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African-Americans & Jewish-Americans: A New Agenda for an Old Alliance

July 1, 1990

by Mayor David N. Dinkins
Originally published in the July-August, 1990 issue of Jewish Currents
This address was delivered April 3 at the opening of an important photographic exhibit, “Blacks and Jews: The American Experience, 1654—1989” at the Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. The exhibit was sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and a number of African-American and other Jewish organizations, and will continue until August 17, 1990. The report of Mayor Dinkins’ address by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, published in Anglo-Jewish weeklies from Boston to Texas April 12th or 13th, was headlined “Dinkins Defends Jackson, Mandela and Tutu.” This tendentious and distorted reporting was sharply criticized by a letter April 26th by the American Jewish Committee Interreligious Affairs Department director Rabbi James A. Rudin and N. Y. Chapter director Dr. Steinman. On May 1st we received from the Mayor’s Office our requested copy of the text of Mayor Dinkins’ remarkably cogent, tactful, and constructive remarks. What follows is a slightly abridged text. —Morris Schappes, Editor.

HISTORICALLY, THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN-JEWISH ALLIANCE has served as a catalyst for the formation of broader coalitions united around issues of mutual interest. These coalitions have been the bulwark of progress in this nation over our lifetimes.
America has been a beacon in the struggle for democracy, civil rights, and social justice. And while that struggle is still not over, we can feel proud that much of what has been accomplished has happened because of the allied efforts of African Americans and Jewish Americans.
Our two communities have a history that has taught us in the most profound and painful ways the evils of group hatred. And we have a common heritage of witnessing and working for the human rights of all — often against the longest of odds.
Ours is a historic alliance — one that began long before the marches and sit-ins of the 1960s. The seeds of this alliance were sown almost a century earlier, when a wave of anti-Semitism swept through Europe and America, and African-Americans began to recognize that the plight of the Jews was in many ways comparable to their own.
African-American periodicals noticed the persecution of the Jews and spoke out against it. They even condemned the French government’s mishandling of the infamous Dreyfus Affair at the turn of the century.
A concrete alliance emerged in 1909 when Jewish and African-American leaders, including Rabbi Stephen Wise and W.E.B. DuBois, gave life to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. A Jewish educator, Joel Spingam, served as NAACP chair for much of the period between 1914 and 1939 — he was followed in that post by Kivie Kaplan.
The genesis of this alliance lay in the racial prejudice faced by both peoples — a hatred that left a permanent scar on human civilization during the Second World War. But our alliance was in the front lines of resistance. And in the segregated armed forces in which I served, it was African-American battalions that were the first liberators to enter the Nazi concentration camps at Dachau and Buchenwald and to witness their unspeakable horror.

AFTER THE WAR, Jewish- and African-American attorneys stood side-by-side in the nation’s highest courts, arguing landmark civil rights cases that changed all of our lives.
In 1947, Paul Robeson joined Albert Einstein in leading a rally at the Polo Grounds which called for the establishment of the state of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people.
Two years later, it was Dr. Ralph J. Bunche who negotiated the Rhodes Armistice to end the Arab war against Israel. For this, Dr. Bunche was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
During the height of the civil rights movement, in the 1950s and 1960s, Jews lobbied Congress to enact civil rights legislation and in the South they marched on the front lines arm-in-arm with African Americans. In 1963, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel stated that “The plight of the Negro must become our most important concern.”
The Jewish community heeded this counsel so well that a year later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “It would be impossible to record the contribution that the Jewish people have made toward the Negroes’ struggle for freedom — it has been so great.”
And there were those who paid the ultimate price. Who can ever forget Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman — three civil rights
workers, one African-American, two Jewish — who worked and died together 26 years ago in the heat of the Mississippi freedom summer?
The sacrifice of these three young men brings to mind the words of Dr. King: “Our destinies are tied together. There is no separate black path to power and fulfillment that does not intersect with white roots. Somewhere along the way the two must join together, black and white together, we shall overcome.”
I believe deeply in the importance of our historic alliance.
And I believe deeply in the power of leadership by example.
The formation of BASIC — Black Americans to Support Israel Committee — is a case in point. I, along with many other African-American leaders, formed this organization in 1975, at the time that the United Nations was debating the vile “Zionism equals racism” resolution.
In a full-page ad in the New York Times announcing the establishment of the group, our director, Bayard Rustin, declared, “Zionism is not racism, but the legitimate expression of the Jewish people’s self-determination. From our 400-year experience with slavery, segregation, and discrimination, we know that Zionism is not racism.”
I am proud to have marched and written and spoken and pleaded to aid Soviet Jewry for more than two decades.
I am proud to have joined the American Jewish Congress in traveling to West Germany to protest the Presidential visit to Bitburg.
I have denounced the anti-Semitism of public figures because it was the right thing to do.
And I am proud that as Mayor, my advocacy continues. Just last Friday, at the Annual Sabbath Service of the Shomrim Society of Jewish Police Officers, I joined in Prof. Alan Dershowitz’s denunciation of syndicated columnist Pat Buchanan for his attack on Holocaust survivors who have testified against alleged Nazi war criminals.
I have done these things and said these things out of deepest conviction. For me, they are matters of the heart. They are my fundamental convictions — and I express them everywhere I go.
But while my own convictions coincide with those of many Jewish leaders, and our communities have continued to cooperate, our historic alliance has been affected by the social and economic changes that have occurred in America in the past several decades.
In his book entitled Broken Aliiance: The Turbulent Times between Blacks and Jews in America, Jonathan Kaufman notes that, “Beginning in the mid-1960s, the rise of Black Power, the movement of the civil rights struggle from the South to the North, and the changing economic status of Blacks and whites caused relations between Blacks and Jews to change. The period of cooperation was succeeded by a period of confrontation.”
While there are those who suggest we ignore the differences that have arisen between our two communities, I favor another approach. I believe we must establish the trust to listen to one another, acknowledge those issues where we may disagree and respect their significance to each constituency.
For example, many Jews see quotas as a potential limit to their aspirations, while for many African Americans they are a way — perhaps the only way — to obtain opportunity where it has been denied due to discrimination. Many in the Jewish community have supported affirmative action and various programs which recognize race as a factor in education and employment.
A continuing source of tension has been Israel’s relationship with South Africa. I realize that Israel has begun to curtail its military ties with South Africa. However, this took place only after objections were raised here in the United States. I do not intend to give the impression that Israel is the largest trader with Pretoria without at the same time calling on the United States and all other Western, African and Arab nations to sever their ties.
However, Israel can be a true “light unto the nations” and lead the fight against apartheid by imposing full sanctions and divestment. The fight against apartheid presents an opportunity for Israel to again demonstrate moral leadership on the world scene.
And just as I urge Israel to join the struggle for a free South Africa, so too do I urge the leaders of the struggle against the only legalized system of racism in the world to join in Israel’s quest for survival, safety, and security.

I UNDERSTAND THE DISPLEASURE some have expressed about the comments of Bishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela on the Middle East However, I urge that criticism of their comments be expressed in a way that will avoid any possible interpretation that the Jewish community opposes their anti-apartheid struggle.
I would hope that when Nelson Mandela comes to the United States, the Jewish community will open a dialogue with him even as it welcomes Mr. Mandela and recognizes him for his lifelong struggle against apartheid and his 27-year sacrifice in the dank prisons of the apartheid regime.
Differences over the role of Jesse Jackson are an additional source of tension. Many in the Jewish community are apprehensive about the Rev. Jackson because of controversies surrounding past actions and remarks. This is understandable.
It cannot be denied, however, that at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, Jesse Jackson humbled himself before the world and stated that while he was an imperfect servant, God was not finished with him.
I believe it is not productive to continue to raise issues for which the Rev. Jackson has apologized. In addition, feelings about Jesse Jackson should not automatically preclude the possibility of support for other African-American public officials and candidates who supported Jesse because of his stands on issues such as poverty, equality, and social justice.
In truth, there has never been an absolute consensus between our two communities. What we have had is a remarkable degree of agreement on the ends we seek, if not always the means by which we would arrive at those ends.
I submit to you that as long as majorities within the African-American and Jewish communities continue to agree on ends — on equality, opportunity, and justice for all; on putting an end to racism, anti-Semitism, and apartheid; on the security of the state of Israel — the foundation of our alliance is sound.
Witness the 1988 Presidential election, in which 70 percent of Jewish voters and 90 percent of African-American voters backed the Democratic ticket.
I believe that the most fruitful alliance we can build is one that stems from a commitment to redirect resources and policies so we may begin to solve some of the problems that beset the urban communities in which our people reside — problems such as drug abuse and crime, homelessness and lack of affordable housing, teenage pregnancy and failing schools, infant mortality and the AIDS epidemic.
Right now, as change sweeps the globe, challenging our commitment as a nation and our ingenuity as a people, we have the best chance in a generation to right the wrongs of our own society. The issue is not whether there will or will not be a Peace Dividend, for there can be one if the President and the Congress have the political will to seize this historic chance for change.
Instead, the question is even more fundamental: It’s a question of our values as a people. Over the past decade, the Pentagon budget literally doubled while federal housing assistance was cut more than 75 percent.
The Administration has been able to find hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out the savings and loan industry. They’re going to have a hard time telling us there’s no money for schools and subways and housing and health care.
I know that the people of Eastern Europe have suffered form decades of tyranny and oppression — and they deserve our help. But I know as well that the people of East Harlem and East New York, of Washington Heights and Brooklyn Heights, are suffering from crack — and the crime it causes.
These are but a few of the most serious issues around which the African-American and Jewish communities can join to make a difference. We must together undertake massive, well-organized lobbying at the state and federal levels and propose concrete initiatives at the local level to confront these problems.
The leaders of our communities can join together on boards of directors of key financial, academic, and advocacy institutions so that resources and policies are redirected to address our urban needs. The African-American and Jewish media should raise awareness of issues of specific and joint concern to both communities. Our communal organizations and leaders must sit down with each other to devise specific means of cooperation on this agenda that we share.

IN ADDITION TO PROGRAMS OF ACTION, greater dialogue is needed as well. There are many examples of exchanges between the African-American and Jewish communities. For example, joint programs have marked the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and this week, inter-faith Passover Seders will be held by students from Hebrew schools and African-American churches.
Congressman William Gray of Philadelphia has organized “Operation Understanding” in which African-American and Jewish high school student leaders travel together for a month in both Israel and Africa. Upon their return home, they share their experiences and new perspectives throughout their communities.
In addition to greater public dialogue and joint projects, cooperation in the public policy, social service, and political arenas can lead to social change, justice, and equality for all Americans. These efforts, should not be limited to African Americans and Jews but should include the range of ethnic, racial, religious and cultural groups that comprise the multi-faceted mosaic that is New York City.
Together we must identify and embrace an agenda that will be as significant for our society today as were the issues of civil rights, peace, the right to unionize, and religious tolerance that we shared in an earlier era....
For our enemy is not each other. Our enemy is hunger and homelessness and despair, our enemy is the scourge of AIDS and the shame of drug abuse; our enemy is the poverty that afflicts 144,000 Jewish New Yorkers — and hundreds of thousands of others; our enemy is the sense of futility, the feeling that nothing can be done, the temptation to scorn or assail our fellow citizens....
Let us renew the strength of the bonds that unite us. And let us march together always as the footsoldiers of freedom.
Thank you and God bless you.