Black Pow­er, Jew­ish Pol­i­tics: Rein­vent­ing the Alliance in the 1960s

  • Review
By – February 26, 2018

Marc Dollinger, a pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish Stud­ies at San Fran­cis­co State Uni­ver­si­ty and author of Quest for Inclu­sion: Jew­ish and Lib­er­al­ism in Mod­ern Amer­i­ca (2000), has writ­ten an inter­est­ing and provoca­tive study of black-Jew­ish rela­tions in the Unit­ed States dur­ing the 1960s and 70s. Con­ven­tion­al wis­dom has it that blacks and Jews enjoyed a fair­ly har­mo­nious rela­tion­ship through the 50s, with both groups part of an inter­ra­cial alliance seek­ing to purge the U.S. of racial, eth­nic, and reli­gious dis­crim­i­na­tion. The goal was, in the words of Mar­tin Luther King Jr., to cre­ate a soci­ety in which peo­ple would not be judged by the col­or of the skin, but by the con­tent of their char­ac­ter.” This alliance, how­ev­er, was chal­lenged in the 60s by Black Pow­er activists skep­ti­cal of their erst­while white sup­port­ers, and of Jews in par­tic­u­lar, who they sought to elim­i­nate from lead­er­ship posi­tions in the civ­il rights move­ment. As a result, Jews became embit­tered, and the hal­lowed and much-roman­ti­cized polit­i­cal alliance between blacks and Jews was seri­ous­ly damaged.

Dollinger argues that this nar­ra­tive is mis­lead­ing, espe­cial­ly in its account of the response of Jews to the emer­gence of young black extrem­ists like Stoke­ly Carmichael, Mal­colm X, and Eldridge Cleaver. Accord­ing to Dollinger, many­Jew­ish lead­ers actu­al­ly wel­comed the new black polit­i­cal rad­i­cal­ism and believed that Jews could learn from and apply black rad­i­cal prin­ci­ples to their own polit­i­cal agen­da. These Jew­ish lead­ers had a long his­to­ry of involve­ment in the civ­il rights move­ment and were involved with Jew­ish human rela­tions orga­ni­za­tions such as the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Con­gress, the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Com­mit­tee, the Anti-Defama­tion League, and local Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty rela­tions coun­cils. Their num­bers also includ­ed Reform rab­bis for whom lib­er­al pol­i­tics and sup­port for the civ­il rights move­ment were impor­tant in defin­ing their Jew­ish identity.

In the wake of the appear­ance of the Black Pow­er move­ments of the 1960s, Dollinger writes, a new, pow­er­ful, and trans­for­ma­tive part­ner­ship” between blacks and Jews emerged, with Jews offer­ing strong pub­lic … sup­port” for black mil­i­tants. Watch­ing Black Pow­er activists who seemed to have no fear of con­fronta­tion encour­aged Jews to be more assertive in their own advo­ca­cy on behalf of Sovi­et Jew­ry, Israel, and Jews left behind in racial­ly-chang­ing neigh­bor­hoods. If black was beau­ti­ful, as black nation­al­ists claimed, then Jew­ish must be beau­ti­ful, too; this belief spurred a Jew­ish eth­nic, reli­gious, and cul­tur­al revival that has con­tin­ued to the present day. A new gen­er­a­tion of Amer­i­can Jews,” Dollinger con­cludes, owed its very def­i­n­i­tion of Jew­ish­ness to African Amer­i­can nation­al­ist constructions.”

Dollinger cor­rect­ly rec­og­nizes that the sup­port of Jew­ish lead­ers for Black Pow­er was lim­it­ed. It cer­tain­ly did not include sup­port for quo­tas, racial or oth­er­wise, in employ­ment and uni­ver­si­ty admis­sions. For Dollinger, these lead­ers were caught in a bind. On one hand, they believed Black Pow­er fur­thered the cause of racial jus­tice. On the oth­er, they feared it under­mined their ulti­mate goal of cre­at­ing a col­or-blind soci­ety. Dollinger’s Jew­ish lead­ers, far from cham­pi­oning Black Pow­er, could accept it only to the point at which it didn’t impinge on fun­da­men­tal Jew­ish val­ues and interests.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

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