Black Power, White Privilege: Explaining the Black-Jewish Schism (by Jeffrey Zalesin)

TITLE: Black Power, White Privilege: Explaining the Black-Jewish Schism

STANDARDS:

Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.

Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.

Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text (e.g., how Madison defines faction in Federalist No. 10).

Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

OVERVIEW:

This ambitious module asks students to develop sophisticated historical and theoretical knowledge about race, then apply this knowledge to explain the rift between the Black and Jewish communities in the U.S. Some questions about this historical phenomenon will have to be left open, but students who complete this module should understand the connection between the Black-Jewish rift and the Black Power Movement’s rejection of integration with whites.

FRAMEWORK: 

This advanced module is designed for high school juniors or seniors. It should take two class periods, each lasting about an hour. Each day will include both lecture time and class participation. Day 1 is more lecture-heavy than Day 2. The goal of Day 1 is to develop the historical and theoretical background knowledge necessary to make sense of Black-Jewish relations since the 1960s.

The goal of Day 2 is to explore the decline in Black-Jewish cooperation and guide students toward the understanding that Jews’ association with whiteness made them incompatible with the Black Power Movement’s political vision. Students will read a newspaper editorial from 1967 that addresses the controversy over Black-Jewish relations, then participate in a debate that forces them to pay close attention to the editorial and its implications. Ultimately, students should understand the important role that racial ideas played in causing the schism between the Black and Jewish communities. To reach this understanding, they will have integrate textual evidence from the editorial with historical and theoretical knowledge gained from class lectures. They will also practice evaluating different historical explanations and dealing with historical ambiguities.

ESSENTIAL UNDERSTANDING:

One reason for the decline in Black-Jewish cooperation in the United States is that Black activists lost faith in the strategy of working with white people—a category they understood to include Jews.

ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS: 

  1. Why did Black-Jewish relations appear to change for the worse soon after the midpoint of the 1960s, just as the Black Power Movement was rising to prominence?
  2. Why has the Black-Jewish rift produced such strong feelings of loss, nostalgia and bitterness?
  3. How did Black activists around 1967 view Jewish Americans, and how was this view shaped by earlier historical developments?
  4. What do the terms race and whiteness mean? 
  5. How can a sophisticated answer to Question 4 help us to solve historical mysteries?

GLOSSARY: 

anti-Semitism – prejudice (sometimes but not always consciously held by individuals) against people of Jewish ancestry or religion

Black Power Movement – an umbrella term for certain activists and organizations that advocated independence for Black people, rather than integration into the white-dominated society

liberalism – a political viewpoint that emphasizes multiracial democracy and the rule of law, rather than revolutionary overthrow of the current political system

race – a shared understanding that groups people according to particular physical features (even though these categorizations are scientifically invalid) and distinguishes them from other such groups

racism – the belief (sometimes but not always consciously held by individuals) that some racial groups are superior to others and deserve greater access to power and resources

whiteness – a racial marker that allows people who carry it to access greater power and resources in the United States and other countries

INTRODUCTION:

Black people and Jews in the United States once enjoyed a friendly, collaborative relationship. But this relationship soured in the mid-to-late 1960s—a moment that is traditionally seen as the end of the Civil Rights Era.1

Experts still debate the reasons for this shift in Black-Jewish relations. Some scholars blame radical Black activists for breaking their ties with Jewish liberal and other non-Black allies.  Others claim that the split was almost inevitable because the Jews were “false friends” to the Black community all along.  Still others insist that the whole story is much more complicated than any of those narratives would suggest.2

The story really is complicated, but we can begin to understand it by focusing on two important historical developments. First, American Jews in the 20th century came to be seen consistently as white. Second, Black activists in the second half of the 1960s chose Black separatism over collaboration with whites.

To put the 1960s in context, we must begin many years earlier. According to historian Eric L. Goldstein, American society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was shaped by “the black-white discourse of race,” a way of thinking that imagined society as divided between civilized white people and uncivilized black people. African Americans, along with other groups that were lumped in with the “black” category, were associated with “savagery and barbarism.” White people often associated Jews with blackness and used racist ideas to demean Jews.3

Many Jewish Americans tried to escape this racist treatment by defining themselves as different from African Americans. This effort took a toll on relations between Black people and Jews, because it forced Jews to be complicit in white society’s anti-Black racism.

Some Jews, however, sympathized with Black victims of racism and opposed policies that disadvantaged the Black community. These Jews saw their interests as at least somewhat bound up with those of Black people, since institutional racism had the potential to harm both groups.4

In the 1930s and 1940s, the Roosevelt Administration’s policy of inclusiveness toward Jews and national opposition to the genocide of Jews by Nazi Germany contributed to a decline in anti-Jewish racism. A national consensus that Jews were white began to solidify, creating an opportunity for Jews to take liberal positions on the treatment of Black people without subjecting themselves to racism.5

During the Second World War, Black and Jewish organizations began to work together in opposition to racism and anti-Semitism. For example, the Anti-Defamation League, a leading Jewish organization, worked with Black groups to integrate the U.S. military.6 Thus, the foundation for Black-Jewish collaboration in the Civil Rights Movement was laid.

The period after WWII was the high point of political cooperation between Black and Jewish Americans. Although Jews had acquired the privilege of whiteness, the Holocaust was still a fresh memory, and many believed it was in the Jewish community’s long-term interest to fight prejudice against all minorities, racial or religious. This mindset produced many Jewish civil rights activists, such as  Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were killed in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, registering Black citizens to vote.7 

There were problems in the Black-Jewish coalition from the beginning. Some Jews held racist attitudes, and Jewish organizations sometimes condescended to Black organizations.8  Yet, Jewish institutions played a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement, often lobbying for new legislation like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.9

This collaboration between Black activists and white Jewish partners reflected faith in liberalism. However, this faith was shaken after the Civil Rights Movement’s legislative and legal victories failed to produce dramatic improvement in African Americans’ lives. Many Black activists became frustrated with their white liberal allies, a significant proportion of whom were Jewish. Liberal Jewish organizations were seen as too gradualist and tolerant of racism.10 

Against this backdrop, Black Power emerged as a rallying cry in 1966.11  By emphasizing Black nationalism instead of working within the American system toward integration, the early Black Power made little room for white, Jewish liberals in their vision. The exclusion of Jews seemed to be confirmed when the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality voted to become all-Black organizations.12

Tensions between Black and Jewish Americans still exist, and hostilities occasionally flare up. As recently as 2007, a group of scholars asserted that “Blacks and Jews now find themselves pitted against one another in the United States.”13 

MATERIALS:

Video of Minister Louis Farrakhan responding to his Jewish critics (2013)

Glossary

Anti-Semitic cartoon (1896)

Bay State Banner editorial (1967)

ACTIVITIES: 

Students are expected to come in with some understanding of the mainstream Civil Rights Movement and its goals of integration and multiracial democracy. They are also expected to be aware of the history of institutional anti-Black racism in the U.S. (e.g., Jim Crow laws) and the genocide of Jews (and other peoples) during the Second World War. It would be helpful for students to have some familiarity with the Black Power Movement.

Day 1: 

Begin by acknowledging that today’s lesson is designed primarily to set the stage for tomorrow’s learning activities. 

Show the video of Louis Farrakhan responding to his Jewish critics <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mkM7FOl2sw0>. (5 minutes)

Spend 2-3 minutes fielding reactions and questions from students. Expect that many will find the video confusing or offensive. Use this opportunity to gauge what preconceptions students might have regarding Black-Jewish relations.

Explain: The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews is a controversial book published by the Nation of Islam that accuses Jews of playing a central role in the slave trade. Farrakhan, the leader of NOI, does not represent the African American community, nor does the conflict over The Secret History represent the general relationship between the Black and Jewish communities. However, this controversy is an extreme example of an important trend. Tension between Black and Jewish Americans has run high since the 1960s. This situation may seem ironic, because Black people and Jews in the United States previously enjoyed a friendly relationship and worked together on the Civil Rights Movement. 

To understand how the Black-Jewish relationship became tense, we need to know a bit about the earlier history of Black-Jewish relations in the United States. We also need to develop a basic understanding of a few key concepts that are widely misunderstood.

Pass out copies of the 1896 cartoon “HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF” <http://projects.vassar.edu/1896/0415csm.jpg>. Put students in pairs and let them discuss the cartoon for 3 minutes.

Ask students to give adjectives for the cartoon. Note whether racist is one of the adjectives used.

Explain: Racist is an appropriate adjective for the cartoon, even though people today may not think of anti-Semitism as a form of racism. 

Pass out copies of the glossary <https://db.tt/SVNC2wzz>. 

Give a short lecture (10-15 minutes) on the concepts of race and whiteness. Use these guidelines, but feel free to adjust them according to the class’s needs:

  • Write the following quotation on the whiteboard or chalkboard: “‘Race’ has historical meaning because people have acted as if it had meaning.” – Cheryl Lynn Greenberg, historian
  • Have a student read the glossary definition of race aloud.
  • Explain: Race is not a scientifically valid way of categorizing people, but a shared understanding (or a social construction) that has shaped the experiences of individuals and communities over time, allowing some to have more power than others. Part of a good historian’s job is to study how racial ideas have emerged and changed, and how they have been used to prevent certain groups from gaining power.
  • Have another student read the glossary definition of whiteness aloud.
  • Explain: One prevailing racial idea that historically has shaped American society is the notion that “white” people are superior to others. Whiteness, like all racial categories, is a social understanding rather than a biological trait. Eric L. Goldstein points out that “European immigrants did not automatically become white on [American] shores, but had to learn and claim this status as they acculturated.”
  • Our society’s understanding of who is “white” has evolved over time, and some of the ethnic groups now considered “white” were once seen as “non-white.”

Allow 5-7 minutes for class discussion and questions. Anticipate that many students will have preconceived notions of race as a natural part of human biology. Be compassionate toward these students, but reiterate that scholars today agree that race is a social construction.

Give a short lecture (about 10 minutes) on the history of Jews and race in the U.S. before the Civil Rights movement, highlighting the following information:

  • As the cartoon suggests, Jewish Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries were often singled out as a distinct group according to their physical features and subjected to negative stereotypes. Jews tended to be seen as non-white and were sometimes associated with blackness. In other words, they were victims of racism.
  • Many Jewish Americans tried to escape this racist treatment by defining themselves as different from African Americans. This effort took a toll on relations between Black people and Jews, because it forced Jews to be complicit in white society’s anti-Black racism. Some Jews, however, were motivated by their own experience to sympathize with Black victims of racism and oppose anti-Black policies.
  • In the 1930s and 1940s, the Roosevelt Administration’s policy of inclusiveness toward Jews and national opposition to the genocide of Jews by Nazi Germany contributed to a decline in anti-Jewish racism. A national consensus that Jews were white began to solidify, creating an opportunity for Jews to take liberal positions on the treatment of Black people without subjecting themselves to racism. Black and Jewish organizations began to work together in opposition to racism and anti-Semitism. For example, the Anti-Defamation League, a leading Jewish organization, worked with Black groups to integrate the U.S. military.

Use the remaining time for class discussion and questions.

For homework, ask each student to find an example of Black-Jewish cooperation in the Civil Rights Movement. A Google search is an acceptable research method. Each student should take some notes on the example she finds, but there is no formal writing assignment.

Day 2:

Begin with a short lecture (5-7 minutes) on Black-Jewish collaboration in the Civil Rights Movement, highlighting the following information:

  • The period after WWII was the high point of political cooperation between Black and Jewish Americans. Although Jews had acquired the privilege of whiteness, the Holocaust was still a fresh memory, and many believed it was in the Jewish community’s long-term interest to fight prejudice against all minorities, racial or religious.
  • There were problems in the Black-Jewish coalition from the beginning. Some Jews held racist attitudes, and Jewish organizations sometimes condescended to Black organizations. Yet, Jewish institutions played a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement, often lobbying for new legislation like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Such collaborations between Black activists and white Jewish partners reflected faith in liberalism, the political philosophy that emphasizes multiracial democracy and the rule of law.

Ask several students to share the examples of Black-Jewish cooperation they found. Open a 5-7 minute class discussion on any patterns that emerge from these examples. Ask: What goals did Black and Jewish Americans have in common, and how was this common ground reflected in the kinds of projects they undertook together?

Give a short lecture (about 5 minutes) on the rise of the Black Power movement, highlighting the following information:

  • Black activists’ faith in liberalism was shaken after the Civil Rights Movement’s legislative and legal victories failed to produce dramatic improvement in African Americans’ lives. Many Black activists became frustrated with their white liberal allies, a significant proportion of whom were Jewish.
  • Against this backdrop, “Black Power” emerged as a rallying cry in 1966. The Black Power Movement is an umbrella term for activists and organizations that advocated independence for Black people, rather than integration into the white-dominated society. By emphasizing Black nationalism instead of working within the American system toward integration, the early Black Power made little room for white, Jewish liberals in their vision. The exclusion of Jews seemed to be confirmed when the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality voted to become all-Black organizations.

Allow about 3 minutes for questions and comments from the class.

[Note: The lecture and discussion on Black Power may be abbreviated if students have already been introduced to the Black Power Movement. In that case, the teacher may make just a few remarks on Black Power’s implications for Black-Jewish relations.] 

Pass out copies of the 1967 Bay State Banner editorial on Black-Jewish relations. Explain that the Bay State Banner is a Black newspaper in Boston. Explain that this article is a valuable source of historical evidence, even if we ultimately do not share the newspaper’s opinion.

Have the class read the whole article aloud, with each paragraph read by a different student.

[The teacher might want to alert the class that the Bay State Banner uses the word liberal in a different way than historians today do. The teacher may challenge the students to decode the newspaper’s use of this term.] 

Put students in pairs and let them discuss the editorial for 5 minutes. Ask students to focus on a) what the editorial says about the state of Black-Jewish relations as of 1967 and b) the argument made by the editorial’s authors.

Split the class into two teams for a debate. Team 1 will make the argument against which the Bay State Banner is reacting—that anti-Semitism has become a major problem in Black communities. Team 2 will take the Bay State Banner’s position and argue that Team 1 is misinterpreting the change in Black-Jewish relations. Ask students on both teams to base their arguments on the editorial (what it says, and what it can reasonably be said to imply) instead of making up entirely new arguments.

Explain that the purpose of this exercise is not to determine which team wins. If that were the purpose, Team 2 would have an unfair advantage because the primary text argues for Team 2’s position. Instead, the primary goal of the debate is to engage the class in a detailed analysis of the document. 

Allow 5 minutes for both teams to prepare. All students should participate in the preparation.

Invite one student from each group to the front of the classroom. Each of these students, starting with the representative of Team 1, will present a 2-3 minute argument.

Invite another student from each group to the front of the classroom. Each of these students, starting with the representative of Team 1, will present a 2-3 minute rebuttal to the other team’s argument.

Initiate a class discussion (about 5 minutes) on the following questions:

  • What are the main points of disagreement between the teams? What do these disagreements tell us about ideological divisions in the mid-to-late 1960s?
  • What are the main points of agreement between the teams? What historical knowledge can we gain by recognizing this common ground?

Students should recognize that the two sides disagree on how to explain the Black-Jewish rift but agree that this rift has appeared. Therefore, it seems certain that there really were tensions between the Black and Jewish communities by 1967. The historian’s challenge is to explain why. 

Call attention to the following passage from the Bay State Banner editorial: “It would seem that many would like to to live in the past, savoring the idea of commaraderie. But it is clear that the relationship has cooled somewhat. Jews as a group are now regarded by Negroes about the same as whites. A recent survey sponsored by the Anti­Defamation League of B’nai B’rith reveals this to be the case.”

Whether or not the students focused on this quotation in their debate, initiate a class discussion about it (5-7 minutes).

  • In the context of the Black Power Movement, why does it matter that Black people view Jews “about the same as whites”? 
  • If the “cooling” in Black-Jewish relations is connected to a broader rift between Black activists and their former white allies, why is there a special sense of loss or nostalgia attached to decline in Black-Jewish cooperation?

This discussion should lead help students to reach the Essential Understanding: One reason for the decline in Black-Jewish cooperation in the United States is that Black activists lost faith in the strategy of working with white people—a category they understood to include Jews. Students should also understand that the emotions surrounding the Black-Jewish schism are heightened by the memory of a time when Black and Jewish Americans had a special alliance, which stemmed from their common experience of racism.

Spend any remaining time discussing possible strategies (if any exist) for mending the relationship between the Black and Jewish communities.

ADDITIONAL SOURCES:

Goldstein, Eric L. The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006

Greenberg, Cheryl Lynn. Troubling the waters: Black-Jewish relations in the American century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Meyers, Michael. “Black Jewish Splits.” Society 31, no. 6 (October 9, 1994): 23–27.

Mohl, Raymond A. “‘South of the South?’ Jews, Blacks, and the Civil Rights Movement in Miami, 1945-1960. (Cover Story).” Journal of American Ethnic History 18, no. 2 (Winter 1999): 3.

Schlosser, Lewis Z., Regine M. Talleyrand, Heather Z. Lyons, and Lisa M. Baker. “Racism, Antisemitism, and the Schism Between Blacks and Jews in the United States: A Pilot Intergroup Encounter Program.” Journal of Multicultural Counseling & Development 35, no. 2 (April 2007): 116–128.

Thomas, Laurence Mordekhai. “The Matrices of Malevolent Ideologies: Blacks and Jews.” Social Identities 2, no. 1 (February 1996): 107–134. 

___

1 Joseph, Peniel E. The Black Power Movement. New York: Routledge, 2006, 3
2 Greenberg, Cheryl Lynn. Troubling the waters: Black-Jewish relations in the American century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. 2-3
3 Goldstein, Eric L. The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006, 43
4 Ibid., 69
5 Ibid., 194
6 Greenberg, Troubling the Waters, 95
7 Ibid., 211
8 Ibid., 158
9 Ibid., 213
10 Ibid., 216
11Joseph, The Black Power Movement, 1
12 Greenberg, Troubling the Waters, 221
13Schlosser, Lewis Z., Regine M. Talleyrand, Heather Z. Lyons, and Lisa M. Baker. “Racism, Antisemitism, and the Schism Between Blacks and Jews in the United States: A Pilot Intergroup Encounter Program.” Journal of Multicultural Counseling & Development 35, no. 2 (April 2007): 116

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