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BLACKS AND JEWS: A HISTORY: Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr, above, and Temple University Professor Murray Friedman discussed the historical relationship between blacks and Jews.
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Black-Jewish Relations Explored, Historical Relations Highlighted

Matthew Hersh

On paper, the relationship between blacks and Jews should be a positive one. Both groups have undergone times of slavery and oppression, and both have participated in national movements to end such oppression. But a tight bond has yet to be formed between the two groups. A bond that was always expected to be.

Or was it?

"Before one even broaches the subject of black-Jewish relations, maybe we should pause to wonder if there exists such a subject at all," said Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of the African-American studies department at Harvard University. Prof. Gates shared the bill with Murray Friedman, director of the Myer and Rosaline Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University, in a discussion that kicked off Princeton University's Black-Jewish Relations Week last Tuesday.

"There's a question of familiarity, as well as antipathy of unusual closeness, as well as suspicion, and maybe the tensions of black-Jewish relations are the product of a certain symbolic intimacy" Prof. Gates said. "We know that black-Jewish relations have seen better days."

He cited events that have taken place over the past two decades that illustrate the deterioration of the bond once formed in shared plight.

"We heard the nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan condemn Judaism as a 'dirty religion', and we saw Crown Heights explode into vituperation and violence," Prof. Gates said.

Prof. Gates offered the disturbing survey result that over the past 25 years, while anti-Semitism has decreased among white Americans, it has increased among black Americans. He went on to cite an article from The Nation saying that "it is younger and better educated blacks who tend to be the most bigoted."

However, Prof. Gates dismissed the notion that being anti-Semitic is a way of being "pro-Black."

"There is some evidence of a spreading canker within educated black America's public moral discourse," he said, adding that romanticizing social defiance by exhibiting hatred should be condemned. "What troubles me is that such a callow, self-destructive, and invidious path should be invested with the glamor of defiance."

However, when looking at the decline of an interracial alliance once cherished by Dr. Martin Luther King, Prof. Gates could not pinpoint one determining divisive event.

"I don't think there is one story to tell at this point," he said. "Dashed hopes on both sides have exacerbated the rift."

One problem, Prof. Gates said, is that neighborhoods once occupied by both blacks and Jews, and then inhabited only by blacks, still had Jews as the neighborhood's at-large landlords and shopowners, leading to a certain animosity within the black community. The "alliance" that had been forged within the country's Civil Rights movement was now beginning to break apart.

Another factor increasing enmity in black neighborhoods, Prof. Gates, said, is "ethnic scapegoating," or, the inclination to blame outside elements instead of examining the problem within the community.

"We have seen where the failure of this vision has led," he said. "Urban activists ... would rather picket Korean grocery stores than picket crack houses." He added that many would rather protest "pricey tomatoes, than cheap glass vials." He quoted James Baldwin's depiction of ethnic scapegoats: "Georgia has the Negro, and Harlem has the Jew."

Prof. Friedman continued Prof. Gates' discussion on the common experience of blacks and Jews. He also said that rarely does one hear any other two cultural ethnicities mentioned in the same sentence.

"There is some inexorable affinity between these two groups that is quite unique," he said. He added that both groups had to follow similar paths to "make it in the promised land."

"African American liturgy and folk music is filled with discussion and attention to the Hebrew experience, so that is part of the beginning of this special affinity," Prof. Friedman said.

He linked the experience of the immigrant Jews with the African American experience at the turn of the 20th century, citing Jewish immigrant accounts condemning the lynching of blacks in America.

However, despite the similar experiences, Prof. Friedman said, relations between the two groups have remained complex.

"There were tensions from the very outset," he said. "In the 1930s, there were tensions created as both groups tried to move forward together."

He referred to the "slavemarkets" in the 1930s where Jewish women would employ black women as daylaborers and Prof. Gates' repeated reference to the deteriorated relationship between blacks and absentee Jewish landlords with claims that the landlords were overcharging their tenants.

"Not a situation to produce harmonious relationships," he said.

Both men, however, implied that tension between blacks and Jews, as it currently exists in America, is waning. Prof. Friedman forecasted a "calming" trend and a return to more pacific relations.

Professor Gates said that the situation could be amended by changing rhetoric and thus changing actions. He said rather than delving into a scenario comparing troubled pasts, both groups should combine their experiences to amend tattered bonds.

"The shared experience of racial persecution is to bring comity rather than division," he said. "It must never be allowed to descend into the sport of compared victimology and we need to stand clear from the inter-ethnic rhetoric of entitlement."


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