Black Power, Jewish Politics

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.

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Jews Rejecting Trump

Image: Rabbi Rothbaum speaks as Hazzan Wallach and Susan Lubeck hold “Jews Reject Trump” signs. Photo by Bend the Arc.

Last night I participated in a prayer service outside Republican headquarters in my home town of San Leandro, CA.  It was part of a prayer service and demonstration organized nationally by Bend the Arc – Jewish Action.

This year, the Republican candidate for President of the U.S. has made such outrageous statements about Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, and people of color that he has boosted the legitimacy of white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. He tried to avoid repudiating those organizations. His followers have targeted journalists with Jewish names on social media.

As I wrote earlier this month in Stop the Hateful Cycle:

“I believe in free speech and I also believe in the absolute necessity of challenging hateful speech, whether it is justified with a quote from the Bible, from the Quran, or from someone’s sainted grandma. It doesn’t matter how it is justified: it’s still hate. 

 לֹא-תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ, לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ

Do not go slandering among your people. Do not stand upon the blood of your neighbor. – Leviticus 19:16

This verse has two parts. (1) Don’t slander. (2) Don’t stand on the blood of your neighbor.

These two commandments are side by side because they are related. Hateful speech leads to violence, and when we listen to hateful speech and do not challenge it, we stand in the blood of another human being. We do not remain clean.”

So when I got the call from Bend The Arc, a Jewish social justice organization, inviting me to participate in a rally against Trump (not for any other candidate, merely against Trump and his message) I was glad to participate. There was going to be a meeting at the Republican HQ, and we would be there to witness against racism.

We gathered outside the Republican office on MacArthur Blvd in San Leandro. Bay Area Regional Director Susan Lubeck briefed us quickly on the program and how to behave (support one another, be polite, de-escalate). The program was an observance of the yahrzeit of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman of blessed memory. They were murdered on June 21, 1964 for their voter registration and freedom school activities in segregated Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Susan had notified the San Leandro Police that we would be there, and the beat officer for the neighborhood came up before the program began, just as people were beginning to arrive for the meeting at the Republican HQ. We were careful not to block the door or create problems. The treasurer came out in hopes of shooing us away; he said they didn’t have anything to do with the national candidates. We made note of the “TRUMP” poster in the window and stayed.

Hazzan Risa Wallach led us in a nigun, a wordless hymn. We heard speeches from Rabbi Michael Rothbaum, from Susan Lubeck, and from a woman currently working to raise the minimum wage (I am sorry that I was unable to catch her name.) We also heard from Rabbi Harry Manhoff of Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro. Hazzan Wallach chanted El Maleh Rachamim [God, Full of Mercy] and then we said Kaddish for the three martyrs.

Periodically people would come out of the meeting and photograph us on their cell phones and make videos. We ignored them. When we began to say Kaddish, they shut the door to the office and we did not interact with them again. Periodically people driving past saw our signs (“Jews Reject Trump”) and honked in support.

It was a quiet, peaceful event (thank goodness!) and over in less than an hour.

I am grateful to Bend the Arc – Jewish Action for their organizing prowess and to Rabbis Rothbaum and Manhoff for their eloquent words. May the day come, and speedily, when no such events are needed ever again.

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