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 David Einhorn, who spoke out against slavery in Baltimore and had to leave the city for his own safety; Judah Benjamin, Jefferson Davis’s secretary of war and later state; and Rabbi Morris Raphall, 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 Workmen’s Circle 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; before his appointment to the Supreme Court Louis Brandeis 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.
Julius Rosenwald, a co-owner of Sears, Roebuck & Company, collaborated with Booker T. Washington. Shoshana Bryen noted, “For his 50th birthday, Rosenwald gave away $700,000 ($16 million today), including $25,000 to the Tuskegee Institute, which Washington used to build schools in rural Alabama. Rosenwald and Washington became partners in education. By the time Rosenwald died in 1932, there were 4,997 Rosenwald schools across the South that educated 35 percent of all black children in the South and 27 percent of all black children.”
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 anti-Semitism 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 Leo Frank was convicted of murder in 1913 on the testimony of a Black man in an anti-Semitic 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 anti-Semitic 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, Arnold Aronson.
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 anti-Semitism.
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 anti-Semitism 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 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.”
Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a Berlin-born naturalized American, addressed the 1963 March on Washington. On June 21, 1964, three men were abducted and killed in the Mississippi Burning murders: James Chaney, who was Black, and Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner who were Jews. In 1965, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma. King had a good relationship with Jews and planned to visit Israel but decided to cancel in the immediate aftermath of the Six-Day War. King also said, “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism,” in response to a student who had attacked Zionism during a dinner event with Dr. King in 1968.” Nevertheless, 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 Six-Day War. As protests against the Vietnam War escalated, militant Black groups sided with far-Left anti-Israel organizations in one of the early examples of intersectionality being used against Jews and Israel, and Black anti-Semitism became visible again. All these developments left Jews feeling threatened and, perhaps more importantly, betrayed.
In 1967, James Baldwin wrote, “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White,” explaining that he grew up hating the Jewish landlords who neglected their properties in Harlem. He also said Jews owning butchers, groceries, clothing stores, and pawn shops all treated Blacks differently because they were colored. He spoke of his bitterness at seeing a Jewish storekeeper go home with Black customers’ money to a better part of town where Blacks were not allowed. He even derided Jews donating money to civil rights, regarding it as “conscience money” meant to “keep the Negro happy in his place, and out of white neighborhoods.”
At the end of the essay, however, he blames Christianity for the state of the world. The Jew, he writes, “is singled out by Negroes not because he acts differently from other white men, but because he doesn’t,” and attributes this to “playing in Harlem the role assigned him by Christians long ago: he is doing their dirty work.” Ultimately, however, Baldwin acknowledges “that if today I refuse to hate Jews, or anybody else, it is because I know how it feels to be hated.”
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.
This feeling was exacerbated by American Jews’ support for Israel when African Americans were mobilizing boycotts against apartheid South Africa. Israel had criticized the regime as early as 1961 but had to tread carefully out of fear for the safety of the Jewish community there. While other countries continued to trade with South Africa, and provide it with weapons, Israel was condemned for providing military aid to the Afrikaner government and allegedly aiding its nuclear weapons program before severing relations in the late 1980s.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 Ed Koch’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.
Jews thought they would gain more sympathy from the Black community after the rescue operations to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the mid-1980s. While William Safire noted, “For the first time in history, thousands of black people are being brought to a country not in chains but in dignity, not as slaves but as citizens” relations were strained at that time by conflicting positions on affirmative action.
ne early dimension of affirmative action particularly troubled Jews: quotas. African Americans intended quotas as a floor, designed to open 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.
In 2013, following the shooting of African-American teen Travon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of the shooter George Zimmerman, Blacks began to organize under the banner Black Lives Matter (BLM) with the goal of promoting racial justice and protesting police brutality targeting the black community. The movement gained momentum in 2014 when Mike Brown was murdered in Missouri by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
While Jews supported and, in some cases, participated in BLM protests, some leaders of the movement created antagonism by their anti-Israel and anti-Semitic positions. Following the killing of Brown, for example, protestors chanted, “From Ferguson to Palestine, Occupation is a Crime.”
Tensions increased in 2016 after extremists from the Black Lives Matter movement, who were part of the larger Movement for Black Lives (MBL) coalition, joined hands with anti-Semites to adopt the MBL platform that claims the U.S. is “complicit in the genocide committed against the Palestinian people,” compares Israel to Afrikaner South Africa, and calls for divestment from Israel.
The Union for Reform Judaism called the language “offensive and odious” and said it “wrongly and harmfully conflates the urgent need to address the systemic racism faced by people of color in the United States with another challenging and related but different set of moral and political questions within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
In another application of intersectionality, supporters of the BLM movement began parroting the anti-Israel rhetoric of groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine. The anti-Israel organizations, in turn, sought to link the struggle for civil rights and the end of racism in America to their claims about the mistreatment of Palestinians.
The BLM movement led nationwide protests after the murder of George Floyd while in the custody of officers from the Minneapolis police department on May 25, 2020. As in the case of earlier police killings, American Jewish leaders spoke out as well, World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder denounced it as a “horrific racist act.” The Union for Reform Judaism declared that “Black Lives Matter Is a Jewish Value” and the Orthodox Jewish Union said, “Racism is not a thing of the past or simply a political issue. It is a real and present danger that must be met head-on.”
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.
M. Friedman, What Went Wrong? (1995); C. Greenberg, Troubling the Waters: Black Jewish Relations in the American Century (in press); M. Bauman and B. Kalin (eds.), The Quiet Voices: Southern Rabbis and Black Civil Rights, 1880s to 1990s (1997); P. Berman (ed.), Blacks and Jews (1994); V.P. Franklin, N. Grant et al. (eds.), African Americans and Jews in the Twentieth Century (1998); J. Washington (ed.), Jews in Black Perspectives (1984); C. West and J. Salzman (eds.), Struggles in the Promised Land (1997); E. Faber, Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight (1998).
[Cheryl Greenberg (2nd ed.)]
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved;
Kristian Davis Bailey, “Black–Palestinian Solidarity in the Ferguson–Gaza Era,” American Quarterly, Volume 67, Number 4, (December 2015);
Emma Green, “Why Do Black Activists Care About Palestine?,” The Atlantic, (August 18, 2016);
“Reform Movement Leaders Reaffirm Commitment to Racial Justice, Condemn Movement for Black Lives Platform Language on Israel,” URJ, (August 4, 2016);
“AJC: Movement for Black Lives Disparages Jews, Israel,” Press Release, American Jewish Committee, (August 5, 2016);
Dan Diker, “The Alignment of BDS and Black Lives Matter: Implications for Israel and Diaspora Jewry,” JCPA, (July 16, 2020);
Shoshana Bryen, “Visiting Auschwitz is not the answer,” JNS, (July 20, 2020).