I’ve been obsessed with Black-Jewish relations for half a century. As a young adult, I was emotionally and ideologically invested in the storied civil rights alliance of the 1950s and 1960s (which was not quite as perfect as we thought at the time). The following decades saw rising hostility between Blacks and Jews, as incendiary events—from the Ocean Hill-Brownsville, New York teachers’ strike to the Crown Heights riots—exposed the shift away from shared struggle and toward each community’s politics of self-interest. Distressed by the dissolution of bonds that had seemed to me organic and unbreakable, I became convinced that the way to repair the rift was to engage in intergroup dialogue.
In the 1980s, two such enterprises animated my hopes. First, I became part of a large coed dialogue group composed half-and-half of Jews and African Americans prominent in New York City affairs—opinion makers, politicians, journalists, clergy members, bigwigs in business and the arts. Then a Black woman from that cadre joined me in organizing a small, intimate group made up of three Black women and three Jewish women.
The big group met intermittently but unraveled after two years when it became clear that the Black members mostly wanted to mobilize the Jews for joint action to mitigate systemic racism, while the Jews mostly wanted Blacks to acknowledge antisemitism in their ranks. Meanwhile, our six-woman dialogue group had dinner at one another’s homes on a regular basis for ten years, during which we engaged in soul-searing, bone-deep conversations about our feelings and experiences that opened my eyes to Black reality and forever altered my relationship to “the other.”
In the mid-1990s, I was invited to participate in a foundation-funded dialogue group of Black and Jewish writers, thinkers and scholars convened by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Our mandate was to analyze the needs, commonalities and differences of our two constituencies and produce a joint plan of action. Sadly, after a promising start, the project was disbanded with no explanation.
Relations between Black and Jewish Americans nose-dived in the 2000s as clashes over Palestinian rights, police and prison reform, the Women’s March and Louis Farrakhan ginned up each side’s vilification of the other.
This rancorous antipathy was deeply demoralizing for those of us raised to believe that Blacks and Jews are natural allies based on our historic, though vastly different, roles as American out-groups and our shared faith in the liberatory promise of the Exodus. However, in the last few years, I’ve been buoyed by new forms of constructive engagement on racial issues, spearheaded by people who themselves are both Black and Jewish.
In Moment’s Fall 2020 issue, editor Sarah Breger summarized the activities and objectives of Jews of color—be they Black, Sephardi, Mizrachi, Asian, Latinx, Indigenous or from Arab countries. Since reading the piece, I’ve discovered many visionary initiatives created and run by Jews of color whose mission-driven vigor seems indefatigable. For instance, Be’chol Lashon (raising awareness of “the racial, ethnic and cultural diversity of Jewish identity and experience”); Jews of Color Initiative (grantmaking, research, community education); Black Jewish Liberation Collective (political and cultural organizing, including “Kwanzakkah” observances that meld Hanukkah and Kwanzaa into “one awesome night of song, prayer, and community”); Jewtina y Co. (celebrating Latin-Jewish traditions); and LUNAR (an online community of Asian American Jews).
In June 2020, a group called Not Free to Desist made news when it published a gloriously chutzpadik open letter demanding that mainstream (white, Ashkenazi) Jewish federations, funders and organizations commit to seven obligations giving top priority to racial justice, antiracist activism and the greater inclusion of Jews of color in leadership. More than 1,500 organizations and individuals endorsed the letter.
Just as happened in earlier decades, some of their demands hit a communal nerve. To wit: The first item is “explicit endorsement” of the statement that Black Lives Matter “is inherently true and should be accepted without caveat or qualification.” Though many white Jews have felt alienated by aspects of the BLM movement, or discomfited by the affiliations of some of its leaders, Leo Ferguson, organizer of the Jews of Color caucus at Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, says, “If Black Jews are us, then Black Lives Matter is a Jewish fight for liberation and justice.” It’s the goal that counts, and the goal is a just world.
Ultimately, activist Jews of color are fighting for recognition of their dignity, authenticity and legitimacy as Jews among Jews. But because they forged their identities in the crucible of both Black and Jewish experience, and likely were seared by both racism and antisemitism, their sensitivities, priorities and loyalties are doubled. The entire community should thank them for literally embodying complexity and tirelessly testing our commitment to the Jewish values we claim to hold dear. The question is, will the larger Jewish community be better able to hear the truth about Black experience when it comes from voices within our own ranks? And will this generation accomplish the bridge-building that ours could not?
Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s 12th book, Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy, will be published in September.