JERUSALEM (Jun. 15)
Black leaders visiting here from 12 American cities told Israelis last week that relations between Jewish and African Americans are historically close but complicated.
They also said their visit, sponsored by the Project Interchange program of the American Jewish Committee, had given them a “better set of tools” to take back to their communities, including a deeper understanding of the region, its players and some of the obstacles to peace-making.
The group spent most of the trip learning about the country through briefings, lectures and visits to various sites and programs.
The delegation of 13 included academicians, clergy, state legislators, a state Supreme Court judge, a physician and a banker.
But one evening was devoted to a reversal of roles in which they spoke to Israelis about the experience of being black in the United States today, about black-Jewish relations and about their impressions of Israel.
The event represented an effort by Michael Oren, director of the Jerusalem office of the AJCommittee, to “break the paradigm” of typical fact-finding missions by American groups.
It was an opportunity, he said, to enrich Israelis by giving them the benefit of the visitors’ insight and experience.
AFRICAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY NOT MONOLITHIC
One visitor, Delores Kelley, a delegate from Baltimore to the Maryland General Assembly and a college English professor, stressed that the African American community is anything but monolithic.
Many African Americans, she said, “simply see Jews as more white people and (therefore) the oppressors,” and there is tension and a feeling of “envy” of achievement and success that is proportionately greater than that of their community.
Others said some African Americans feel bitter and betrayed because after years of working closely in civil rights and other coalitions, they believe Jews have “abandoned” them in the process of assimilating.
But many, said Kelley, still feel a sense of commonality. Many share the Jewish vision of God, “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” and the “calling” to “repair the world, do justice and show mercy.”
And many identify with the Jewish experience and history of suffering, persecution, exile and homeland, she said. “We also had wandering and are a diaspora people.”
For this reason and because of the strong historic political coalitions between African Americans and Jews, segments of the African American community have been some of the staunchest supporters of U.S. aid to Israel, she said.
The Congressional Black Caucus is only one example, she observed.
But for some, she noted, such support is difficult, given the paltry aid given to places like Black Africa, Haiti and the urban centers of America.
There also has been a trend during the intifada to identify with the Arabs in the territories, said Kelley, “based on the nightly news reports” from Israel that suggest “darker-colored people are discriminated against (and) have no civil rights.”
She said many African Americans who rely only on electronic media therefore retain a superficial “snapshot” impression of the situation here.
“Most of us on the trip knew of the complexity already, but this trip has reinforced it,” she said.
“The trip has been an eye-opener,” said Carl Dickerson, a Los Angeles businessman, who said he had learned more points of view than he had access to in the U.S. media.
“It has convinced me Israel has a lot at stake to see an immediate resolution of the problem,” he said.
The African American community is concerned about the Middle East region and its peace process.
The community is informed about it as a result of “being bombarded by the news on a daily basis,” said Earl Shinhoster of Decatur, Ga., who is Southeast regional director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“But there is nothing like firsthand experience,” he said.
“We are all visual people,” said another member of the group, and television “can tell us what seems to be the truth.
“I can’t say I’m going away optimistic,” he continued, “but I can say what the Jewish people want is peace.”
The group also discussed some of the gains made by African Americans in the past three decades in civil rights and economic and political achievement in the United States.
But they also said there is “a lot of making-up to do” for the setbacks during the Reagan-Bush years.
Shinhoster talked about the urgent need to combat poverty, crime, AIDS and other plagues ravaging the black community.
He said the biggest challenge is to preserve the community’s threatened institutions, such as family and church, “that have brought us across and will carry us safely into the 21st century.”
He said it is also critical for the community to transmit from one generation to the next its collective memory and experience of Africa, systematically “blotted out” during slavery.