An invitation to dialogue

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The Levine Center to End Hate invited scholars Terrence Johnson, third from left, and Jacques Berlinerblau, fourth from left, for an event titled “Bridging the Black/Jewish Divide: A Dialogue.”

During the White supremacist rally that occurred in 2017 in Charlottesville, a certain chant—Blacks and Jews will not replace us—stuck out in the minds of two professors.

“Why were those two groups placed together, right after each other?” asked Terrence Johnson, professor of African American religious studies at Harvard Divinity School.

In examining that question, Johnson found a similarly interested mind in Jacques Berlinerblau, a professor of Jewish civilization at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. (At the time, Johnson was an associate professor of religion and politics at Georgetown.)

Together, they crafted a class examining the complex history of Blacks and Jews and how they coalesced sometimes in friendship, sometimes in antagonism, over the past century.

“There’s this operatic nature of African American-Jewish American relations. They were really close,” Berlinerblau says. “Close in ways that no other two groups in the United States were, which I find fascinating.”

Last week, the two scholars were hosted by the Levine Center to End Hate to discuss their new book, “Black and Jews in America: An Invitation to Dialogue”, which examines the deep roots of  the groups’ shared history and what it would take to forge a new understanding against structural oppression. The discussion was moderated by Langston McFadden, president of the Monroe County Bar Association, and
Jill Paperno, former president of MCBA.

The connections between non-Jewish Blacks and Jewish whites in America are understood by historians and social scientists as an intertwined history. During the Great Migration of the 1900s, Black families moved to northern cities where discriminatory housing policies placed them in or next to Jewish neighborhoods.

“Typically the African American church in your neighborhood might have once been a synagogue. The sacred places remain. That’s a very nice thing, a nice encounter between the groups,” Berlinerblau says.

At the beginning of the 20th century, both communities faced lynching threats by hate groups. Jewish newspapers drew parallels between the pogroms of Russia and ghettos of the urban United States. Prominent Black and Jewish leadership partnered in organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and contributed to the Urban League, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Both groups were victims of an oppressive society in different ways and found unity in their struggles.

This “Grand Alliance” fighting for civil rights continued up until the 1960s and counted the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as success stories.

In the late 1960s cracks began to form. Israel (which, Berlinerblau points out, owed its existence to several African nations’ United Nations votes) and its land occupations in the Six-Day War of 1967, made new Black leaders, who were more radical and globally oriented, question their relationship with white Jews.

“SNCC was saying: ‘Are white Jews willing to challenge the very structures of capitalism, of individuality, of liberalism as sources of Black suffering?’” Johnson says.

“Stokely Carmichael, who spoke Yiddish, was part of a Jewish fraternity, (and) we see these stories a lot, in sort of a shot to the liberal African American leadership, just goes off on Israel,” adds Berlinerblau. “He makes it very clear that he views Israel as a white colonialist settler state that is taking rights away from Palestinians who he equates with African Americans.”

“They were thinking about justice globally, in terms of what was called a ‘Third World alliance.’ They were looking at working with formerly colonized African countries and engaging with South African rioters. So they saw a lot of parallels between these issues,” Johnson concludes. “This is why the Grand Alliance fell out.”

The pragmatic, strategic decisions behind the Grand Alliance, rather than the pure, idealistic ones began to be exposed.

For example, the asymmetrical burden of the alliance, which was ingrained from the start, was more broadly displayed. While both groups certainly were oppressed by a white Christian supremacist system, because of their greater ability to blend (a phenomenon filled with its own set of complexities), the white Jewish community were able to gain more power and be less discriminated against than the non-Jewish Black community.

Non-Jewish Black people were barred from the widespread and transformative benefits of the New Deal, particularly in the area of housing. Members of the white Jewish community, on the other hand, were often some of the first landlords and shopkeepers that interacted with Black families arriving in the north. While there was an amount of grace and acceptance between them, the natural conflicts between tenant and landlord caused some friction. Johnson and Berlinerblau also note a certain amount of paternalism in some relationships.

While cases of symmetrical power existed, such as the 50/50 contribution Rosenwald schools, they were not the norm, according to Johnson and Berlinerblau.

“We’re 50, 60 years out (from the Grand Alliance), and professor Johnson and myself are trying to pick up the pieces and better understand where the relationship might go,” says Berlinerblau.

The recent movie “You People,” about an interracial couple who are Black and Jewish and their families (which Berlinerblau finds issues with), and anti-semitic comments by Ye show how relevant this relationship is in today’s world. Johnson and Berlinerblau also observe common pitfalls when it comes to dialogue on this topic.

The comments by Ye, for example, fall within a phenomenon they refer to as “the Loop”. In the Loop, a famous Black individual, such as Ye or Dave Chappelle, makes an anti-semitic statement. Major Jewish organizations then call on established non-Jewish Black institutions to denounce the comments, which, in turn, can end up infuriating that community.

Johnson notes the criticism Ye had faced from the Black community in 2017. “Why is he thinking about running for president? Why is he hanging out with Donald Trump?” Johnson says, also referencing Ye’s “White Lives Matter” shirt. “It didn’t take an anti-semitic remark for the African American community to call out this man. (The mainstream public and media) just didn’t pay attention or remember that criticism after the fact.”

“In this same way, we don’t expect whites to denounce every racist or anti-semitic statement Trump makes,” Berlinerblau adds.

Berlinerblau also thinks “threat assessment” is an important factor missing from white Jewish reactions. 

“We tend to get distracted by comments which aren’t particularly nice or maybe could have been said a little bit better,” he says, referring to comments made by Whoopi Goldberg. “But they’re really irrelevant because it’s clear to me what the present danger is. I don’t see how it’s equivalent to people walking into synagogues with (assault rifles) and shooting people.”

While Johnson and Berlinerblau disagree on certain aspects of how to start a dialogue, they do believe it is a possibility for anyone, even if they don’t have the same time to study history as the two professors. Intellectual curiosity and the ability to admit mistakes, qualities they demonstrated while teaching their class together, are key.

In addition, there should be an expectation of pain, which can be, as Berlinerblau puts it, “bottomless, justifiably.” But there cannot be a sense of “one-upmanship” or comparison when it comes to that pain within Black and Jewish history.

Microprojects can prove very important to building understanding and trust, the two scholars find. Identifying a shared interest and working to improve those conditions together on a small, local scale is a good way of uniting communities. 

Though Johnson doesn’t share his colleague’s cautious optimism, he says there has been a surprising uptick in the number of Jewish federations wanting to have conversations about race, which is a success in itself.

“They’re all grappling with ‘how do we address this within our own community?’” Johnson says. “I think that’s a miraculous step in the right direction.”

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

One thought on “An invitation to dialogue

  1. I will continue to push the narrative that stereotyping and grouping people based on superficial criteria people want to apply to each individual in a group is a valid way to open a conversation. It’s not likely to result in a positive long-term outcome.
    No Jew or Black individual has the same exact values or beliefs. Within any so-called homogeneous grouping, there is diversity. An upper-class New York City Jew who attended public school and rarely attended synagogue has little in common with an ultra-conservative, Uzi-toting, land-grabbing Israeli Jew stealing land from poor Palestinian farmers.
    I divide “Jewishness” into two subgroups; religion and (genetics/culture.) My DNA shows that I’m genetically Jewish but don’t actively practice. My Mother was interned in a Nazi concentration camp and survived. She and I would have animated discussions about how because of all the persecution and suffering Jews endured for thousands of years, including being slaves of Egyptians and chased all over the middle east and Europe that more than any other group, we should have great empathy for Palestinians and Blacks living in America.
    White Jews can pass as generic whites, whereas Blacks cannot, making superficial racism more complex.
    I’m treading on thin political ice, but behavior and cultural habits are more likely to contribute to interracial animus than skin color or income. Humans congregate and live with members of the same “tribe” that shares history, values, and culture. That’s why fully integrating and melding populations into a true melting pot is challenging.
    Although Rochester is generally a liberal, accepting, and empowering community, prior White Anglo-Saxon, Italian, Irish, and other groups who settled here in the nineteenth century had their share of uphill battles to become mainstream and resisted fully embracing multiple migrations.
    Politicians and so-called leaders are vested in building power blocks based on dividing us, parsing us into as many small groups as possible, and ensuring their power and, cynically, their income.
    It’s a positive step to have different groups speak openly and honestly with one another. I’m not convinced that academics, clergy, or community leaders are the ones that need to have these conversations. They must bring small groups of ordinary citizens together to define what we have in common and what are chronic, deep, and dividing structural differences that individuals and families can systematically work on. Start small and grow a movement of person-to-person understanding.

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