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Blacks and Jews at Odds, but Seeking Common Ground

January 13, 1988
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Jews and blacks may be unable to restore the spirit of intergroup harmony they developed in the 1960s, say black and Jewish leaders, but the groups can avoid the conflicts that often have dominated their interactions in the 1980s.

According to analysts of the black-Jewish relationship, that may mean bypassing divisive issues and concentrating on the local communal concerns they share as members of historically oppressed minorities. Whether that is possible in an election year and in the light of events in Israel remains to be seen, they say.

“The relationship between blacks and Jews is rather tense, but both groups come out of a commonality that’s still there,” said Albert Vorspan, director of social action at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform Jewish congregational organization.

Tension peaked in 1984, when Jewish groups, still reeling from the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s “Hymietown” remarks and what they considered his inadequate apology, demanded that the presidential candidate and other black leaders repudiate Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan for rhetoric Jewish leaders considered anti-Semitic.

So far, Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign has not inflamed the same passions.

But disagreement over Jackson is often perceived not as a cause of tension between the groups, but as a symptom. The cause of the tension may be that Jews and blacks have diverged in economic status and thus in political and social conviction.


Said Phil Baum, associate executive director of the American Jewish Congress, “Both groups believe in the better distribution of opportunity and advantage than exists at the present time. However, we disagree on the means of how to achieve that distribution.”

A continuing conflict has been over quotas in hiring, which black leaders believe would help speed economic growth, but which many Jewish groups feel serve to limit individual achievement.

Analysts agree that discussion of quotas does not create the rifts it once did, but deep misunderstandings remain.

According to Cherie Brown, executive director of the National Coalition-Building Institute, those misunderstandings became apparent when she conducted, as part of the group’s activities, intergroup dialogues in the months following the Farrakhan controversy in 1984 and 1985.

Ironically, Farrakhan’s notoriety led to the formation of black-Jewish coalitions in a number of cities. Some, such as the New York Black-Jewish Coalition, have since become dormant.

Wilbert Tatum, a founder of the New York coalition and editor-in-chief of the Amsterdam News, the country’s largest black newspaper, said the coalition foundered because “both sides are afraid to speak out, lest they be called racist or anti-Semitic.”

In other cases, the coalitions have avoided areas of major conflict–such as Israel’s trade with South Africa, affirmative action and black support for Palestinians–and instead seek common ground in local social and economic concerns.

Boston’s Black-Jewish Coalition, for example, was formed in 1979 to diffuse tensions that arose when Andrew Young, a black who was dismissed as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations after holding unauthorized meetings with members of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Blacks accused Jews of forcing the ouster.

The coalition has since changed its mission to tackle urban issues such as housing, education and crime prevention, according to Sol Kolack of Boston, national community service director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.


Such coalition-building implies that Jews and blacks still share an agenda. “Both groups still have a strong sense of being outsiders,” said Murray Friedman, Middle Atlantic States director of the American Jewish Committee and vice chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

In addition, said Martin Lapan, executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee, “Of all white ethnic groups, the Jewish community is still in its voting patterns far closer to the interests of the black community.”

Blacks and Jews were the only two groups to vote in majority for Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale in 1984.

But Friedman and others are concerned about underlying tensions. “Polls are showing more hostility towards Jews in the young and better-educated level of the black community than among older blacks who are knowledgeable about the civil rights movement,” said Friedman.

On the other side, blacks say the traditionally liberal Jewish community has absorbed the negative values of the larger society. “There is a new kind of racism,” said Norman Hill, president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a labor coalition founded by the late civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.

“Although less predominant among Jews, there’s a feeling that there’s something inherently wrong with blacks, that they are incapable of making it after all that was done, that following the civil rights legislation of the ’60, there is still crime, drug abuse, single parent families, teenage pregnancy,” said Hill.


Said Tatum of the Amsterdam News: “There has been a real pulling apart on the part of blacks and Jews. There is nothing to be done. A staunch ally appears to be like all others. They have failed us, and we them.”

Yet despite pessimism on both sides, coalition-building goes on, according to Diana Aviv, director of domestic concerns at the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.

She said a survey being conducted among 113 local Jewish community relations agencies nationwide shows that all of their communities are involved either in ongoing dialogues, jointly issued statements, joint cultural programming or commemorations of the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. Identification with the King holiday is especially strong, she said.

Part of that identification is bound to be nostalgia for “the good fight”–the battle for justice waged alongside black leaders in the 1960s.

But according to Brown, “There is a romanticization of the civil rights movement.” Not only are Jews and blacks meeting in greater numbers than they ever did, but “in fact, there is greater honesty between the communities.”

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