W.E.B. Du Bois and Jews: A Lifetime of Opposing Anti-Semitism

By Sevitch, Benjamin | The Journal of African American History, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

W.E.B. Du Bois and Jews: A Lifetime of Opposing Anti-Semitism


Sevitch, Benjamin, The Journal of African American History


The decline of comity in Black-Jewish relations during the past thirty years has been acknowledged by several scholars on both sides of this ethnic divide. (1) Unfortunately, as Cornel West has observed, "there was no golden age in which blacks and Jews were free of tension and friction." (2) Even the prominent black novelist James Baldwin, writing in Commentary, a publication of the American Jewish Committee, noted as early as 1948 that "just as society must have a scapegoat, so hatred must have a symbol. Georgia has the Negro and Harlem has the Jew." (3) In the last decade of the twentieth century the strain between these two groups that had frequently been allies in previous generations seemed stretched beyond the breaking point with the publication of the anonymously authored Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews which claimed that Jews were key operatives in the slave trade and bore responsibility for creating the 'black holocaust." (4) This prompted the Chair of Harvard's Afro-American Studies dep artment to write in the New York Times that 'while anti-Semitism is generally on the wane in this country, it has been on the rise among black Americans." (5) After Lee Alcorn, president of the Dallas NAACP, responded to the selection of Senator Joseph Lieberman as the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate by asking, on a radio talk show, "If we get a Jew person...what is this movement for," he elicited immediate censure from Kweisi Mfume, national president of the civil rights organization. Fortunately, one book, Jews and Blacks--Let the Healing Begin, attempted to promote reconciliation. (6)

Throughout the last century many well-known African Americans consistently decried anti-Semitism of any origin, among them A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, Bayard Rustin, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But no black voice was heard more often, more eloquently, and for a longer period of time than W. E. B. Du Bois in his denunciation of anti-Semitism and his praise of Jewish people in general. Because early in his career Du Bois had unflattering words to say about some transatlantic steerage passengers and a particular landlord in Georgia, whose practices may well have deserved rebuke from any sensitive observer, many scholars have erroneously questioned his sincerity, or even worse, ascribed anti-Semitic sentiments as motivation. Long overdue is a recounting of the charges leveled at Du Bois, which can be rebutted in his own words, and an explanation of the possible reasons for this inaccurate, unfair, and academically indefensible portrayal.

The first biography of Du Bois stemmed from a doctoral dissertation at Harvard, the same university that granted him his doctorate. Francis L. Broderick, to whom Du Bois had granted access to his personal notes and correspondence, acknowledged that Du Bois had witnessed anti-Semitism in his post-doctoral studies in Europe, but added the accusation that:

Du Bois appears to have absorbed some anti-Semitism himself. In his Diary of My Steerage Trip Across the Atlantic" (summer 1895) he says that he had seen the aristocracy of the Jewish race and the low mean cheating pobel," but he had seldom seen "the ordinary good hearted good intentioned man." He found two congenial Jews on the trip, but he shunned the rest--"There is in them all that slyness, that lack of straight-forward openheartedness which goes straight against me." (7)

Three publications in the 1970s tarnished Du Bois's image vis-a-vis Jews in varying degrees. Robert G. Weisbord and Arthur Stein conceded that Du Bois's opinions about Jews were "virtually all sympathetic," but also quoted his editorial in The Crisis of September 1933 to claim that he believed that Jews, under attack by Hitler's Germany, were not sufficiently vocal about the oppression of African Americans:

When the only "inferior" peoples were "niggers" it was hard to get the attention of The New York Times for little matters of race, lynching and mobs. …

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