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The Similar and Divergent Paths of Blacks and Jews in America

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

"Why do Blacks overwhelmingly support President Obama?" That was the question recently put to me by a white friend. My reply was simple and straightforward, but the in-depth answer is neither. Historically, black people in the United States have been oppressed. For decades they have not felt that anyone in power truly represented them. Today, that is clearly not the case. The man elected to lead this nation, and by default much of the world, is one of us--a proudly identifying African-American.


For many blacks in this country, Barack Obama provides an opportunity to identify in a positive way with the essence of power. Therefore, it is very difficult to separate the well-deserved emotion and pride in seeing a successful black man rise to the heights of accomplishment, from enthusiastic support of the individual and his policies.

This is not to suggest that blacks are unthinking or intellectually challenged when it comes to voting; rather, it implies that we are human beings just like everyone else. African-Americans are subject to the same emotions as every other people, many of whom would probably react the same way to seeing one of their own elevated to the heights of power. Or would they? I couldn't help but turn my thoughts to an even smaller minority in this country--the Jewish community. There are some interesting parallels, but also some striking differences.

When it comes to politics, Jews cannot be counted upon to form a monolithic voting bloc. It is true that the Jewish population skews highly Democratic, but they are also well represented within the Republican Party. Perhaps one of the most astounding political observations regarding this community is their representation in Congress. While Jews make up just two percent of the population in America, they account for 22 of the 435 House Members and there are 12 Jewish senators among the 100 serving in the legislative branch's upper chamber.


Setting politics aside, Jews have been undeniably successful in so many other important fields. From business to medicine to science, technology, entertainment and beyond they have left an indelible mark on America's history. Whether inventing vaccines to end polio or bringing information and people together through technological leaps such as Google and Facebook, the Jewish people have changed this country and the world.

In the decades since both groups were literally enslaved, the African-American experience in America mirrors the Jewish experience in key ways. As recently as the time of our grandparents, both groups were the subject of dehumanizing treatment and debilitating discrimination. Blacks were segregated, forced to sit at the back of the bus, while Jews were kept out of top universities and restricted from pursuing careers in certain professions. Blacks were prejudged based on the color of their skin, while Jewish surnames were often enough to prompt insults or hateful biases.

Since then, Jewish-Americans have largely risen to their challenges and overcome them. That is something that they have done for literally thousands of years. From Biblical times to today, Jews have faced opposition, persecution and attacks and somehow managed to not just survive but to thrive.

Perhaps some clues to how America's Jewish population has excelled lie within their culture. Judaism champions learning and kids are taught to question. Debate and differences of opinion on any subject from the most banal to the biggest philosophical questions, and even the very existence of God, are encouraged. There is a well-worn joke that anytime you ask two Jews the same question you are guaranteed to uncover at least three opinions.


The Jews of America appear to have also succeeded instilling in their children a love of learning and strong moral compass through the Torah, which comprises the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. Yet even Jews who don’t profess to be particularly religiously observant claim to feel tied to Judaism culturally and historically. Another critical element may lie in the family as a sacred concept within Judaism. After all, honoring your father and mother is one of the 10 Commandments and Jews celebrate family milestones including the ritual circumcision of their babies at just eight days old. Their sons and daughters stand before the community and accept adult responsibility at the respective ages of 13 and 12. Jews also appear highly motivated by the concept of tikkun olam, "healing the world," and the notion that everyone has a personal responsibility to leave the world a better place than how they found it.

At the same time we celebrate our own unique culture and historical achievements and take pride in our own identity, there is much that the black community in this country can learn from America's Jews. This is particularly true at a time when nearly three in four African-American children are born to single mothers and more much deserving black role models are far too often eclipsed by media coverage focused on badly behaved rappers, athletes and other celebrities.

There is a historical connection between Jews and Blacks in this country that runs deep. Some of the most ardent and brave supporters of the civil rights movement hailed from the Jewish community. While the traditionally strong relationship between Jews and African-Americans has sometimes been derailed, the time is ripe for a deepening of the bonds of friendship and mutual respect. African-Americans can learn much from the Jewish experience in America and vice versa. And all of us, Americans from every walk of life, should do our part to heal the world and to work for a color blind society with liberty and justice for all.


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