Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century

Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century

Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century

Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century


Was there ever really a black-Jewish alliance in twentieth-century America? And if there was, what happened to it? In Troubling the Waters, Cheryl Greenberg answers these questions more definitively than they have ever been answered before, drawing the richest portrait yet of what was less an alliance than a tumultuous political engagement--but one that energized the civil rights revolution, shaped the agenda of liberalism, and affected the course of American politics as a whole.

Drawing on extensive new research in the archives of organizations such as the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League, Greenberg shows that a special black-Jewish political relationship did indeed exist, especially from the 1940s to the mid-1960s--its so-called "golden era"--and that this engagement galvanized and broadened the civil rights movement. But even during this heyday, she demonstrates, the black-Jewish relationship was anything but inevitable or untroubled. Rather, cooperation and conflict coexisted throughout, with tensions caused by economic clashes, ideological disagreements, Jewish racism, and black anti-Semitism, as well as differences in class and the intensity of discrimination faced by each group. These tensions make the rise of the relationship all the more surprising--and its decline easier to understand.

Tracing the growth, peak, and deterioration of black-Jewish engagement over the course of the twentieth century, Greenberg shows that the history of this relationship is very much the history of American liberalism--neither as golden in its best years nor as absolute in its collapse as commonly thought.


When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marched side by side from Selma to Birmingham in 1965, the image symbolized for many the powerful “black-Jewish” alliance. Certainly, a shared commitment to equality and concerted joint action between blacks and Jews had helped produce substantial civil rights advances. By the late 1960s, however, this potent coalition seemed to unravel as the two groups split over both style and policy. The decline of cooperative action has led many to bemoan the passing of a “golden age” when Jewish Americans and African Americans not only worked together but shared a vision of the just society.

This book examines the reality behind the “golden age” by exploring its roots in the time before the heyday of cooperation and challenging facile explanations for its passing. Focusing on liberal political organizations as sites of interaction, I seek to temper the idealized vision of perfect mutuality by demonstrating that blacks and Jews had different but overlapping goals and interests which converged in a particular historical moment; that both communities recognized that convergence as well as an opportunity for cooperation, and came together in a structurally powerful way to achieve those goals more effectively; that fundamental differences of approach and priority remained, which manifested themselves in lowlevel tensions and occasional sharp disagreements; and that those divergent visions contributed to the later weakening of the alliance as external political realities changed. A blend of political, institutional, and social history, this is a case study of two important communities navigating among competing and sometimes contradictory demands. At the same time, the history of relations between African Americans and Jewish Americans also lies at the crossroads of many larger narratives about race, religion, ethnicity, class, politics, and identity in twentieth-century America. This book, then, also speaks to these broader subjects.

The topic of black-Jewish relations in the United States is not merely a subject for quiet intellectual study, however. It has a presence in American public culture that “black-Greek relations” or “Jewish-Presbyterian relations” generally do not. Stories about the subject enjoy wide circulation even in the nonblack, non-Jewish press. This fascination is evident too, if we consider other silences. Several years ago, during the fiftieth anniversary of Jackie Robinson's entry into major league baseball, reporters high-

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