I am a big fan of Jewish self-awareness, but it’s in increasingly short supply in recent years. Here’s an interview with a Jewish professor of history, Marc Dollinger, who points out some fairly obvious truths that have gotten lost in all the retconning.
June 4, 20186:18 AM ET
Many Americans tell the story of Black-Jewish political relations like this: First, there was the Civil Rights movement, where the two groups got along great.
This was the mid-1950s to the mid-60s — picture Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marching arm-in-arm from Selma to Montgomery. And James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, murdered while organizing to register black voters in Mississippi.
Then, the story goes, there was a shift. In the mid-’60s, with the rise of black nationalism (and what some describe as black anti-Semitism), “the once wonderful alliance dissolved and split. And since the mid 1960s, it’s been terrible.”
That, says historian Marc Dollinger, is “the accepted wisdom on how to understand Jewish participation in the civil rights movement.”
Except, Dollinger adds, that’s not really what happened.
He lays all this out in his new book, Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s.
Dollinger, a professor at San Francisco State University, argues that much of our accepted knowledge about the interaction between black and Jewish communities is based more on myth than fact. He says uncovering the real story can teach all Americans a lot about privilege, historical memory and the way we construct our own stories. …
Dollinger: So I think that — it’s called historical memory, is what academics call it — we tend to remember what we want to remember. We tend to forget what we want to forget. And we tend to spin the evidence to a prearranged thesis. So we — white American Jews — have had a prearranged thesis on the black-Jewish alliance, and therefore it tends to self-perpetuate. And it also is self-serving. …
So there are basically three areas advanced for why Jews would involve themselves in the struggle for racial equality. All three turn out to be false. But the first would be the history argument, that says blacks and Jews share a common history, and therefore Jews empathize with the historical experience of blacks, and therefore they’re willing to help. Right?
When I talk generally with white Jews about why Jews are involved in social justice or civil rights or racial equality, they’ll talk about this shared history of oppression.
And the problem is that American Jewish history and African-American history are 180 degrees opposite on that question. One of my African-American colleagues, he said, “If I ever go to a Seder and the Jews say that they know what it’s like because they too were once slaves in Egypt,” he’s gonna punch ’em.
Because if Jews have to go back to ancient Egypt to get the slavery metaphor, then they’ve kind of missed that American Jewish history is a story of rapid social ascent, and African-American history is the legacy of slavery. That argument is insulting, and it’s very elementary. …
The second argument is a sociological one, which is to say Jews experience social marginalization; blacks experience social marginalization. Since Jews understand what it is to be on the margins, they help blacks. The problem with that is that the civil rights movement didn’t happen ’til the 1950s. In the 1950s, Jews were already in the mainstream. So if marginalization was the motive, then the movement should have started 50 years earlier. …
The third one, the one we get today, is Judaism: that the religion of the Jews argues for social justice, tikkun olam. Prophetic Judaism, the Reform movement, is involved with all of that.
The problem is, if one’s adherence to Judaism informs social justice, one would expect the Orthodox, those for whom traditional Judaism is most present in their everyday life, to be in the lead in racial equality. And in fact it’s the opposite. …
Zionism is a good example. In 1948, when the state of Israel was created, American Jews were happy, especially after the Holocaust, and thankful that there is a Jewish homeland. But they weren’t dancing in the streets, as it were.
After 1967, when the state of Israel won the Six Day War, the reaction of American Jewish youth was so pronounced that even national Jewish leaders were surprised — 7,500 young people got on airplanes and went to Israel to help, literally. Something like 98 percent of American Jews expressed strong sympathy for Israel.
And while the traditional thinking is, you know, Aren’t Jews great because they became Zionist in ’67? as a student of American Jewish history, I’m really curious why the reaction was stronger in ’67 than even in 1948. So when I did the research, I learned that the rise of black nationalism and the purge of Jews from leadership and civil rights organizations, got Jews thinking about their own nationalism.
You know, if blacks can advocate for blackness, then Jews can advocate for Jewishness. And in this sense, the Six Day War occurring in June of 1967 was perfectly timed to capture a whole bunch of young Jews who were nationalists in their proclivities, but didn’t have a place to put it. And there they could put it in Zionism.
My vague impression is that the 1967 War was galvanizing for American Jews more on the loyalist / conservative side of the spectrum by nature. According to Jacob Heilbrun, Moynihan and Nixon in the winter of 1968-69 figured out that they could sponsor neoconservatism among Jews excited about Israel and increasingly disillusioned by blacks. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration about the role played by these two very smart gentile observers of Jews, but it’s an interesting theory.