Cooperation & Conflict
Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times Between Blacks and Jews in America.
by Jonathan Kaufman.
Scribner’s. 311 pp. $19.95.
A great deal has been written on black-Jewish relations, but, perhaps surprisingly, we still do not have a really good history of the topic. It seems that for historians the better part of wisdom has been either to let this emotion-laden story alone or to engage it in carefully controlled images, of which the most common has been that of two minorities both of whom have suffered tragically at the hands of dominant authority and hence have joined together in a shared battle against prejudice and discrimination.
Not that this image is in itself at odds with reality, but there is much more to the story than it suggests. Over the last twenty years or so, historical material has been gathering that shows a far more complicated picture of black-Jewish relations. For the most part this material has been scattered here and there in unread doctoral dissertations or in essays for obscure professional journals, or else it has been tagged on to larger and presumably more interesting stories, as in David Garrow’s Pulitzer prize-winning biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., Bearing the Cross. The fact that the material is often troubling in what it reveals also operates as a disincentive to the historian who may be fearful of exacerbating already tense race relations or of somehow impeding the larger social struggle against injustice.
Jonathan Kaufman, a reporter for the Boston Globe, is well aware of the complexities of his subject, and it would be pleasant to report that Broken Alliance succeeds in presenting the much-needed clarifying portrait of this extraordinary history of group interaction. Regrettably, however, the book is a mixed package.
Kaufman has chosen to tell his story through a series of case studies of a half-dozen or so blacks and Jews who participated in civil-rights struggles over the past generation; surrounding these portraits are dribs and drabs of historical context. He presents such well-known figures as Jack Greenberg, who headed the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund during the critical period of white and black protest in the South; Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief of the New Republic, who together with his wife funded a number of civil-rights efforts in the 1960’s before breaking with the “movement” over the issue of black separatism; Rhody McCoy, the black administrator of the Ocean Hill school district during the traumatic New York City school strike of 1968; and several lesser-known activists.
The approach yields some useful results. In his discussion of Greenberg, Kaufman correctly highlights the important role which Jewish lawyers continued to play in the civil-rights movement even as black leaders, geared to direct-action protest efforts, increasingly took over the fight with Southern sheriffs and judges. He elicits for the first time the fact that Rhody McCoy was secretly an admirer of Malcolm X, and consulted with that black-nationalist leader frequently during the watershed school strike. Throughout, Kaufman is quite fair in describing events and personalities, and carefully gives equal time to all parties in the various controversies that have marked recent years. There is much to be said for good reporting, and Kaufman is a good reporter.
From time to time, he also emerges with insights into what he has reported. Thus, he notes accurately that the relationship between the two groups was and continues to remain more important to Jews than to blacks, and he perceptively traces the way in which assimilated and Left-oriented Jews were able to shape much of their own sense of self, and even their self-definition as Jews, out of their participation in another group’s struggle—hence their pain and confusion when, as increasingly happened, Jews were subjected to harsh attack by black militants.
Yet Kaufman underplays or misses many of the broader historical aspects of the story he tells, and so is able to make but partial sense of what is going on today, let alone giving us a clue to what is likely to happen tomorrow. From the very beginning of the black-Jewish encounter in the 19th century, the two groups recognized they had much in common and possessed similar goals. But they also, tellingly, occupied different places in the American social structure. Blacks in the 19th century were a seemingly permanent pariah class; Jews, despite the disabilities they faced, were economic and social participants, and were also avid builders of their own communal structures. It was only natural, therefore, that blacks should see Jews as having great influence and power; from early on, leaders like Booker T. Washington urged blacks to study the Jews closely and then go and do likewise. But at the same time, as Washington’s biographer Louis Harlan has noted, Washington and the group for whom he spoke harbored dangerously negative stereotypes of Jews.
From the outset, then, blacks nursed certain resentments against Jews while recognizing that they were often friends and allies (as well as fellow sufferers). Relations between the two groups came to something of a head in the first decades of this century when blacks moved up from the South into New York and other large cities and there encountered a Jewish economic infrastructure in areas where Jews themselves no longer lived. Marcus Garvey—probably the most influential black in American history next to Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr., and now Jesse Jackson—taught that Jews were responsible for many of the problems blacks faced in the North; by the 30’s and 40’s, riots in Harlem and Detroit had Jewish businesses as their major targets.
For their part, however, most Jews remained deeply attached to the belief that the way to eliminate intergroup tensions, including black hostility, was to work for the improvement of social and economic conditions for all people. In the 1950’s and 60’s, this diagnosis seemed to be borne out in the euphoria of the civil-rights revolution. Yet once again, as the basic conditions of life in the black slums remained untouched, anger came to be directed against Jews. This time it was fueled by street-corner black nationalists led by Malcolm X, and also by a rising black educated class whose members included professors in the Afro-American studies programs that were then sprouting in colleges and universities. Increasingly the view was expressed that Jews had long stood and continued to stand athwart black aspirations and progress. The black struggle in America became linked to the struggles of colored peoples throughout the world against Western imperialism; in this scenario, Israel came to be depicted as an outpost of Western imperialism in the Middle East, a counterpart on the world scene to Jewish “colonialist” activity in the ghetto.
In his concentration on specific episodes of cooperation and conflict over the past generation, Jonathan Kaufman fails to grasp or to explain the roots of the growing radicalization of important sectors of the black middle class and intelligentsia, its disenchantment with liberal reform as embodied in the earlier efforts of Martin Luther King and other black leaders, and the growing influence of separatist and left-wing ideas. Nor does he take a proper measure of the increasingly widespread adoption by middle-class blacks of many of the attitudes, including some of the anti-Semitism, once characteristic of the black underclass.
Even in dealing with the earlier period of the 50’s and 60’s Kaufman scants many fascinating issues. He mentions briefly the significance to King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference of the team made up of the black labor activist Bayard Rustin and the New York attorney Stanley Levison, but he misses the point that there would not have been an SCLC were it not for those two in particular and the black-Jewish-labor partnership operating out of New York in general. As Adam Fairclough has shown in To Redeem the Soul of America, and Aldon D. Morris in The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, King’s Montgomery Improvement Association, which led the famous bus boycott and got the protest movement off the ground in 1955, was essentially a local affair until Rustin and Levison convinced King to go national, provided organizational and financial coherence, and opened up key doors in New York and Washington.
Levison was one of the most significant and continuing links between the black movement and the Jewish radical Left—a central issue in the modern history of blacks and Jews. For some reason, Kaufman’s curiosity is not piqued by the question of whether Levison, who almost certainly had been a Communist agent in the 1950’s, was still an active Communist, as J. Edgar Hoover firmly and, probably erroneously, believed (a belief that resulted in the decision of Attorney General Robert Kennedy to authorize the taping of King’s telephone conversations). The issue is in any case of broader interest since King, the last great hope of the “black-Jewish alliance,” was himself clearly moving leftward toward the close of his life. Though he continued to maintain close ties with Jews and to voice support for Israel, his heated criticisms of the Vietnam war, his mounting attacks on capitalism, and his tilt toward socialist economic strategies after the urban riots of the 60’s have to be seen, in some respects, as paving the way for Jesse Jackson.
Finally, when it comes to the rise of Jackson and the controversy surrounding him, Kaufman once again fails to locate the important issue for the future of black-Jewish relations. The question is not just, as Kaufman believes, how blacks and Jews can overcome their differences and get together again. It is also how Jews (and other Americans) should respond to Jackson’s Third World sympathies, his redistributionist economic policies, and the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel energies that have been unleashed in the black community by people in his entourage or from whom he has conspicuously declined to dissociate himself.
One sign of the Jewish response to Jackson and to the forces represented by him was afforded by the 1988 presidential primaries. Although historically American Jews have voted disproportionately for black political candidates, in last year’s Democratic primary elections they gave Jackson only 8 percent of their vote, a smaller amount even than he received from non-Jewish whites.
It would take a book to tell how, with all the idealism and hope it once inspired, and notwithstanding pockets of cooperation that still exist on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, the relationship between Jews and blacks has come to today’s sorry pass. That book still remains to be written.