Two iconic moments from the Civil Rights era of the fifties and sixties involve the relationship between Blacks and Jews: the abduction and murder of three rights workers (two Jews and a Black) in Mississippi in 1964; and the 1965 crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, by an assemblage of clergy surrounding Martin Luther King, Jr., including theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and several other rabbis. Jews working and marching (and, in the case of Mississippi, dying) alongside Blacks in both moments created the aura of a special bond between the two groups.
As Johnson and Berlinerblau point out in their volume of dialogue, the bond was not new to this period, yet it was also not always the ideal relationship that it has come to be seen as. Within a year or two of the march in Selma, the bond was riven by the growing militancy of the Black Power movement, which expelled most of the white and Jewish volunteers in many rights organizations and identified with the plight of the Palestinians in Israel. Since then, the rift has not healed and, in some ways, has become exacerbated by the anti-Israel stance of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Johnson and Berlinerblau, professors at Georgetown University, co-teach a course that explores the many dimensions of the special relationship between Blacks and Jews. In this challenging and thought-provoking (though occasionally repetitive) volume, they distill the essence of their research about the fraught history and model the kind of dialogue they would like to see take place that might work toward healing the rift. Theirs aren’t the only voices in the volume; they interview Professor Susannah Heschel, the daughter of Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Professor Yvonne Chireau, author of several volumes examining the Black-Jewish relationship. In addition to the dialogue, Johnson and Berlinerblau contribute individual essays investigating the collapse of the bond and what might be done to repair it.
In his chapter, Berlinerblau presents a fairly straightforward, detailed, and nuanced historical account of the rise and decline of Black-Jewish relationships. Johnson’s approach is a little more convoluted, blending elements of religious history (the great affinity among American Blacks in the nineteenth century for the Exodus narrative as a symbolic story of their quest for freedom) with a political analysis of why liberalism, though appealing to Jews, has been a barrier to Black progress. For readers not well-schooled in critical theory, it may not be an easy connection to follow. Meanwhile, both authors touch upon the fraught issue of racial identification. Does Jewish identification as white pose an obstacle to forming meaningful relationships with the Black community? What special role can be played by Jews of color?
The reader may come away from the volume a bit pessimistic about whether a renewal of dialogue is possible. That being said, the authors hope that some of what separates Blacks and Jews from dialogue can be, as they say, bracketed, so that the common cause that originally brought Jews and Blacks together in the civil rights struggle can once again be found. To which one can only add the fervent Jewish liturgical response, Keyn y’hi ratzon—“May it be His will!”