When Rabbi Judy Schindler, Queens University Sklut Professor of Jewish Studies and Director of the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice, offered a virtual eight-week course this past fall entitled Peaks and Valleys: Milestone Moments in Black-Jewish Relations, she posed an ice-breaker question: “Why does the issue of Black-Jewish relations interest you or matter to you?” We were 27 Jewish women and one Jewish man. We were all white. Many of us enrolled because the tragic deaths of so many unarmed Black people at the hands of law enforcement officers made us yearn to support the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, which emerged initially as a hashtag but was subsequently labeled by the New York Times as the “largest social movement in American history.” After all, hadn’t the Jewish people faced antisemitic hate and hadn’t Blacks and Jews marched together during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s? And yet our whiteness —coupled with our growing awareness of our implicit biases and white privilege — made many of us unsure how we could best take a stand as allies.
In our varied responses to Rabbi Schindler’s ice-breaker, it was clear that we were searching for a way to understand the complexities of Black-Jewish relations. Stephanie Gitlin recalled hearing Stokely Carmichael, the civil rights leader who coined the term “Black Power,” spew hatred when she was in college and wanted to learn why there is some antisemitism in the Black community especially since she supports the BLM movement. Tracy Brown recognized that Charlottesville made her think longer and harder about Black-Jewish relations because it brought back memories of the Skokie march: “I began to see that white supremacists had it out for Jews and Blacks alike and that both communities would be stronger fighting the fight together.” Gail Baron feared that instead of Blacks seeing Jews “in solidarity,” many Blacks may view Jews “simply as white people — and in many ways they are correct.” Stacy Gorelick, who was born two days after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination so that her father had to break the curfew in Greensboro to visit her and her mother in the maternity ward, wanted to probe why many whites have such little interaction with people of color. And Alison Lerner, like many others in the class, wanted to know what happened to derail the Jewish connection to the Black community and what can we do to repair the relationship.
So this initial question became a roadmap for Rabbi Judy’s class. Before we could learn how to strengthen the bond between our two communities and support the BLM movement, we would need to learn about the breadth and complexity of the relationship between Jewish Americans and Black Americans.
Our first assignment took us to a moment that seemed simultaneously a peak and a valley in Black-Jewish relations — we were introduced to Rabbi Joachim Prinz who preceded Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the podium at the 1964 March on Washington. Right before Dr. King gave his I Have a Dream speech, Rabbi Prinz, a rabbi who had escaped from Berlin during the Nazi rise to power, implored Americans to realize that, “[b]igotry and hatred are not the most urgent problems; it’s silence. America can’t be a nation of onlookers. Not for the sake of the Black community, but for the dream and inspiration of America.” As one class member, Roni Fishkin, noted in her daily class reflection: “If silence is the real problem – then speaking out is the antithesis – but is it enough? Is it too easy to speak out and too hard to act?”
My reaction to Rabbi Prinz’s short speech was how did I live to be 60 years old and not have heard about this rabbi who (albeit he had the misfortune of speaking right before MLK) spoke truth to power when he said that “[F]rom the President down to the humblest of us” all of us “must speak up and act” so that the pledge of allegiance that school children recite (ending with the phrase “liberty and justice for all”) becomes a “glorious, unshakeable reality in a morally renewed and united America.”
We then traveled backward chronologically and a good distance downward to a valley: the mid-1800s where Rabbi Morris Raphall, the leading rabbi not only in New York but in the country, was an outspoken proponent of slavery. We read the story of Noah’s son Ham and how the curse of Ham (which was really the curse of Ham’s youngest son Canaan) had been used by some religious leaders and slave owners to justify enslaving African-Americans.
By contrast, abolitionist rabbis during the Civil War, such as Rabbi David Einhorn, repudiated Rabbi Raphall by citing portions from Exodus and the fact that Jews offer daily praises to God for deliverance from bondage. Einhorn appealed to a belief in historical progress to rebut claims that whatever biblical Israelites practiced in terms of slavery could somehow still be deemed morally right or sanctioned by God.
We then worked our way forward to the summits of good relationships between Blacks and Jews where a deep commitment to civil rights cemented the bonds between brave leaders of our two communities, such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said he felt his “legs were praying” as he marched arm in arm with Dr. King in Selma, Alabama.
But we concurrently read an assortment of essays by southern rabbis in the late 1950s and early 1960s which demonstrated that although some, like Rabbi Jacob Rothschild of Atlanta’s largest synagogue, were willing to take a public stand against segregation and in support of the civil rights movement, other rabbis considered support of the civil rights movement to be against Jewish interests, especially given the bombings and attempted bombings of Jewish synagogues and centers in southern cities, including Charlotte and Gastonia.
Those opposed to Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement were content that southern Jews were not shunned as an ethnic minority, but rather viewed positively as representatives of one of the three great faiths in the United States. As Cheryl Greenberg said in her essay Black and Jewish Civil Rights Agencies in the Twentieth Century, “Jews were no more eager to embrace the cause of a pariah people than any other white community.”
In fact, we learned that some southern rabbis, such as Rabbi William Malev of Houston’s largest Conservative synagogue in 1958, lobbed anger at the Anti-Defamation League and other national Jewish organizations that were viewed as outsider Jews making life dangerous for southern Jews by weighing in on segregation and making progressive views on this issue a liability to the Jewish communities in the South: “Such propaganda [from national Jewish defense organizations] has not helped the cause of desegregation, and certainly has not made the Jew more popular among his neighbors.”
Ponder how our class felt reading James Baldwin’s 1967 essay Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White. It hurt to read lines like, “When we were growing up in Harlem our demoralizing series of landlords were Jewish and we hated them … We bought our clothes from Jews … and the pawnbroker was a Jew.” The bottom line of Baldwin’s essay: Jews have become white Americans and have not been ennobled by oppression. Following up on this essay, Rabbi Schindler asked us to consider whether coming to America and passing as white has sometimes prevented us from living up to our Jewish values, namely standing with minorities who are victims of racial injustice.
In contrast to this view of Jews as assimilated whites were the Crown Heights riots of 1991 where some Crown Heights rioters shouted, “Death to Jews” and “Heil Hitler” before they stabbed and killed a Hasidic man after the accidental killing of a seven-year-old Guyanese boy run over by a car driving in a motorcade escorting Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, then the leader of the worldwide community of Lubavitch Hasidic Jews.
An essay by Rabbi Schneerson on responsibility and the crisis in Crown Heights caused by riots, tension, and the flight of longtime residents noted that, “People living in a neighborhood are responsible for one another.” As way of illustration, Schneerson tells the story of a young rabbi so immersed in his prayer and study that he could not be bothered by the needs of his villagers for guidance. An older much revered rabbi gave the younger man advice that there are two ways to warm yourself when cold: “One is by putting on a fur coat, the other is by lighting a fire. The difference is that the fur coat warms only the person wearing it, while the fire warms anyone who comes near.”
To help the class understand how we can be responsible for the entire community, Rabbi Schindler brought in weekly speakers. A partial list included Rabbi Asher Knight of Temple Beth El who spoke about the Charlotte Jewish community’s painful affiliation with the civil war monument to Judah Benjamin, a Jewish southerner and the Secretary of State to the Confederacy; Rabbi Yossi Groner, rabbi and spiritual leader of Congregation Ohr HaTorah who spoke about Crown Heights; Minister Corine Mack, President of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg branch of the NAACP, whose remarks led several members of the class to purchase life memberships in the NAACP; and Marc Dollinger, a historian in the Department of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University, who lectured on his book, Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s.
Dollinger’s research showed that the Jewish-Black relations story many of us grew up with was perhaps an overstated feel-good story. We were unlikely to have learned that despite proclaimed Jewish support for Black civil rights, and the iconic photo of Rabbi Heschel alongside Dr. King, most Jews (unlike their leaders) did not risk their livelihoods or lives for Black equality. Moreover, Dollinger argued that as identity politics led to Black power and Black activism, Jews also took on this mantle of identity politics to advocate for Russian Jews and Israel, and pulled back from interracial, interfaith solidarity.
Cheryl Greenberg also dispels Pollyannish views of the relationship between the two groups in her essay that we read for the class: “Black and Jewish Civil Rights Agencies in the Twentieth Century.” Greenberg argued that Blacks might have been less antisemitic than other Christians, and Jews might have been less racist than other whites, but “anti-Semitism has always been present in the Black community, and Jews have held racist beliefs.” However, because both groups viewed themselves as victims of persecution, Greenberg argues that helped foster a bond that reduced tensions between the two communities.
Our last class featured a recorded panel discussion from the virtual 2020 World Zionist Congress entitled, Black Lives Matter, anti-Racism, and Zionism: The Role and Place of the Reform Movement in Navigating this Complex Landscape. The panelists, two of whom were Jews of color, noted that one in seven members of the Jewish community are persons of color. Yes, of the seven million Jews in America, one million are not white. So racism is not just a problem for some other groups in America, it is also a problem for members of the Jewish community. One of these panelists recommended Chris Harrison’s blogpost “The Black Jews Are Tired” found at ReformJudaism.org, which offers this powerful piece of advice: “[A]ntiracism must be as integral to and synonymous with our Jewish communities as reciting the Sh’ma.”
Rabbi Pesner, the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who also sat on the virtual panel, stated that the BLM movement reflects a Jewish value. To affirm that Black lives matter is something that Reform Jews must embrace and be committed to “full stop.” And such a commitment to the BLM movement requires that Jews familiarize themselves with three terms: white supremacy, white nationalism and white privilege. Because our nation has its roots in a white supremacist ideology — from race-based slavery at our founding to Jim Crow to mass incarceration — Pesner argues that in order to be anti-racist and be part of the solution, Jewish Americans must acknowledge that we as white Jews have also benefitted from white privilege and from structures built on a white supremacist ideology.
The panelists next addressed a plank (adopted five years ago by an organization called The Movement for Black Lives that is not representative of all of BLM, which is a loose grassroots coalition) calling Israel an apartheid state and accusing it of genocide. For some Jews, this one unfortunate plank overshadowed the hundreds of pages in a platform calling for equity and equality. Pesner suggested that if there are planks critical of Israel that we disagree with, we can debate those, but we must “not get distracted because that plays right into the hands of white nationalists who would like to divide us.” Pesner reasoned that as Americans if we’re unhappy about our government’s policies, we don’t renounce our United States citizenship; instead we double down on our commitment to transform our country. In this way, as Reform Jews and as Zionists, we can say we support the BLM movement and advocate for the Israel of our dreams.
Although not a member of the panel, Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, also desires that the focus be on eliminating systemic racism and finding justice for all members of our society, and that any singling out of Israel can be dealt with separately.
Citing the Tree of Life massacre by a white nationalist, Pesner stressed that as American Jews our safety “comes in our solidarity” with other minority groups because “if you oppress one minority, you oppress all minorities.” The panel’s message was unambiguous: the need to be clear about Jewish values means we need to be anti-racist and fight antisemitism.
How do we support black lives? Systemic reforms the Reform movement is championing include advocating for voting rights, criminal justice reform, and for equity and inclusion. And “The Black Jews are Tired” blogpost offers additional advice for supporting Black lives: “When acts of racism … occur, reach out to your Black friends with support, a willingness to listen to their needs, and the courage to act on their behalf, including: financially supporting antiracist initiatives; calling out racism on social media; showing up to march with (and protect) Black protestors; and calling out other white people on their racism.”
Like all good classes, Peaks and Valleys: Milestone Moments in Black- Jewish Relations will hopefully serve as a springboard for further reading as well as for action. Armed with a more accurate picture of the Black-Jewish relationship of the past, members of the Charlotte Jewish community can hopefully pledge to be in solidarity with Black Jews and Black people from all backgrounds against racial injustice and to find ways to act accordingly.
To obtain access to the Peaks and Valleys: Milestone Moments in Black-Jewish Relations class lectures and reading assignments or to explore other ways you can become an ally to support the BLM movement, you are invited to please visit the Stan Greenspon Center website and search for the most recent blog entitled “Peaks and Valley of Black-Jewish Relations.”
Rabbi Schindler notes that “Education is the beginning of the journey to racial justice.” Sharing Maimonides’ teaching that repentance and righting a wrong requires an apology acknowledging the wrongdoing, repairing the harm, and not repeating that same hurtful action, Schindler noted: “At the Greenspon Center, we apply that teaching as we seek truth telling and apologies for past harm, restorative measures, and systemic change so that we stop causing harm and uplift our Black neighbors. This applies to every realm in which racial injustices have occurred from housing to healthcare, from education to economic mobility and incarceration. May the history we write together be one that will make the next generation proud.”
Suggested Readings and Resources:
- Marc Dollinger’s Black Power, Jewish Politics, Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s
- Jack Salzman and Cornel West, Struggles in the Promised Land: Towards a History of Black-Jewish Relations in the United States
- Eric K. Ward, Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism
- Chris Harrison, The Black Jews Are Tired, Reform Judaism.org (6/1/20)
- Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
- Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America
- Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter from Birmingham Jail
- James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
- 2020 World Zionist Congress panel discussion, “Black Lives Matter, anti-Racism, and Zionism: The Role and Place of the Reform Movement in Navigating this Complex Landscape.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jx743YJB6k0&t=11
Photo by Jose Escobar