Blacks and Jews

Posted: Dec 12, 2003 12:00 AM

Chanukah commemorates the liberation of ancient Jews from the Syrians and the rededication of their temple in Jerusalem. It is a story of faith, of bondage, and of liberation; a story that is mirrored in the arc of the black American experience.

This point is not lost on Israelis, who maintain a tremendous reservoir of camaraderie for American blacks, who they consider to have endured similar trials of bondage and exclusion. On the shared history of exclusion between blacks and Jews, Rev. Martin Luther King observed: "My people were brought to America in chains. Your [Jewish] people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others impossibility."

This comradeship of hope and bondage united blacks and Jews during the early days of the civil rights movement, when both group worked together to secure those basic rights we all associate with happiness.

Four decades later, that bond is cracking apart. In 1991, the growing divide between blacks and Jews exploded in violence, when a mob of black teenagers rampaged through the Crown heights section of Brooklyn shouting "Jew, Jew." The mob fatally stabbed a young Holocaust scholar and injuring several others. The violence continued unchecked for three days.

More often than not, the divide is more subtle. It is twisted inward and left  quietly lurking beneath the surface of social etiquette. In some ways this is worse. When racism is loud and violent you can see it, and raise it to consciousness for examination. The divide between blacks and Jews has become far more subtle, and therefore enduring.  It smiles at us from the political pulpit. It whispers in low, conspiratorial tones at dinner parties. It shakes our hand in the office.

It was there in the 1980's when Jewish leaders tried to explain away Israel's relations with South Africa. It was there when black community leaders blamed the defeat of Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) on Jewish special interests. "Jews have bought everybody," snorted McKinney's father on election night. McKinney had spoken out in support of a Palestinian state, had insinuated that President Bush had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks, and repeatedly met with black radicals of the Reverend Farrakhan variety who regularly accuse Jewish interests of conspiring to repress American-Blacks. The divide was there when Minister Farrakhan derided Judaism as a "dirty religion" proclaimed Hitler "a very great man." It is there when Jewish leaders accuse American-blacks of shutting them out of the civil rights movement. 

A lack of empathy fuels this growing divide between blacks and Jews. Despite the arc of the black American experience-from slavery to segregation to integration-most black Americans remain unable to understand what it means to be Jewish; just as much of Jewish America remains unable to comprehend the mysteries of skin pigmentation.

A sizable number of our community leaders-our so called torch bearers in the dark-make a living by exploiting this lack of apathy. They keep the descendants of slavery and the holocaust fighting over black rights and Jewish rights.

Chanukah seems as good a time as any to fight for something greater than black rights or Jewish rights: basic human rights.