Friday, June 12, 2009

Blacks and Jews

Note: I deliberately use the term “black” above, rather than “African-American,” because the issue is broader than North America.

This topic has been on my mind for a long time, but the specific catalyst for this article is the murder of Stephen Johns, an African-American, at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.

My problem is this: Why does it take a neo-Nazi who "was really prejudiced against blacks and Jews," to quote one news article, to bring Blacks and Jews into the same sentence?

I often hear family members tell each other at funerals, “I can’t believe I haven’t seen you since X’s funeral,” and, “We have to stop meeting in cemeteries.” This bothers me; people who take advantage of happy gatherings will not end up holding their only reunions around tombstones.

Well, the same is true for Jews and Blacks; we shouldn’t be getting together for funerals.

I am frustrated with myself as a rabbi in this regard; although I think meetings and joint events for these communities are important, I haven’t done enough to make them happen. I sat on a committee for one such community event, and my shul brought in a local Latino city councilman, Julio Guridy, for another, and we have participated in some community-wide service days, but that’s about it for the past eight years.

Why not more? Just because I get caught up in the million other responsibilities I carry. But, really, I could and should have done more with this over the years, and I'm sorry it's too late for me to do it here and now.

There are many reasons for tension between the Jewish community and (speaking regarding the US) the African-American community, and it's not about skin color:

• Jews are perceived to have “made it” in the US, and so are lumped together with those who oppress those who have not “made it.” Going back further in time, there were Jews in the slave trade; not many, but enough to be visible and enough to provide fodder for those who would sow division.

• In the other direction, the virulence of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, the anti-Jewish diatribes from various ministers and politicians, and the inherent insularity of the Jewish community, make Jews less likely to reach out.

• Add to this some significant cultural differences between the two communities, and the fact that the main challenges facing the two communities are quite different, and the result is that they – we – don’t get together too often.

It doesn’t need to be this way, and it should not be this way. There are Jews who are dark-skinned, both those born Jewish and those who converted to Judaism. Skin color is a pathetic reason for division between human beings.

We shouldn’t be getting together only to mourn a hero, or even for political expediency. As Rav Soloveitchik put it, “all of us speak the universal language of modern man.” I believe it is time we speak it together.


  1. someone my brother knows said:
    "someone who was 22 in 1943 can't be called a neo-Nazi. That's just a Nazi there."

  2. "Jews are perceived to have “made it” in the US, and so are lumped together with those who oppress those who have not “made it.”"

    it doesn't help that many of the merchants in black neighborhoods are jews. (i happen to work in all-black neighborhood and we have no problem getting minyanim for minhca.)

    from the jewish end, there is also a feeling of having burned already in the past (i.e., heavy jewish involvement in the civil rights movement with little reciprocity)

    shabbat shalom

  3. Steg-
    Good point!

    Very true, although on the latter point I'd note that the people who say they feel burned ("Why don't they remember what we did for them") are often not of the segment of Jews that actually got involved.

  4. LOZ, good point! We marched for (and financed much of) civil rights, yet they didn't show up at marches for Soviet Jewry.


  5. Good post- a lot of food for thought. Natural alliances should be fostered.

    I have been involved in a number of attempts to do so. They start out strong, but fizzle out because no one wants to be responsible for driving them.

  6. Good post with food for thought.

  7. rabbi, an 800 lb. gorilla is reverent wright referring to "them jews" last week. generally speaking, the jews supported obama, and time will tell the reward for that action. i think, generally, the jewish community has been supportive of the black community here in allentown. in the hispanic segment, there actually has been pro-active involvement. although you express some regret for action not taken, i only hope that our community again gets a rabbi who will take the local media to task when necessary, as you did. thank you for that, and my best wishes in your new position.

  8. Sorry to disagree, but I can't think - well, let me restate this: I can't imagine two cultures that are more disparate than Jewish culture and American Black culture. We Jews are, by and large, enormously self-satisfied with being Jewish, and that includes those of us who are busy running away from the religious aspects of Jewish culture. American Blacks are enormously satisfied with their ability to call the shots, but in fact are enormously dissatisfied with their 'yen' for running after the larger, dominant culture, to which they have no original claim. In short, American Blacks feel like outsiders, while we Jews like being outsiders.

  9. Anonymous 2:10 AM-
    I hear that, but we did it because it was right, not because we expected gratitude.

    Jack, Ilanadavita-

    Thanks. And I agree that Wright is certainly not helping the cause; the guy is so caught up in his agenda, he can't bother with truth.

    I agree on cultural differences in general, but I'm not so sure of the one you outline. I still know many Jews who run from their identity, and I know quite a few African-Americans who are proud of their own. All anecdotal, of course...