You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

Reviewing and Renewing the Black-Jewish Alliance

Lawrence Bush
January 15, 2005

Political Bonds and Mutual Interests

by Cheryl Greenberg
Once again, Blacks and Jews are united: On November 2nd, they both supported the losing presidential candidate. In fact, Blacks and Jews have been America’s two staunchest Democratic-voting groups for decades. Both seem to recognize that the issues central to their interest — equality, anti-discrimination, support of minority rights — are better represented by the Democratic Party, despite Jews’ economic position (generally speaking), and Blacks’ social conservatism (generally speaking), which might suggest that their self-interest lay more with the Republicans.
However, while exit polls showed an African-American vote of only ten percent for Bush — the same as in the 2000 election — the Republican share among Jews increased from 19 percent in 2000 to about 25 percent, including more than two-thirds of the Orthodox vote. While the lopsided Black vote reflects economic and racial concerns that the Republicans do not address, the Jewish vote has been made a bit more hesitant because of the Republican “commitment to Israel.” This sort of similarity of purpose, watered down by differences in perspective and social class, has been a hallmark of Black-Jewish relations for the past century.
As a nice Jewish girl who teaches African-American history, I am often asked about the past and the future of Black-Jewish relations. Older folks, both Blacks and Jews, tend to say things like, “Those were the good old days. But they betrayed us. Why do they hate us so much?” Younger people, on the other hand, sound like the simple child of the Passover Seder: “What Black-Jewish relationship?” they wonder.
Is either view — betrayal or apathy — valid? Is there any good news from the past that might lead us toward some optimism about the future?
I have spent the past decade researching these questions, and although it is difficult to summarize everything I have found in one short article, the short answer is, in good Jewish tradition, “yes and no.”

Despite claims made by the Nation of Islam, it is false to say that Jews ran the international slave trade or owned most Southern slaves, although certainly Jews were among traders and owners, enmeshed as they were in global economic networks. At the same time, despite claims made by nostalgic liberals, there was no “natural” or timeless alliance of these two oppressed peoples. Few Jews, for example, participated in the abolitionist movement (Ernestine L. Rose and August Bondi were notable exceptions). Only one Southern rabbi spoke out publicly against slavery, David Einhorn of Baltimore, who was, as a result, run out of town by his own community in 1861.
There was little “relationship” at all between Jews and African Americans until two major migration streams intersected in northern cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: African Americans moving north in the Great Migration to escape segregation, sharecropping, poverty, open discrimination, exploitation, and violence in the South, and eastern European Jews fleeing pogroms, poverty, and discrimination in their home countries. Both groups ended up in same urban centers, sometimes even in the same neighborhoods. Similarly poor, they had few housing options. Because Jews were “not quite white,” not easily stirred to violence, and generally more radicalized than other ethnic groups by egalitarian ideologies like communism, socialism and trade unionism, they put up less resistance than other white ethnics when African Americans moved into their neighborhoods. Over time, therefore, Jewish neighborhoods like New York’s Harlem became Black — not without tension, but generally without violence. (Needless to say, I am generalizing outrageously, here and throughout, trying to sketch some general patterns to which there are dramatic exceptions.)
Migrants from both communities needed help settling in. They were poor, subject to discrimination and bigotry, and committed to sending aid to others left behind. Both communities therefore established defense and mutual aid organizations. Activists from both communities also joined multiracial political organizations, to which they brought their community’s social and cultural values. Except on the left, however, there was little cooperation between Jewish and Black organizations before the modern civil rights era. Individual Jews like Joel Spingarn and Henry Moskowitz were deeply involved in helping to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1909); the Black press lamented pogroms while the Jewish press despairingly covered lynchings; but Black and Jewish agencies, which were poor and overwhelmed by their own community’s needs, rarely contacted each other for cooperative action.

Blacks and Jews also stayed apart because bigotry was embedded in both communities, in the form of Black anti-Semitism and Jewish racism. These attitudes were less potent than among white Christians, but had an impact nonetheless. In particular, Jewish organizations struggling for acceptance recognized that racism was the stronger force in America, and they feared that any association with Black aspirations would hurt their own efforts. When Leo Frank, a Jew, was convicted of murder (on the testimony of an African-American man) in an anti-Semitic trial in Atlanta, Georgia in 1913 and lynched two years later, it prompted the Anti-Defamation League to proclaim its commitment to defending the rights of all. In practice, however, Frank’s murder convinced many Jews that life here was dangerous enough without taking on Black people’s problems as well.
While relatively few Blacks and Jews interacted politically, far more encountered each other in economic venues. In virtually every case, Jews had the upper hand in these situations, because they were, indeed, white, and able to benefit from an American system that apportioned opportunity more by race than by ethnicity or religion. Jews also brought literacy and commercial skills from Europe that enabled them to succeed.
The exodus of up-and-coming Jews into wealthier areas opened older Jewish neighborhoods to Blacks, but Jews continued to own most of the real estate and businesses. In Black neighborhoods like Harlem and Chicago’s South Side, Jews owned up to 90 percent of the stores until the 1950s and ’60s. The inevitable tensions in poor neighborhoods between landlords and tenants, shopkeepers and customers, social workers and clients, pawnshop owners and the down-and-out came to be seen as Jewish-Black conflicts and reinforced stereotypes of greedy and unscrupulous Jews and of lazy or irresponsible Blacks.

As a result, while members of each community certainly recognized each other’s plight and were sensitive to prejudice, there was little positive Black-Jewish interaction until the rise of Nazism. With Jews threatened in Europe, and with the rise of fascist and anti-Semitic groups here, it became clear to Jewish organizations that they desperately needed allies. As for Black people, they recognized bigotry when they saw it. Anti-Nazi efforts also offered the strongest challenge to American racism. The Black press and several Black groups therefore launched what they called a Double V campaign: victory against Nazism abroad and against racism at home. Outspoken in their protest of Nazi atrocities, Black groups also lost no opportunity to draw parallels with lynching and racial bigotry in the U.S. “Senator King, Sorry for Jews, Urged to Support Federal Anti-Lynching Bill” read a 1938 NAACP press release.
Black-Jewish cooperation in the 1930s was clearly based on mutual self-interest but went beyond that to real solidarity. These groups had finally come to recognize what the left had been saying all along: that there were shared dangers in any form of bigotry, and that unity among the oppressed was the most effective tool for bringing about change. The Nazi-Soviet pact, however, discredited the Communist left in the eyes of many liberals, and the emerging Cold War made all programs espoused by Communists suspect. Even as liberals moved leftward, they increasingly resisted working with leftist groups like the National Negro Congress.
If the Communist party led a picket line against a racist business, for example, the guiding policies of the NAACP, Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Congress, National Council of Jewish Women, and National Urban League obliged them not to participate, even if the cause were legitimate. The exclusion of leftists or suspected leftists from such organizations also meant that liberal groups would not consider the economic and structural critiques of racism and discrimination offered primarily by the left.

In short, Black and Jewish liberals were brought by Nazism and the Second World War to a new recognition of the importance of civil rights and racial tolerance, but they limited their strategies, goals, and coalitions in ways that hobbled the potential for meaningful social change. The stage was set for what many consider the “golden age” of Black-Jewish relations.
Certainly, Black and Jewish political agencies drew dramatically closer to one another as the modern civil rights movement gained real force. Earlier successes had brought increased membership, stronger finances, and greater political access to these organizations, which made them more valuable to one another as allies. They shared a set of liberal values shaped by the Cold War and by the imperative of challenging bigotry before it metastasized into genocidal violence. These shared values included a commitment to bringing change within the system, rather than working for more radical social change; using moderate, nonconfrontational tactics; a commitment to the centrality of individual rights rather than privileges granted by membership in a group; and the conviction that it was the obligation of government to foster equal opportunity.
They chiefly advocated litigation, education, and legislation to bring about equal opportunity and equal protection under the law. Liberals continued to view with suspicion leftist groups that were aligned with the Communist party, particularly in light of Stalin’s atrocities in the USSR. Many progressives figures such as A. Philip Randolph (organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters) and Max Yergin (a Black educator, writer and cultural force in Harlem) abandoned Popular Front groups like the National Negro Congress and joined more mainstream, liberal organizations — which were often thereby pushed slightly further left.

By the late 1940s, liberal civil rights organizations rooted in the Black and Jewish communities began to develop a close partnership, launching programs separately and jointly to improve conditions for racial and religious minorities. The NAACP, with the help of all the main Jewish organizations, won a Supreme Court case declaring restrictive housing covenants unenforceable. The NAACP came to the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case, as well as its predecessor cases, armed with amicus briefs from virtually every other Black and Jewish civil rights organization (along with other progressive, union, religious and civic groups). The creation of New York’s state college system came about through a joint Black-Jewish effort to combat religious and racial discrimination in higher education.
Together they fought to make permanent the war’s Fair Employment Practices Act, which outlawed employment discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin. They cooperated on passing anti-Klan and anti-violence legislation and to fight restrictions on employment applications. They challenged racism and anti-Semitism together, with educational programs that appealed to American ideals of fairness and democracy. The two leaders of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights were a Black, Walter White, and a Jew, Arnold Aronson.
Jewish organizations participated in racial segregation cases; African American groups advocated expanding immigration to accommodate wartime refugees, endorsed and lobbied for the U.N. resolution on the creation of the state of Israel, and protested Soviet anti-Semitism.
Because the persistence of economic tensions between Blacks and Jews threatened these organizational partnerships and contradicted their non-discriminatory rhetoric, Black and Jewish organizations began to intervene in these local affairs more directly. Jewish activists met with (and sometimes picketed) Jewish landlords and store owners, urging them to end segregationist and discriminatory practices. The AJC and ADL organized Jewish merchants in Black neighborhoods into associations charged with improving race relations, hiring more African-American clerks, and contributing to community improvement projects. In many areas, Jews pulled out of Black neighborhoods completely, diminishing tensions that way.
In both communities, leaders worked to educate their own people on the dangers of bigotry. The ADL circulated fliers reminding Jews that, although not violently anti-Semitic at that moment, “The Klan is a Threat Today”; the NAACP launched studies of Black anti-Semitism and worked to ensure that anger at Jewish landlords was expressed in class rather than religious terms. Such efforts succeeded widely, as revealed in the disproportionate number of Jews (compared with other whites) who supported Black civil rights and by a rapid decline in reported anti-Semitism in the African American community.

Within the liberal successes of this “golden age,” however, lay the seeds of its collapse. Jews continued to outperform Blacks economically. No longer segregated or discriminated against overtly, Jews could make their way in the world far more easily than Blacks, who continued to suffer from open discrimination and legal segregation. This divergence produced resentment on the part of Black people as well as greater satisfaction with the status quo among Jews, for whom educational and reformist methods were working. Continuing to face structural barriers, Black groups turned increasingly to confrontational tactics like boycotts and mass demonstrations.
The 1960s sit-ins and the rhetoric of activist civil rights workers heightened these tensions and revealed the very different social prospects and perspectives of Jews and Blacks. Southern Jews, in particular, refused to get involved in the movement, except for a courageous few who often hailed from the more radical segment of the Jewish community. Most Jews, north and south, still supported civil rights goals but questioned tactics that they feared could lead to demagogic mob action. For a Jewish community invested in law and order to maintain its security and prosperity, civil disobedience, pickets and fiery nationalist rhetoric seemed particularly dangerous. While younger and more radical Jews continued to be overrepresented among white activists in groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, their liberal counterparts became skittish about chants like “Black Power” and “Burn, baby, burn.” As the civil rights movement moved North and African Americans sought greater social equality, Nathan Edelstein of the American Jewish Congress lamented that “Jews act, in the main, like other whites.”
Yet “for most observers,” writes Michael E. Staub in his study of post-war Jewish liberalism, Torn at the Roots, “1965 was . . . the zenith of interreligious cooperation and interracial solidarity in the movement for African American civil rights.”
In March of that year, the mass march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama was endorsed by, among others, the ADL, the American Jewish Congress and Committee, and the National Community Relations Advisory Council, and attended by numerous notable rabbis.

Nevertheless, by the mid-1960s, the Black-Jewish coalition was on the wane, and once Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968 and his non-violent philosophy no longer predominated, the stresses on Black-Jewish solidarity translated into feelings of betrayal on both sides.
Black activists (and white leftists) had been radicalized by the failure of the liberal promise. White resistance, police violence, and the persistence of poverty and segregation suggested to some militant Black leaders that liberal whites — of whom Jews constituted one of the largest and most visible segments — could not be trusted and should be expelled from civil rights groups. Militant Blacks also suggested that if polite, liberal policies and strategies could not successfully challenge racism, confrontation and even violence might be appropriate, and that “color blindness” was not as effective a strategy of empowerment as programs that emphasized group rights. Black manifestos began to demand aid and reparations from government, churches, and synagogues. Pan-African nationalism and anti-colonialism shifted Black sympathy from Israel to the Palestinians, just at the time of the Six-Day War, and Black anti-Semitism became visible again.
At the same time, riots, violence, nationalism, and confrontational Black demands reinforced Jewish racism. Skeptical Jewish leaders backed off from earlier alliances, as many of their constituents, now living in the suburbs, became less engaged with issues of urban strife. Other influential Jews argued that liberalism had lost its way and became what we now call neoconservatives, with a particular vendetta for affirmative action and the entire “group rights” concept.
Dozens of incidents from the late 1960s to the 1990s drove the Black and Jewish communities apart: from the struggle over control of schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville to the refusal of most Jewish groups to support the NAACP in affirmative action cases; from Jesse Jackson’s “Hymietown” slurs to Ed Koch’s claim that Jews would “have to be crazy” to vote for Jackson; from the Nation of Islam’s anti-Semitic fulminations to the support given by Israel to the South African apartheid regime. Academics and students fought their own vicious battles of words on campuses across the country, and real violence against Jews broke out in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
All of this played out against the backdrop of a rightward shift in the larger political scene, embodied by the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and even Bill Clinton, who proclaimed that the era of big government was over. While Jews became increasingly concerned with Israeli security, Jewish “continuity” and the maintenance of church-state separation, the Black community focused on economic development, police brutality, criminal justice, and improved educational and employment opportunity. Friction seemed all that was left between Blacks and Jews, with pundits proclaiming the death of the alliance.

But the Black-Jewish civil rights coalition remains active today, if less visible than in earlier decades. There have been hundreds of local economic and political initiatives that we don’t notice, as well as books, articles and documentaries about Blacks and Jews, congregational exchanges and public discussions. New activist groups have been formed to focus on the Black-Jewish relationship, from Boston’s Black-Jewish Economic Roundtable to New York’s Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and from Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center to Common Road to Justice, both in Washington, D.C.
This sustained mutual engagement suggests that much goodwill and many overlapping concerns do remain — not least of them, the rightward movement of the country itself. Problems of discrimination, unequal access to opportunity, voting, and education still top the Black political agenda and compel Jewish interest, and both communities share a deep commitment to tolerance, diversity and civic responsibility.
Today, as tensions between Blacks and Jews ebb, and as evangelical Christian conservatives continue to hijack the Republican Party, most Jews and Blacks recognize that the liberal and progressive fold is still the only welcoming community for them, and that our futures are intertwined. The global village is real; multiculturalism is real; the choice between tolerance and genocidal violence is real; economic inequality is real — and these realities give impetus and opportunity for renewed common cause.

Cheryl Greenberg is Professor of History at Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut, where she teaches African-American history and courses in race, ethnicity, and modern America. Her first book, Or Does It Explode? explored Depression-era Harlem; she also edited a volume of reflections of activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee entitled Circle of Trust. Her current book on political relationships between Blacks and Jews in 20th-century America is Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century. It will be published next year by Princeton University Press.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.