Blacks and Jews: A review of major issues

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005
15 Pages, Grade: 2,0




1. Slavery – a shared experience?

2. First encounters of Blacks with Jews in America

3. Suffering – a shared experience?

4. Black-Jewish alliances
4.1. Pre-golden age alliances
4.2. The civil rights movement
4.2.1. Jewish support
4.2.2. Black answer
4.2.3. Break-up of alliance

5. The situation today

6. Outlook




Why does a seminar titled “Is America Black?” hold a discussion on the topic of Black-Jewish relations in America and not on Black-Hispanic or Black-Puerto Rican relations? What is so special about Black-Jewish relations? Do they really have a shared experience? What influences Black anti-Semitism? What sparks Jewish racism?

Paul Berman published a book entitled Blacks and Jews: alliances and arguments in 1994 containing a collection of essays which try to find an answer to the above questions. The question whether there is a shared historical experience of Blacks and Jews or not seems to be the most vital one in this context. It has been intensely debated and has either intensified or worsened Black-Jewish relations depending on the answer to that question. This fact makes it necessary to take a look at the history of Blacks and Jews and draw comparisons to see whether there really is a shared experience or not and how it has influenced Black-Jewish relations. Jews are convinced that they have much in common with Blacks and Blacks feel that they have nothing in common with Jews. Both are right and wrong. (Lester 165)

1. Slavery – a shared experience?

The first common experience of both ethnic groups is the fact that they both had to endure slavery. The 30 million African-Americans who live in the United States today are almost all descendants of those Africans that were brought against their will into the new world in the 15th and 16th century to be used as slaves in the new colonies. They came from different regions and tribes in Africa and did not share a common language or culture. Most of them had to work on the plantations in the South. The slaves were often not treated humanely and had to live and work under conditions not fit for human beings. They were often beaten, raped and separated from their families. (Microsoft Encarta Enzyklopädie)

Centuries ago the Israelites suffered the same treatment under the rule of the pharaoh in Egypt. The Jews were one of the twelve tribes of the Israelites. They were freed from slavery with the help of God and Moses, who led them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, where they eventually settled. The history of the Jews is recorded in the Bible, a book which by the time of slavery in the United States had spread over the entire world and was known by many Blacks as well. The Jews in America today can look back on a common history, but Blacks have no history of their own as an ethnic group before they came to America. The African cultures from which the slaves were taken kept no written records. The information which did survive in oral forms was generally considered too primitive or barbaric and was therefore not preserved. (Sidran 1) Blacks have no memories of a previous state of a healthy self-confidence; there is no place on earth that is uniquely theirs. (Berman 6) Their history started with slavery in America. When Blacks read the Bible they identified with the Israelites. They thought that they resembled the ancient Jews who were also awaiting deliverance, as indicated by Black spirituals such as “Go down Moses”. (Wood110). The longing for their own exodus inspired the popularity of "Zion" in the names of many Black churches. Some Black leaders went so far as to claim Jewish history for themselves, because they claimed the biblical epics of slavery and redemption to refer to Blacks and not to Whites. In their search for an identity Blacks declared that Moses was a Black man and Judaism a Black religion. Even today Black militants like Louis Farrakhan acuse the Jews of having stolen their identity and declare them to be the Blacks’ worst enemies. (Berman22) Jews draw parallels too, as Jewish newspapers early in the twentieth century compared the Black movement out of the South to the exodus from Egypt. However, it did not cause Jews to hate Blacks, but made them empathetic with the plight of Blacks. This can be seen for example in the fact that “Uncle Tom’s cabin” was translated into both Hebrew and Yiddish. (cf. Shapiro online)

Even though both groups have been subjected to slavery, the consequential suffering of the Blacks is not usually compared to that of the Jews at the time of slavery in Egypt, but rather to the suffering which they endured later in history due to anti-Semitism..

2. First encounters of Blacks with Jews in America

Jews had suffered from persecution, hatred, massacres and mass murder ever since they had to leave their home country and were dispersed all over the world approximately 2,000 years ago. In 1780 about 2,000 Jews lived in the United States. In the middle of the 19th century the situation of Jews in Russia worsened rapidly. Several pogroms took place in Russia which continued until the beginning of World War I. Therefore approximately 2 million Jews emigrated from Russia to the United States between 1890 and the end of World War I. (Microsoft Encarta Enzyklopädie) At that time a great number of Blacks were also moving to the North because even though slavery had been abolished, Blacks were not enjoying many rights in the South and they were hoping for better conditions in the North. It was then that Blacks and Jews really encountered each other for the first time, because they were both living in the same neighborhoods. Jews lived in Black neighborhoods because they were also not accepted in White areas. The Jews were often merchants and landlords, who treated Blacks poorly as James Baldwin describes in his essay “Negroes are anti-Semitic because they are anti-white”. Jews became teachers and administrators in public schools in Black neighborhoods. They had more direct contact with and more authority over Blacks than other Whites. Whenever a Black had to pay rent to a Jewish apartment house owner, or shopped at a Jewish- owned store, or was taught by a Jewish school teacher, or was supervised by a Jewish social worker, or was paid by a Jewish employer, the fact of Black subservience to Jews was driven home. Even though non-Jewish Whites would have treated them just as bad, the impression for many Blacks was that of racist Jewish oppressors. These socioeconomic differences spurred Black anti-Jewish sentiments. (Hacker 155-157) At the same time some Jews saw their own identity threatened by Blacks. Joe Wood writes in his essay that the African American’s history of subjugation bestowed a moral authority that was historically reserved for Jews by Jews in Christian Europe. In America this Jewish identity changed, there they were not the most hated anymore; their place had been taken by the Blacks. (Wood 107) Norman Podhoretz shows in his essay that in the mixed Jewish-Black neighborhoods of New York it was not only the Whites that were wary of Blacks. His essay "My Negro Problem-and Ours" reveals how wide the cultural gulf was between immigrant Jews and their children who resided in the solidly Jewish neighborhood of Brownsville in Brooklyn and the Blacks in adjacent neighborhoods.

3. Suffering – a shared experience?

The next event in history that profoundly influences Black-Jewish relations today is the Holocaust. During World War II about two million Jews lost their lives in concentration camps. The experience of having belonged to a people whose existance was threatened by a mad dictator, has influenced the Jewish self concept ever since. It is easy and natural to draw comparisons to the African-Americans in the United States. Both ethnic groups were considered as inferior and were treated accordingly and their mistreatment was also justified by their persecuters. Many Jews have identified with Black suffering because of their common experiences. Edward S. Shapiro wrote in his essay:

Who gets labelled "white" and who gets labelled "persons of color" derives not from the color of one's skin . . . but from the degree to which one has been a victim of Western colonialist oppression. By that measure, Jews have been the greatest victim of Western societies throughout the past two thousand years and must certainly be understood to be one of the "peoples of color". (cf. Shapiro online)

This Jewish identification with Black causes led to their support of the civil rights movement and the Black-Jewish alliance which will be treated later in more detail. However, for many Blacks this identification seemed traitorous. They maintained that the hell of being Black in America cannot be compared to Jewish suffering. (Ozick 47-48) Jews have been slaughtered and despised in Europe, and America rescued them from the house of bondage. “But America is the house of bondage for the Negro, and no country can rescue him.” (Baldwin 37) The suffering of Jews is part of their moral history that Jews have contributed to world history. Black suffering is not part of a common Black history. Jews are white and when they rise up against oppression they are heroes, but when Blacks rise they are told to go back to savagery. (Baldwin 34-35)

The great fault line in America was not between the oppressors and the oppressed, including Jews, but between those with white skins and those with black skins. The rapid decline of American anti-Semitism after 1945 combined with the nation's continuing pervasive racism was proof to Blacks, if they needed any such proof, that the condition of American Jews bore little resemblance to that of Blacks. (cf. Shapiro online)

It is therefore no surprise that Blacks perceived sympathy from Jews on the ground of a shared experience of suffering as offensive. Black anti-Semitism is simply incomprehensible to many Jews who would like to believe that their own history of affliction, culminating in the Holocaust, has made them incapable of racism. (cf. Shapiro online) However, due to the fact that they identified with Black suffering, Jews have been more concerned with Black suffering then any other group in America. (Ozick Afterword 70)


Excerpt out of 15 pages


Blacks and Jews: A review of major issues
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Amerikanistik am Fachbereich für Angewandte Sprach- und Kulturwissenschaft)
Kulturwissenschaftliches Hauptseminar: Is America Black? Race, Ethnicity and Translation
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ISBN (eBook)
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Blacks, Jews, Kulturwissenschaftliches, Hauptseminar, America, Black, Race, Ethnicity, Translation
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Katja Dudzinska (Author), 2005, Blacks and Jews: A review of major issues, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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