The storied tale of Jewish Northerners heading South in the 1960s to fight for blacks’ voting rights has taken its place as one of the most distinctive cross-cultural relationships in American history. Until now, the 1964 murders of three civil-rights campaigners has been unresolved. The recent arrest of a suspect in the Mississippi murders of Andrew Goodwin and Michael Schwerner — both Jews — and James Chaney, a black man, has refocused attention on a relationship once bound in blood.
As Jews prepare to mark Martin Luther King Day, however, to what extent have black-Jewish relations shifted from their historic marriage?
A long way, academics and Jewish community officials say.
The black-Jewish relationship began in the 1920s and 1930s as blacks moved into neighborhoods Jews were leaving. Still, Jewish businesses often remained, serving the black community.
A common bond rose in response to American anti-Semitism and racism, culminating in the civil rights movement. But black riots against Jewish-owned businesses in the mid-1960s and the rise of black nationalism that carried undertones of anti-Semitism often polarized the groups.
Today many of the flashpoints in the relationship, like Jesse Jackson’s 1984 reference to New York as “Hymietown” and the 1991 Crown Heights riots — when blacks rioted against Jews after a Lubavitch-driven vehicle accidentally hit and killed a black child in Brooklyn — are in the past.
Reports of anti-Semitic remarks by black nationalists such as the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan also have tapered off.
Now a new phase has dawned as both groups focus their energies on internal issues, and quieter ties have emerged. Whether the new phase will lead to a new, strengthened relationship or a cooler approach to one another remains in question.
“We’ve passed through a period of hostility and animosity,” says Murray Friedman, director of Temple University’s Myer and Rosaline Feinstein Center for American Jewish History and author of “What Went Wrong: The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance.”
“The black-Jewish alliance as it once was is dead,” he said. But “it has moved in the direction that has been normal in American life, where groups join together on certain issues and break apart on certain issues.”
Rabbi Marc Scheier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, and Russell Simmons, the foundation’s chairman, said in a statement that the recent arrest in the Mississippi murder case calls to mind the historic black-Jewish alliance and challenges members of both groups “to continue the ongoing struggle for human justice.”
In fact, blacks and Jews continue to come together to advocate for political issues ranging from civil rights legislation to Israel.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that the black and Jewish caucuses on Capitol Hill don’t work together,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, who is also on the board of the NAACP.
Saperstein said young black NAACP board members also show an increasing interest in the Jewish community.
According to Saperstein, collaboration among blacks and Jews is strong across the country, and his own group’s black-Jewish activities are as robust as he can remember.
Because of that, when tensions do arise “there’s much greater disappointment and sometimes anger than when either of us has similar kinds of problems with other ethnic or religious minorities,” Saperstein said.
Sherry Frank also says that in her 24 years as director of the Atlanta Chapter of the American Jewish Committee, black-Jewish relations have grown stronger.
A black-Jewish coalition initiated by the American Jewish Committee has a mailing list of some 400 people, with approximately equal numbers of blacks and Jews, she said.
Top black leaders in Atlanta invite local rabbis to speak at their pulpits, and Atlanta’s black mayor has helped raise funds for the local Jewish federation’s Super Sunday.
But Ann Schaffer, director of the AJCommittee’s Belfer Center for American Pluralism, says national relations aren’t so rosy.
In comparison to Jews’ relations with other groups, “we’re not seeing the kind of reciprocity that we would like to see in the relationship” with blacks, she said.
Many black leaders are consumed with internal issues, such as job discrimination and lifting their people out of poverty, she said.
In addition, the black community “is not forthcoming” in defending Israel and condemning anti-Semitism, she said.
In part, that’s because blacks identify with the Palestinians, who they see as disenfranchised like themselves, she said.
In fact, an AJCommittee 2000 study showed that few blacks feel much in common with Jews.
Yet anti-Semitism has never been as strong among blacks as among the mutual enemies of blacks and Jews, said Marshall Stevenson Jr., dean of social sciences and director of the national center for black-Jewish relations at Dillard University in New Orleans, a black college heavily endowed by Jews.
Anti-Semitism among black Muslims, for example, rarely is translated into action against Jews, he said.
Academics say the turning point in the black-Jewish relationship was the 1967 Six-Day War, which they say prompted Jews to turn inward and focus on Israel and the Jewish community’s concerns.
In subsequent years, the Soviet Jewry movement occupied the energies of Jews who once had worked for civil rights, Friedman said.
Around that time came the rise of black nationalism, which as part of its quest for black empowerment aimed to muster internal strength and resources and rejected Jewish outreach.
“Would Jews allow blacks to run their organizations?” was the rationale of the time, Stevenson said.
Both groups largely turned inward, a trend that continues today.
The relationship is “more or less neutral today,” Stevenson said.
It takes a common threat to revive the relationship, he said — citing, for example, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s runs for the U.S. Senate and the Louisiana governorship.
“For there to be any kind of serious dialogue there would have to be a major kind of racial backlash in this country that would affect African-Americans and Jews,” Stevenson said.
Renewed relations also could come about as a result of efforts to strengthen the Democratic party, he said.
In the 2004 presidential election, some 75 percent of Jews voted Democratic. Among blacks the proportion was even higher, 89 percent.
Friedman, who views the landscape of relations as a “return to normalcy,” frames Jews’ civil rights agenda as a Jewish quest for identity.
Jewish civil rights workers would cite the Jewish values of social justice, but “they didn’t know a blessed thing about Judaism.”
Goodwin and Schwerner were even buried as Unitarians, he said.
“We were finding our own identity by working through another group,” says Friedman, who himself labored for civil rights until a growing sense of Jewish identity landed him squarely in the field of Jewish studies.
Jewish groups also are less involved in race relations today than they once were, focusing now on buttressing Jewish causes and identities.
“I think we’re worn out with crusades,” he said.
Saperstein believes both agendas are intertwined.
“In America, the treatment of the black community remains a symbol of the hope for equality and justice for all people in America, and we who have been persecuted so often as a minority have a deep feeling that we have to stand by those who are persecuted more than we are today in America,” he said.
“What we do on behalf of a group like the African-American community and with the African-American community is a test of whether or not we’ll live up to the values and the lessons of our history.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.