Magazine article Tikkun

Black-Jewish Dialogue: Beyond Rootless Universalism and Ethnic Chauvinism

Magazine article Tikkun

Black-Jewish Dialogue: Beyond Rootless Universalism and Ethnic Chauvinism

Article excerpt

Vol. 4, No. 4. 1989.

What is most striking to me both about Tikkun and about this conference is that they focus on the failure of empty internationalism and rootless universalism, that is, on the refusal to think seriously and critically about one's tradition and identity. In the period in which there was a stronger alliance between Blacks and Jews, some of that alliance depended on both sides' identifying with a form of universalism that did not highlight questions of identity. There is no going back to such a period. If there is going to be a renewed connection between these two communities, or even a sensible dialogue, it depends on our ability to remain sensitive to the positive quests for identity among Jewish Americans and AfricanAmericans. . . .

We live in a society that is characterized by increasing racial polarization and rising anti-Semitism. Blacks and Jews still remain the two peoples that are most loyal to progressive politics in this country. . . . For us today the central question is, "What is going to be the moral content of our identity and the political consequences of it?"

When we look back, we have to acknowledge that there has always been anti-Semitism in the Black community and anti-Black racism in the Jewish community. But there was also, particularly in the period from 1945 to 1965, some serious attempts to build bridges and forge alliances that would run counter to these destructive tendencies. The turning point away from this alliance was in the period from 1965 to 1968, with the emergence of the Black Power movement, which perceived Jews simply as whites and began to push white activists out of the Civil Rights movement. Supporters of Black Power increasingly began to see the world in terms of the American empire pitted against Third World liberation movements-a profoundly Manichean perspective, a simplistic dualistic perspective. . . .

In 1967 Harold Cruse published The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, which remains highly influential to this very day. The book contained a scathing attack on the role of Jewish particularism, with special focus on the Jews' role in the Communist Party, U.S.A. This was another sign of the growth of particularistic consciousness in the Black left. The loss in April 1968 of Martin Luther King, Jr., was significant in this respect because King promoted the legitimacy of Zionism to the Black community. King spoke explicitly about the importance of Blacks' learning from and promoting the progressive version of Zionism. With that loss we saw a crescendo of Black critiques of Zionism-most vulgar, though some sophisticated. . . .

After 1968 we saw three major arenas of Black-Jewish tension. First, there was the issue of community control. In the sphere of education, this struggle was perceived as an attack on Jewish educators, but the community control issue extended also to an attack on Jewish entrepreneurs in the Black ghetto (particularly since a developing Black business class had an interest in freeing up space so that it could progress).

The second issue was affirmative action, which pitted many conservative Jews against Blacks and liberal Jews. It is too often ignored that many liberal Jews support affirmative action. For example, Thomas Nagel, a professor of philosophy, has put forward some of the most powerful critiques of the opponents of affirmative action, in the name of Kantian morality. …

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