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Black-Jewish Relations in the Pages of Jewish Currents
by Rokhl Kaffrisen
I VOTED FOR OBAMA. If you’re reading Jewish Currents, you probably did, too. Throughout the past century, American Jews have voted overwhelmingly for Democrats, and in this election, more than three-quarters of American Jews did so. The surprising statistic is that my so-called peers, the under-35 cohort, had the highest proportion of Republican voters among Jews, according to a pre-election article in the Forward, which attributed the trend to the growth of the Orthodox and the Russian Jewish populations in the U.S., both of which include many young conservatives.
I think there’s another interesting aspect to the relative conservatism of young Jews compared to older Jews. For many younger Jews, there is no perceived, natural connection between their Jewishness and any tradition of the left, New or Old. For many older Jews, by contrast, political identity is bound up with a particularly Jewish political culture and history in which the fights against racism and anti-Semitism are intertwined, and what’s “good for the Jews” is never isolated from what’s good for other oppressed groups.
This was certainly the case for the founders of Jewish Currents.
In 1946, the editors of Jewish Life (the predecessor to Jewish Currents) declared that their new publication would “dedicate itself to strengthening the ties of the Jewish people with labor, the Negro people, and all other oppressed groups, for a common struggle against anti-Semitism, discrimination, lynching and Jim Crow... ” They defined the fight for civil rights as central to the mission of the magazine, and so it remained, even when the fortunes of Blacks and Jews began to diverge as the decades passed.
By identifying the commonalities between Jews and other minorities (as well as workers) all over the world, the editors of Jewish Life reconciled their commitment to internationalism with the potentially problematic imperatives of Jewish nationalism. Over the years, however, newly emerging forms of Black nationalism, especially militant nationalism, would test the boundaries of this ideological framework of alliance-building. The mid-1960s and the mid-1980s saw the greatest tensions — as well as a rededication to the cause of Black-Jewish solidarity in the pages of Jewish Currents.
Throughout the 1950s, the magazine reported news about racism and anti-Semitism as part of its anti-fascist activism. In 1958, a typical “Around the World” column by editor Morris U. Schappes featured a number of positive items about similar advances made by Blacks and Jews in America, juxtaposed with bad news about anti-Semites and Nazi apologists in Europe. One typical positive item noted that Miss Birdie Amsterdam had become the first female (and Jewish) member of the New York State Supreme court while Harold Stevens was now the first “Negro jurist” to become a justice of the appellate division of Supreme Court of New York State. This was followed by reportage of a gathering of anti-Semites in Paris and of the German government’s decision to reduce reparations money to victims of Nazism.
The connection between the vulnerability of Jews and other minorities (including Puerto Ricans) came up in a report from March, 1958 about a “Nordic” gang terrorizing Forest Hills, Queens. Even the anti-Semitic activity of a bunch of young hoods from Forest Hills was framed as representing a larger threat posed by well-established racist and anti-Semitic groups all over the U.S. and Europe. The writer noted that the members of the gang were well-positioned young men from good families. It’s unquestionable, he wrote, that “racism and anti-Semitism among the ‘respectable’ is a greater danger than [among] the lunatic fringe!”
While some of this might seem alarmist or even paranoid, in March, 1958, when a synagogue in Miami was bombed — one of many synagogues and churches bombed that year — it was widely understood that the bombings were ‘revenge’ for Jewish involvement in desegregation activity. Yet most Jewish groups and publications viewed the systematic terrorizing of churches and synagogues as random and representative only of an extremist fringe. To broadly indict American culture as racist and anti-Semitic was a dangerously ‘un-American’ thing for Jews to do in 1958, and Jewish Currents was a fairly lonely voice in the Jewish community in pointing to the pervasiveness and danger of violent racist and anti-Semitic trends.
IN THE EARLY 1960S, the civil rights movement received substantial coverage in Jewish Currents, with something in almost every issue about civil rights activity. At the same time, however, a new kind of Black nationalism was emerging that challenged the magazine’s model of cross-cultural cooperation. Especially late in the decade, Black-Jewish solidarity based on class and ethnic consciousness gave way to much more overt conflict. Part of this had to do with the post-1956 crumbling of the internationalist, communist framework with which many, if not most, of the magazine’s readers aligned themselves. Issues debated in the pages of the magazine in this period included the roots of ghetto violence and the propriety of having whites (usually Jews) as leaders within the civil rights movement. The subtext of much of this discussion was: Were Jews doing civil rights work because they would be among its beneficiaries — that is, did Jews have a stake similar to that of Blacks in the fight for civil rights??
In July, 1966, Jewish Currents ran an editorial asking, “Is SNCC racist or radical?” The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee had instituted a controversial Black-only leadership policy, which many white liberals had decried as Black supremacist. Black nationalism and Black power were beginning to test seriously the limits of the Old Left’s commitment to cross-cultural solidarity, but the Jewish Currents editorial board held fast: “It is particularly important for Jews, who are so alert to the dangers of racism as it affects them, to avoid misjudging an idealistic, heroic movement like SNCC, which is dedicated to abolishing racism.”
Another editorial, in February, 1966, took on the Watts ghetto riots, which it blamed on institutionalized racism. In Max Rosenfeld’s Jewish educational column in the same issue, the focus was on Black-Jewish relations and the illusions of similarity between groups. Rosenfeld made the point that while there are great sympathies between Blacks and Jews, it’s dangerous for Jews to fail to recognize the enormous social capital upon which they had been able to draw to raise themselves out of poverty. To lose sight of the differences between Blacks and Jews would come dangerously close to losing sight of the prevalence of institutionalized racism at the heart of the Watts riots and all the other eruptions of misery in Black communities.
Interestingly, other Jewish publications were using these same differences between Blacks and Jews as reason to withdraw from the idea of cross-cultural solidarity. Commentary magazine, in particular, was well on its way to embracing a neoconservative Jewish nationalism that was isolationist and based on a new Jewish embitterment coming out of the American Jewish encounter with the Holocaust. As Michael Staub describes in his book, Torn at the Roots: The Crisis of American Liberalism in Post-War America (Columbia University Press, 2002), the splitting of the Jewish community into liberal-progressive and neoconservative camps was rooted in a shared belief that “the Nazi genocide was a logical reference point from which to draw conclusions about the situation in the U.S. as well” — including, notably, about Black-Jewish relations.
Progressives saw the future of Jewish life as dependent on a world that would not tolerate racism and anti-Semitism. They drew parallels between the racism of Hitler’s Germany and the pervasive institutional racism in the United States. Jewish Currents obviously fell into this camp, as did the American Jewish Congress, one of the few mainstream groups to hold faith with the analogy between racism in Germany and American racism.
Neoconservatives drew a radically different lesson from the devastation of World War II: that the only thing that would save Jews was Jewish power. Today’s proponents of Jewish militarism, like Ruth Wisse, Yehezkel Dror, and others, have bluntly put it: Morality must be an afterthought when survival is at stake. According to Michael Staub, post-war Commentary writers saw the Jewish zeal for civil rights work as a waste of time and as imperilling the future of Jews. They also began to vigorously debate the idea that there was anything inherent to Judaism or Jewish identity that demanded “social justice.” (Indeed, the myriad attempts to justify Jewish activism within a religious framework, such as Michael Lerner’s Tikkun magazine, were themselves a reaction to the conservative insistence that Judaism and social justice were not related.)
It was a fine thing to believe in equality and civil rights, a typical Commentary article might say, but don’t fool yourself that it’s making you Jewish and certainly don’t fool yourself that it is good for the Jews. In fact, Blacks weren’t victims — for Jews, they might even be oppressors, like pogromist mobs of old. In this increasingly narrowed view of Jewish self-interest, all that mattered was Jewish survival. It came with a high price, however, which included the loss of self-respect that comes with turning ones back on those in need, and the abandonment of Yiddish culture and other aspects of the old, politicized Jewish culture that had nourished thousands of American Jews.
JEWISH CURRENTS PERSISTED IN PROMOTING BLACK-JEWISH SOLIDARITY, even as conflicts between Black and Jewish nationalism cropped up. The editors wrote articles and pamphlets, conducted forums and held banquets dedicated to furthering Jewish empathy with other communities in struggle, most importantly, with the African-American community. In 1969, for example, the Jewish Currents dinner theme was “Negroes and Jews: Interdependent.” In 1970, the theme was “Jewish and Black Workers: Their Role in the Labor Movement.”
In February, 1971, however, Jewish Currents had to confront the rising profile of the Black Power movement and issued a pamphlet called “The Black Panthers, Jews and Israel,” featuring an open letter to Panther leader Huey Newton that challenged the Panthers’ attacks on Israel and Zionism. “Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party are beleaguered, harassed and persecuted by every level of government in our country,” wrote Morris U. Schappes, declaring it “the duty of progressive Jews to defend the rights of the Black Panthers.... But it is certainly harder to carry out this duty when Panther publications convey and stir anti-Semitism and when the Panther position on Israel allies it with those who call for its destruction.”
For a while in the 1970s and ’80s, many of the magazine’s articles on Black-Jewish relations took on a more historical tone, reflecting the waning passion and immediacy of the two communities’ connections. The 1974 Jewish Currents banquet honored the tenth anniversary of the “Chaney-Goodman-Schwerner Martyrs” and the “Twentieth Anniversary of the Supreme Court Decision on School Desegregation.”
In November, 1981, Paul Robeson, Jr. began writing for the magazine. His father had been a truly unique figure in American progressive history and was often invoked as a symbol of the harmony between the struggles of Blacks and Jews. Robeson, Jr.’s first article for Jewish Currents was about his father’s relationship with Itzik Feffer, one of the Yiddish poets murdered on Stalin’s order in 1952. Robeson’s article sparked a firestorm by noting that Paul Robeson, Sr. knew about the persecutions of Feffer and other Soviet Jewish cultural leaders but failed to protest effectively in the USSR — and maintained silence in the U.S.
In 1984, when the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s presidential run was marred by his anti-Semitic “Hymietown” utterance, Jewish Currents sought to put it into perspective against Jackson’s history of dedicated progressive activism. The magazine reprinted several of Jackson’s speeches and embraced his apology to the Jewish community.
At around the same time, Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam was attracting a good deal of media attention. In October, 1985, addressing an audience of twenty-five thousand in Madison Square Garden, Farrakhan made headlines with anti-Semitic rhetoric (Judaism was a “gutter religion” and Hitler was “great.” Jewish Currents gave much coverage to this controversy, criticizing the ways in which the Jewish press was exaggerating Farrakhan’s reputation and influence among African-Americans and also criticizing the anti-Semitic distortions of history in which Farrakhan and others in the Nation of Islam indulged. “To fight Farrakhan,” wrote Schappes, “means not only to denounce his anti-Semitism but to resist this racist pressure upon us by resuming and increasing our support for the Black people’s struggles.” As an American Jewish historian, Schappes also took on Black nationalist and pan-Africanist distortions about the Jewish role in the slave trade. Black anti-Semitism, from the magazine’s perspective, seemed to be rooted more in ignorance than malevolence, and could be countered by debating the facts.
In recent years, Jewish Currents has persisted in focusing on the struggles of African-Americans, particularly in January-February issues, and has especially sought to inspire progressive Jewish sentiment through the example of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. A January-February, 2005 editorial, for example, reprinted in some mainstream Jewish papers, noted that King’s “legacy is not confined to the accomplishments of the American civil rights movement, profoundly transformative as those were. [King] also articulated a perception about the interdependence of humanity and... reminded us... that the condition of each... is based less on his or her inferiority or personal failing than on some historical social injustice, usually enforced with violence, that continues to shape the present.” Progressive elements of both the Jewish and African-American traditions, the magazine urged, emphasize human interconnection and are antithetical to racism and the other forms of prejudice and power that separate and divide us — and those elements, now that both Jews and Blacks have made enormous progress in American society, should be universalized as tools of progress for the wide world.