Image: The cover of Black Power, Jewish Politics and photo of author Marc Dollinger.
You may think, “I know what that book is about,” when you see the cover of Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960’s. Certainly that was my first thought.
I had been taught that American Jews reached out to assist the Black community in securing more civil rights, and for a while, all was good: we marched together, we accomplished a great deal. Then came the Black Power Movement, and things began to fall apart. Black anti-Semitism pushed the two communities apart. Farrakhan and other figures vilified the Jews. Today there have been many missed connections and misunderstandings around Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March with “intersectionality” as the villain. It is all very sad.
The paragraph above is the received wisdom among many liberal Jews. I certainly had not questioned it. Turns out, I didn’t know much. Black Power, Jewish Politics tells a story that is much more interesting, complex and uncomfortable than that.
Historian Marc Dollinger of San Francisco State University tackles the subject of Black-Jewish relations in the 1960’s with energy and curiosity. He explains the origins of the received narratives in play, and holds them up against the time line of events in the 1960’s and 1970’s. There were indeed Jewish activists who risked life and limb in the Civil Rights Movement, but the vast majority of American Jews were not actively involved in it, and in fact got very nervous any time local African Americans began acting as if they were truly equal. Rabbis who got actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement did so at much more risk of losing their jobs than of losing their lives.
And as for the Black Power movement, that’s a much more interesting story as well. There was a rich interplay of ideas between the Black Power movement leaders and Jewish American leaders, as the Jews began to take inspiration from the Black Power leaders and cultivate their own ethnic national movements, including the popularization of widespread American Jewish Zionism.
By far the most provocative part of the book is in the Epilogue, in which Dr. Dollinger observes the current scene: the Jewish-African-American conflicts over Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, and intersectionality. At a time when conversations are breaking down right and left, I see his effort to check out the old narratives as a hopeful first step in reigniting authentic dialogue.
I attended a book launch event at which Dr. Dollinger presented his book along with a dialogue with Ilana Kaufman, the Director of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, a national effort focused on building and advancing the professional, organizational and communal field for Jews of Color. Ms. Kaufman pointed out that one serious limitation of Dr. Dollinger’s thesis is that he does not account for the fact that “Jews” and “African Americans” are in fact not separate categories of people. Jews of Color straddle the borderline between these two populations, legitimate members of both, but largely ignored by the Jewish community.
Dr. Dollinger observed that the next generation of discussion on this topic is already in motion, and Ms. Kaufman is one of the Jewish leaders carrying it forward. Onward!
I recommend this book heartily, and hope that some of my readers will give it a look. Clinging to self-congratulatory fairy tales does not serve us well. If we want to progress, we must continue to pursue the facts where they take us.
Full Disclosure: I serve on a non-profit board with Dr. Marc Dollinger, and consider him a friend.