Behind the Headlines: Crown Heights a Sobering Reminder of Change in Black-jewish Relations
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Behind the Headlines: Crown Heights a Sobering Reminder of Change in Black-jewish Relations

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The black rage and violence against Jews that have swept the streets of Crown Heights in recent weeks have reawakened memories, for many of the Brooklyn neighborhood’s Hasidic residents, of the European pogroms they fled 50 years ago.

Scenes of Jews barricading themselves in their homes, fearing the gangs of black teenagers who rampaged through the neighborhood shouting, “Hitler didn’t finish the job,” seem a long way from the days of the 1960s, when Jews marched arm in arm with blacks from Selma to Montgomery, light years from the time when blacks and Jews were allied in a common struggle against racism.

Does Crown Heights represent the new face of black-Jewish relations in America, or is it an isolated case of tensions exploding in the wake of unique circumstances?

Much has changed for Jews, blacks and the relationship between the two groups since the day when civil rights activists Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were murdered as they battled segregation in Mississippi.

A generation or two ago, Jews and blacks shared elements of common experience that simply no longer exist. The social, economic and political disenfranchisement suffered by both provided a sense of kinship that allowed for an alliance, however imperfect, to be forged.

But today, the sense of marginalization that once gave the two communities a common platform has almost disappeared for Jews in this country, while it continues to confront large segments of the African-American community.


“Before, blacks perceived Jews to be the victims of mainstream, white, Protestant-American society,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

“This generation has not grown up seeing visible anti-Semitism, and while Jews may still remember how close that feels, it’s lost to blacks who haven’t seen it,” he said.

Jews and blacks at one time lived in closer proximity to one another than most do now, said Saperstein. That gave blacks an opportunity to see that some Jews living in urban areas were not much better off than they.

Practically the only Jewish communities that have stayed in minority urban areas are Hasidic ones, such as the Lubavitchers in Crown Heights and the Satmar in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section.

But the insular quality of the Hasidic lifestyle does not lend itself to extensive interaction with non-Jewish neighbors. And, at least in Crown Heights, poor blacks seem more likely to view the Hasidim as rivals than as neighbors.

“Blacks and Jews in Crown Heights live in the same neighborhood, but in different worlds,” observed Lawrence Rubin, executive vice chairman of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.

While some experts on inter-ethnic relations maintain that the situation in Crown Heights is atypical of communities around the country, others say there is friction between blacks and Jews whenever they live close to each other.

Situations in which Jews are “living cheek-by-jowl with blacks” have been “an extremely explosive mix” since the late 1960s, according to Murray Friedman, a former vice chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission who is writing a book on black-Jewish relations.

“The closer blacks and Jews are, the more they learn to hate each other,” said Friedman, who is the American Jewish Committee’s regional director in Philadelphia.


According to Friedman, it is the Jews who are “more distant from the relationship, those outside of the urban centers” who are most interested in rekindling the black-Jewish alliance.

“They can afford to be very noble and virtuous,” he asserted.

Friedman is not alone among Jewish community relations professionals who fear that troubling trends do not bode well for a strong or special black-Jewish relationship.

Black anti-Semitism is on the upswing, and it is of a different nature than the anti-Semitism that the Jewish defense organizations have become so adept at addressing.

“Black anti-Semitism is mostly political, part of the Third World orientation that sees Jews as the white front-line troops of capitalism and imperialism,” said Saperstein. “We don’t know how to deal with that anti-Semitism as well.”

Little research on black anti-Semitism has been done in the last decade, according to Friedman, which is illustrative of the emotional investment of Jews in the black-Jewish relationship and a reluctance by Jews “to ‘make things worse.'”

Today the anti-Semitic ideology espoused by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, the conspiracy theories of black intellectuals such as City University of New York Professor Leonard Jeffries, and the tactics of confrontation and separatism advocated by black activists such as the Rev. A1 Sharpton are gaining currency in the black community, especially among the young.

In these ideologies, Jews are seen as “the consummate whites,” not just white but also as those with the most influence in a system that labors to keep blacks disenfranchised, and as a group with power disproportionate to its size.


Any vision of a revitalized black-Jewish alliance will fail “as long as the black community allows demagogues to plant the seeds of hatred,” said Saperstein.

“There has to be a clear understanding from black leadership that anti-Semitism is unacceptable, as is any form of racism or bigotry,” said Charney Bromberg, director of intergroup relations at the Anti-Defamation League.

It is pointless to attempt to resurrect the model of black-Jewish cooperation that flourished from the 1940s through the 1960s, according to Friedman. Rather, he believes the black-Jewish relationship must be “normalized” to fit the “traditional American pattern of rewarding your friends and denouncing your enemies.”

Strengthening the black-Jewish alliance “is not high on either side’s agenda,” said Jonathan Kaufman, author of “Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times Between Blacks and Jews in America.”

“Jewish organizations are more concerned with Israel and Soviet Jewry,” he said, and black Americans are not listening “to those who might have been able to bridge the gap. More radical and angry black leaders are coming to the fore.”

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