more quickly than African Americans; it was the exodus of better-off Jews into better neighborhoods that brought black tenants to Jewish areas in the first place. These Jews, and those that remained, continued to run their original businesses; Jews owned up to 90% of the stores in many black neighborhoods. So the inevitable tensions in poor neighborhoods between landlords and tenants, shopkeepers and customers, social workers and clients came to be seen as black-Jewish conflicts, and they reinforced stereotypes of greedy and unscrupulous Jews, or lazy or irresponsible blacks.
Another point of contact between the two communities was the arts, especially music and the new medium of motion pictures. Meeting first in vaudeville and other performance areas, Jews also rose to positions of greater power and became impresarios and agents for black performers. The same was also true in sports.
Given the limited and hierarchical nature of relations between African Americans and American Jews, and although members of each community recognized the plight of the other, and were sensitive to prejudice, there was little positive mutual interaction in the first third of the 20th century. This changed with the rise of Nazism. With Jews threatened in Europe, and with the rise of fascist and antisemitic groups in the United States, it became clear to Jewish organizations that they desperately needed allies. And for black people, who recognized bigotry when they saw it, anti-Nazi efforts also offered the strongest challenge to American racism. The black press and several black groups therefore launched what they called a Double V campaign: victory against Nazism abroad and racism at home. Outspoken in their protest of Nazi atrocities, black groups also lost no opportunity to draw parallels with lynching and racial bigotry in the United States.
Black-Jewish cooperation in the 1930s was clearly based on mutual self-interest, but one that recognized the shared danger inherent in any form of bigotry. These groups had come to recognize what the Left had been saying all along: that unity among the oppressed was the most effective weapon to bring about change. The Ribbentrop-Molotov, German-Soviet pact, however, discredited the Left in the eyes of many liberals, and the emerging Cold War made suspect all programs espoused by Communists. Stalin's purges alienated still more Jews, who abandoned the Communist Party for liberal and progressive Jewish political organizations. Thus, Nazism and the war brought black and Jewish liberals to a new recognition of the importance of civil rights and racial tolerance. At the same time, anti-Communism also led them to limit their strategies, goals, and coalitions in ways that hobbled the potential for fundamental social change. The stage was set for what many consider the "golden age" of black-Jewish relations.
Political relations between black and Jewish political agencies warmed further as the modern civil rights movement gained real force. The two communities had gotten to know one another through common work. Their organizations had become more desirable allies as their earlier successes brought increased membership, stronger finances, and greater political access. And they shared a set of liberal values, including bringing change within the existing system; employing moderate, non-confrontational tactics in doing so; a commitment to the centrality of individual rights rather than privileges bestowed by membership in a group; and a conviction that it was the obligation of government to foster equal opportunity. They advocated litigation, education, and legislation to bring about equality, evidenced, for example, in the American Jewish Congress's new Commission on Law and Social Action.
By the late 1940s, liberal civil rights organizations rooted in the two communities slowly began to develop a close partnership, launching programs separately and jointly to improve conditions for racial and religious minorities. This can still be viewed as self-interest, but it was now a broader concept. The NAACP, with the help of all the main Jewish organizations, won a Supreme Court case declaring restrictive housing covenants unenforceable, which benefited both groups but particularly economically mobile Jews. The NAACP came to the Brown v. Board of Education case, as well as its predecessors, armed with amicus briefs from virtually every other black and Jewish civil rights organization (along with other progressive, union, religious, and civic groups). The creation of New York's state college system was a joint black-Jewish effort to combat religious and racial discrimination in higher education. Together they fought to make permanent the war's Fair
Employment Practices Act, which outlawed employment discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin.
They cooperated on passing anti-Klan and anti-violence legislation, fighting restrictions on employment applications, and challenging racism and antisemitism with educational programs that appealed to American ideals of fairness and democracy. The two leaders of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights were an African American, Walter White, and a Jew,
Nor was such collaboration one-sided. Jewish organizations participated in racial segregation cases; black groups advocated expanding immigration to accommodate wartime refugees, endorsed (and lobbied for) the UN resolution on the creation of the state of Israel, and protested Soviet antisemitism.
Because the persistence of economic tensions threatened these partnerships and contradicted their non-discriminatory rhetoric, black and Jewish organizations began to intervene directly. Jewish activists met with (or picketed) Jewish landlords and storeowners, urging them to end segregationist and discriminatory practices. The AJ Congress and ADL organized Jewish merchants in black neighborhoods into associations charged with improving race relations, hiring more African-American clerks, and contributing to community improvement projects. (In many areas, Jews left black neighborhoods completely, diminishing tensions that way.) In both communities leaders worked to educate their own people on the dangers of bigotry against any other group. Such efforts succeeded widely, revealed in the disproportionate number of Jews supporting black civil rights compared with other whites, and a rapid decline in reported antisemitism in the African-American community. In many ways this truly was a golden age for black-Jewish relations.
But these liberal successes brought new challenges. Jews continued to outperform blacks economically and socially. No longer segregated or discriminated against overtly or legally, Jews could make their way in the world far more easily than blacks, who continued to suffer from open discrimination and legal segregation. This divergence produced not only resentment on the part of black people but also Jews' greater satisfaction with the current system. For Jews, educational and reformist methods worked. For African Americans, who continued to face structural barriers, such approaches were inadequate. As black groups turned to increasingly confrontational tactics such as boycotts and mass demonstrations, most Jews moved toward a greater commitment to the status quo.
The 1960s sit-ins and the rhetoric of the more activist civil rights workers heightened these tensions and laid bare the different social positions of Jews and blacks. Southern Jews in particular refused to get involved, save a courageous few very often from the more radical segment of the community. Most Jews, North and South, still supported the goals of, and contributed financially to, black civil rights organizations, but some questioned the tactics of what they feared could become demagogic mob action. For a community invested in law and order to maintain its own security, pickets, civil disobedience, and nationalist rhetoric seemed particularly dangerous. So while younger and more radical – and often more assimilated – Jews continued to be overrepresented among white civil rights workers in groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, their liberal counterparts became skittish at the sound of "Black Power." Two of the three civil rights workers killed in Mississippi in the summer of 1964 were Jews.
Abraham Joshua *Heschel
marched with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who expressed strong support for Zionism; Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a Berlin-born naturalized American, addressed the 1963 March on Washington. Yet as the civil rights movement moved North and African Americans sought greater social equality, Jewish suburbanites became wary.
Black activists (and white leftists) had become radicalized by the failure of the liberal promise: white resistance, police violence, and the persistence of poverty and segregation suggested that liberal whites could not be trusted. And Jews constituted one of the largest and most visible segments of liberal whites. Nor did it seem that polite, liberal strategies could successfully challenge racism. Might confrontation, even violence, be appropriate? Should primacy be given to individual rights, when black rights were systematically threatened by virtue of their being members of a group? Perhaps race blindness was not as effective as programs that emphasized group rights. To pay for the structural changes required, black manifestos demanded aid and reparations from government, churches, and synagogues. Pan-African nationalism and anti-colonialism shifted black sympathy from Israel to the Palestinians – just at the time of the
. Black antisemitism became visible again. All these developments left Jews feeling threatened and, perhaps more importantly, betrayed.
Meanwhile, riots, violence, nationalism, and confrontational black demands reinforced Jewish racism. Skeptical Jewish leaders backed off from earlier alliances. Many of their constituents, now in suburbs, felt less concerned with urban strife. Others became neoconservatives, arguing that liberalism had lost its way. So African Americans in turn felt betrayed by Jews, whom they believed had abandoned them, and the fight for civil rights.
Dozens of incidents from the late 1960s through the 1990s reveal these stresses, from the struggle over control of schools in Brooklyn, New York's Ocean Hill-Brownsville to the refusal of most Jewish groups to support the NAACP in the 1974 and 1978 affirmative action cases; from Jesse Jackson's "Hymietown" remarks of 1984 to New York City Mayor
's claim that Jews would "have to be crazy" to vote for Jackson. The Nation of Islam and its leader Louis Farrakhan advertised its antisemitism, while academics and students fought their own battles on campuses across the country. At the City University of New York, for example, Professor Leonard Jeffries blamed Jews for the problems facing black people, and
Professor Michael Levin insisted that black people were inferior to whites. And of course there was real violence like that in the Afro-Caribbean and Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Brooklyn's Crown Heights in 1991. After a member of the Lubavitcher rebbe's entourage accidentally hit and killed a black child, black youths attacked Jewish passers-by. One Jewish youth was stabbed to death. One early dimension of affirmative action particularly troubled Jews: quotas. African Americans intended quotas as a floor, designed to open up and include them, but Jews, for whom quotas were historically used to exclude and limit, balked. Once the legal concept was clarified, most Jews came to support affirmative action.
All this played out against the backdrop of a rightward shift in the larger political scene. Even for those still committed to black-Jewish cooperation, it appeared that few shared issues remained. The black community struggled with problems of poverty, racism, crime, and improving education and opportunity, while Jews became increasingly concerned with issues surrounding Israeli security, Jewish "continuity," and church-state separation. Jewish Studies programs competed with Black or Africana Studies for college curricula funding. It seemed all that was left between the two groups was friction. Pundits proclaimed the death of the black-Jewish relationship.
But that is a distortion. Civil rights coalitions remained active into the 21st century, if less visible. There have been hundreds of local economic and political initiatives around the country: books, articles, and documentaries about blacks and Jews, congregational exchanges, public discussions – from Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and Boston's Black-Jewish Economic Roundtable to Common Cause, a journal jointly published by the American Jewish Committee and Howard University; from the Reform Movement Religious Action Center's Common Road to Justice to the Marjory Kovler Institute for Black-Jewish Relations. In Congress, the Black Caucus has established routine and productive cooperation with the more informal "Jewish caucus."
All this sustained, even increasing, mutual engagement suggests that many overlapping concerns do remain, not least of which is the rightward movement of the country itself, opposed by a majority of both communities, who remain staunch Democratic voters. Problems of discrimination, unequal access to opportunity, voting, and education still top both black and Jewish political agendas, as do commitments to civic community, tolerance, and diversity.