Reviving black-Jewish tensions

WASHINGTON, Aug. 22 (JTA) — Joseph Lieberman’s attempts last week to allay the concerns of some black leaders about his position on affirmative action showed political smarts — but it also showed that old tensions die hard.

Despite a general sense that ties between Jews and blacks have improved in recent years, the Democratic vice presidential candidate’s emergence into the public spotlight has revived issues of contention — and revived concern about black anti-Semitism.

Lieberman had to clarify his position on affirmative action to the Democratic National Committee’s black caucus as soon as he arrived in Los Angeles for the convention.

“I have supported affirmative action, I do support affirmative action and I will support affirmative action,” he told the group.

And in his acceptance speech to the convention on Aug. 14, Lieberman said he favored President Clinton’s “mend it, don’t end it” approach to affirmative action.

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who led the fight to force Lieberman to explain his position, seemed appeased. The outspoken congresswoman said she felt a lot better after the issue had been clarified.

Lieberman and other Democratic officials also touted the senator’s long record of support for civil rights. He traveled to Mississippi in the 1960s to register black voters. In the Senate, he voted to continue affirmative action programs in 1995, and three years later helped stop the elimination of a federal program that helps women and minorities win highway construction contracts.

While he did indicate his support for California’s Proposition 209, a 1996 failed ballot initiative that would have abolished state-funded affirmative action programs, Lieberman has said he did not agree with its details and never endorsed the legislation. At the same time, Lieberman has said he is troubled by racial quotas.

The Democratic platform makes clear that Gore strongly opposes efforts to roll back affirmative action programs.

While Lieberman seemed to assuage the concerns of many party blacks, the incident brought to the surface an issue that has long been a point of contention between blacks and Jews.

Murray Friedman, an American Jewish historian and author of

“What Went Wrong: The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance,” said there was a feeling in the black community years ago that Jewish agencies stood in the way of affirmative action.

In the landmark 1977 case of Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke, the Supreme Court found that race could be considered as one factor in the medical school admissions process but cannot be the deciding factor.

The Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress all filed briefs in support of the white medical student applicant who challenged the racial quota system.

Today, affirmative action remains a difficult issue within the Jewish community.

The Orthodox Union, for example, is more sympathetic to a class-based model of affirmative action rather than a race-based one, according to Nathan Diament, the director of the O.U.’s Institute for Public Affairs.

The group eschews quotas and supports assistance to people based on individual need, rather than membership in a particular racial and ethnic group.

While there are nuanced differences among Jewish organizations, the consensus appears to support “properly structured” affirmative action policies, according to a two-year study on the issue by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella group of Jewish organizations.

The study found a range of opinions in the Jewish community on appropriate affirmative action policies, including those that question the value of any such policies. But the majority, according to the JCPA study, support “policies or programs that consider race as one among many relevant factors, that accept or reward only individuals judged to be qualified, and that do not include quotas.”

For his part, Lieberman is receiving support from prominent black leaders and organizations.

Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson took the opportunity to turn the issue around as he told a cheering crowd at the convention that “Gore ended the quota of zero of Jewish Americans on the national ticket last week. This was a bold act of affirmative action.”

Perhaps trying to halt any further damage, veteran civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said in his prime-time convention speech, “We need a man like Joe Lieberman to walk with us.”

In the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legislative Report Card on the 106th Congress, Lieberman received 100 percent for his voting record on civil rights issues.

Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP’s board of directors, said American Jews have been more supportive of civil rights than other non-minority Americans.

The affirmative action issue will probably die down and won’t spark a renewal of tensions, most experts agree.

“I don’t see this as a dominant issue at the moment,” said Friedman, who heads the American Jewish Committee office in Philadelphia.

Julius Lester, a professor of Judaic and Near Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts, said he thinks tensions between the two groups in general have diminished.

“In my travels around the country, I find blacks are more curious about Judaism, that more blacks are converting to Judaism and this is in contrast to very different attitudes I encountered a decade ago,” said Lester, an African American who converted to Judaism years ago.

A clear indication of the change, Lester says, was the response of the NAACP to the leader of the Dallas chapter who made anti-Semitic remarks about Lieberman being the vice presidential nominee. The NAACP immediately denounced the comments Lee Alcorn made. Alcorn was forced to resign.

“My own sense is that tensions between blacks and Jews is at its lowest in quite some time,” Lester said.

But according to a 1998 Anti-Defamation League poll of Americans’ attitudes about Jews, blacks are three times more likely to hold anti-Semitic beliefs than whites.

That finding of growing anti-Semitism among blacks is challenged by Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, an organization that works to foster relations between Jews and blacks.

A 1998 poll by the organization surveyed 500 Jews and 500 blacks and found growing cooperation between the groups.

According to Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, the polls are not comparable because of the way they were conducted.

He said he wished the foundation’s survey conclusions were right, and that his group was so troubled by the findings of the ADL survey that it doubled the samples twice — and still got the same results.

“It’s a very distressing, disturbing statistic,” he said.

Indeed, tensions could keep ebbing and flowing as anti-Semitic remarks come from parts of the black community, say observers.

The latest incident was an editorial in the Amsterdam News, a major black newspaper in New York City, that suggested Gore bought the Jewish vote by selecting Lieberman as his running mate.

Schneier views the remarks as exceptions to the rule. “We must distance ourselves from the rhetoric and diatribe of a few who look to exacerbate tensions between our two communities,” Schneier said.

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