WASHINGTON (JTA) — Barack Obama’s pledge to use his presidency to revive the black-Jewish alliance starts on Day (minus) One — the day before he becomes president.
The president-elect’s inaugural committee has asked Jewish groups to make black-Jewish dialogue and joint outreach to the poor a focus of Martin Luther King Day commemorations Jan. 19. Renewing the classic civil rights alliance is part of the inauguration’s "big picture," a senior inauguration official told JTA.
The emphasis comes after a bruising campaign in which Jewish voters were targeted by anonymous campaigns attempting to depict Obama as a secret Muslim, as well as conservatives who questioned the candidate’s pro-Israel bona fides. It also comes after decades of mistrust fueled by disagreements over affirmative action, Israel’s relationship with South Africa and outright expressions of hostility from prominent black figures such as the Rev. Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan.
Obama, who has strong ties with influential members of the Chicago Jewish community, made it clear during the campaign that the alliance which helped bring about civil-rights change in the 1960s was a central focus of his Jewish outreach.
Invoking this alliance was a linchpin of his speech in May to thousands of members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, where references to domestic policy often fall flat. Not so with Obama: The Washington convention center filled with cheers when he invoked the memories of the three civil-rights volunteers — two Jews and an African American — who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964.
"In the great social movements in our country’s history, Jewish and African Americans have stood shoulder to shoulder," Obama said. "They took buses down south together. They marched together. They bled together. And Jewish Americans like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were willing to die alongside a black man — James Chaney — on behalf of freedom and equality."
A few months earlier, during a speech at last year’s commemoration of the King holiday at the slain civil-rights leader’s church in Atlanta, Obama criticized anti-immigrant and anti-gay sentiment in some corners of the black community. He also lamented that the “scourge of anti-Semitism has, at times, revealed itself in our community.”
Throughout his campaign, Obama made his desire to bridge the divide a focus of his talks with Jewish leaders, said Deborah Lauter, the Anti-Defamation League’s national civil-rights director.
"When Abe met with Obama, Obama conveyed to him he would like to see the historic black-Jewish roots renewed," Lauter said, referring to Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director.
Lauter said Obama’s commitment might help spur an alliance that has faltered in recent years. Charged with reviewing what ADL chapters had planned for Martin Luther King Day, she noticed that plans for events bringing blacks and Jews together had decreased.
"There are some pockets of activity, but they’re not what they used to be," Lauter said. "The ones that exist work well, but it hasn’t been a priority."
In recent weeks, however, Lauter said she noticed an enthusiasm for re-establishing the alliance. Obama’s 78 percent support among Jewish voters — higher than expected — was pivotal.
"The numbers were so strong in terms of the Jewish vote for Obama," she said. "There’s a spirit of renewal, looking for opportunities to renew old ties and look forward generally."
Rumors of the demise of the alliance are overstated, said Rabbi Marc Schneier, who co-founded the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. The tensions stoked by the radical inclinations of an older generation had been replaced by the outreach favored by younger blacks, including Obama.
"Crown Heights was the lowest point," he said, referring to the lethal 1991 riots in Brooklyn, "but since those difficult and trying days there has been a cadre of African-American and Jewish leaders dedicated to repairing and restoring the relationship." The foundation is now chaired by hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons.
Schneier says he likes to tease Eleanor Tatum, the publisher of the Amsterdam News, an African-American weekly, that he sees more ads in Jewish papers for Martin Luther King Day activities than he does in hers.
Rabbi David Saperstein, who as the director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center is a leader of national Jewish outreach to other civil rights and minority groups, says the relationship is thriving — in the leadership.
"The reality is day in, day out, blacks and Jews are working together for education, to help the poor," he said. In the U.S. Congress, "the black caucus is overwhelmingly pro-Israel, the Jewish caucus has been overwhelmingly been supportive not just on civil rights, but on aid for sub-Saharan Africa."
It needs to trickle down, Saperstein says.
"There’s too little social interaction," said the rabbi, who delivered the invocation the night Obama accepted the presidential nomination in August. "We can develop more opportunities for youth groups to work together on common projects. It is the building of levels of trust and personal connection that helps us through tough times."
Using Internet outreach, ADL is asking its activists and others to take the Martin Luther King Day "service pledge."
"By signing this pledge, I recognize that respect for individual dignity, achieving equality and opposing anti-Semitism, racism, ethnic bigotry, homophobia, or any other form of hatred is a non-negotiable responsibility of all people," it concludes.
An array of national and local Jewish groups have signed up with the inaugural committee’s black-Jewish outreach.
In Washington, Jews attending inaugural festivities also will be asked to join the Washington Hebrew Congregation’s "work day" on Jan. 19, helping the homeless.
"If you’re a Jewish person coming to Washington for the inauguration, you’ll see that — but you’ll also see homeless shelters and soup kitchens," said the senior inauguration official, who spoke on the transition team’s strict condition of anonymity.
Other programs are more lighthearted.
The Greater Washington Jewish Community Relations Council is marking the King day evening with the Black-Jewish Dialogues, which is described as "a hilarious two-actor, multimedia romp of sketches, theater and video that reveals the absurdity of prejudice and hate within the context of the American Black-Jew experience."
Schneier insisted such activities were not out of the ordinary — "we’re close to the heyday of the black-Jewish relations" — but he said it was thrilling in recent weeks to see the alliance at its most rarefied level.
"When I saw Rahm Emanuel appointed White House chief of staff," he said, "I saw the black-Jewish alliance at work again trying to restore this country."