Focus on Issues: Study of Black-jewish Relations Hopes to Shatter Conflict ‘myth’

Rabbi Marc Schneier believes that a prevailing myth has come to define relations between blacks and Jews in America.

The myth, he says, begins with the assertion that relations between the two communities have spiraled downward since the heyday of the civil rights movement. Racial tensions have reinforced that myth, prompting some to conclude that two communities once united in common cause have regrouped into separate camps.

Schneier, however, believes that alliance and cooperation are the true watchwords that best define the “State of the Union” between black and Jews.

That is the main point he hopes will be driven home in a new report released by the Foundation for the Ethnic Understanding. The report offers the first annual chronicle of events affecting relations between the two communities.

The report, tracing events from December 1995 through December 1996 and released to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, points to ample evidence of tension and hostility between blacks and Jews. But it also refers to what Schneier describes as “an overwhelming movement toward alliance and common cause.”

The report “shatters the myth that black-Jewish relations is only one of conflict,” says Schneier, who is president of the New York-based foundation, which was created in 1989 to help promote racial reconciliation and understanding.

“Clearly we see many areas of cooperation throughout the United States – - symposia, task forces, joint prayer services, study groups and conferences which filled last year’s calendar almost daily. Hopefully, this is the basis for truth about where black-Jewish relations are headed today,” he said.

Not all observers of the black-Jewish relationship agreed with Schneier’s assessment.

Murray Friedman, author of “What Went Wrong? The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance,” said, “A compendium of this kind has some merit.” But he cautioned against painting a picture that is too sanguine.

He emphasized that conflict over divisive issues, such as race-based redistricting and affirmative action, will continue to exist alongside the memory of past alliances and “reservoirs of goodwill.”

Schneier, who also chairs the World Jewish Congress’ Commission on Intergroup Relations, began the survey 18 months ago with the help of a grant from the Righteous Persons Foundation created by Steven Spielberg.

In the face of lingering tensions between the two communities in the aftermath of the 1991 riots in Crown Heights and amid controversy surrounding the Louis Farrakhan-led Million Man March last year, Schneier sought to challenge prevailing views about a widening rift between blacks and Jews.

Believing that acts of cooperation often went unnoticed, Schneier wanted to put together an annual report to document areas in which blacks and Jews were moving toward greater alliance, as well as areas of conflict.

What has emerged, says Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League, is an “insightful compendium” that “documents the distance that has been traveled over the past year.”

In a statement included with the report, Price says the “roster of cooperative efforts” offers “evidence of forward progress and clues about how Americans of all races actually do get along.”

Under the heading cooperation, the study cites, for example, the Jewish community’s widely publicized show of solidarity with the black community in response to the spate of church burnings last year.

But among the various events chronicled by the foundation were a number of incidents that did not receive as much public attention:

In Boca Raton, Fla., on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, blacks and Jews held a joint memorial service to honor King and slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Blacks and Jews in Washington, D.C., gathered for a third straight year for a Passover seder, held “to commemorate freedom and emancipation from slavery.”

The American Jewish Committee and Howard University launched “Common Quest: The Magazine of Black-Jewish Relations” — a publication dedicated to illuminating conflicts between the two communities while at the same time identifying areas of cooperation in advancing a common agenda.

“The number of voluntary encounters between Jewish and African-American agencies indicate a desire to repair whatever fissures have outcropped in their relations and to stand together in responding to national issues of common interest,” the report said.

Meanwhile, in areas of conflict, the study pointed to several high-profile controversies, including:

Inflamed tensions between blacks and Jews in the aftermath of a deadly arson attack in Harlem. In December 1995, a black man killed himself and seven employees of a Jewish-owned store when he set the store ablaze.

The Supreme Court’s ruling last June striking down race-based congressional districts as unconstitutional. “While black leaders have described the ruling in cataclysmic terms, Jewish groups have reacted cautiously, unsure how to weigh their support for the principle behind the ruling against concerns about inflaming tensions between blacks and Jews,” the report said.

The report said that from the Jewish perspective, the “negative side of the picture” mainly stemmed from the ongoing vitriol of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and his lieutenants.

“American Jews see the Nation of Islam leader and his acolytes, and professors such as Leonard Jeffries of the City College of New York, as unmitigated purveyors of anti-Semitic bigotry,” the report stated.

“For their part, some African-American spokespersons perceive Jewish groups as overly concerned with Farrakhan, who, in any event, in their view, does not represent an attitude towards Jews held by the majority of the black population.”

Ultimately, Schneier said he wants to prove that incidents of cooperation are outnumbering areas of conflict.

“As much as I believe in my heart that black-Jewish relations are moving toward cooperation and alliance as opposed to conflict, I’m still one year away from proving that,” said Schneier, who this week was to be awarded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People “Martin Luther King Jr. Measure of a Man Award.”

“It’s very difficult to quantify,” he added.

While this year’s report stands as little more than a chronicle of events, Schneier hopes to use more scientific means, such as polling, to gauge sentiment among blacks and Jews for the foundation’s next annual survey.

The foundation, meanwhile, plans to distribute 5,000 copies of its new report in coming weeks to black and Jewish organizations throughout the country, including the Congress of National Black Churches, the NAACP, the Urban League, National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, the Council of Jewish Federations, national rabbinic bodies, Jewish schools and the United Negro College Fund.

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