In 1965, in Selma, Ala., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of New York's Jewish Theological Seminary marched with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and thousands more on behalf of voting rights. The tall, bearded theologian with flowing locks led at least one person to gasp, "Why, there is the Lord!"
In 1984 in Chicago, Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam described Judaism as a "dirty religion." Despite later explanations that he meant those who acted immorally in their religion's name, Jewish organizations likened Farrakhan to German dictator Adolf Hitler and demanded that other black leaders repudiate him.
The truth is, neither image defines black-Jewish relations, which were shaped and reshaped by political forces that reached well beyond their communities. Blacks and Jews have long been united as victims of the persecution and hatred of many white Christians, and have long been divided by race in a country whose deepest cleavages appear over racial, rather than religious, differences. Their everchanging political relationship is a reflection of the shifting fortunes of liberalism in the U.S. The history of black-Jewish relations can teach other Americans something about class, the politics of coalition, and stumbling blocks on the path toward equality.
Remember when it was a compliment
to be considered a liberal? Time, space, and political climate have all altered its meaning as well as its emotional resonance. Liberalism first emerged during the Enlightenment in the 18th century, advocating individual freedom in place of despotism, although most early liberals lived comfortably with slavery and other contradictions. Because government could usurp people's rights, liberals sought to minimize its power and reach. This suspicion remained until the central planning of the New Deal suggested the potential of the state to do good.
As a result, the modern conception of liberalism is really a 20th-century phenomenon. It was in the 1930s and 1940s that American liberalism took on a new character, chastened by Nazi racism, emboldened by new ideas of state power, enthusiastic at the triumph of democracy, and beginning to be suspicious of communism. This new liberalism rested on four basic assumptions. First, it still endorsed individual rights. Second, although individuals are responsible for their own fate, state involvement is crucial to guarantee equality of opportunity. Third, liberalism succeeds best by using moderation and compromise. In that spirit, most postwar liberals marginalized divisive issues such as race and class so as not to disrupt whatever consensus they had achieved. Finally, postwar liberalism set pluralism as a social goal. Pluralism, founded in reply to pressures on immigrants to assimilate, insisted on the legitimacy of different cultures that nonetheless shared basic American values. It was along these axes of individualism, moderation, state intervention, and pluralism that the black-Jewish political partnership operated and, later, came apart.
Despite their very different histories, American blacks and Jews in the early 20th century shared a common experience of discrimination. Both were excluded from certain jobs, schools, and neighborhoods. Racist and anti-Semitic references were everywhere and, while racism was certainly the more poisonous, both had erupted into violence.
Perhaps nor surprisingly, each community felt linked to the other. For Jews, the parallels between the African-American and European Jewish experience created a special concern for black equality. Meanwhile, while black communities held traditional anti-Semitic attitudes, many African-Americans perceived Jews as less prejudiced than other whites. Certainly, black culture had long reflected an identification with biblical Jews.
The sense of similarity of experience enhanced mutual expectations. "We Jews ... too, have faced handicaps. It is, perhaps, because of this common understanding that Jews everywhere show such deep interest in the Negro's problems," wrote the Anti-Defamation League's Sydney Hollander in 1947. …