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State of the Union: The Black-Jewish Union

January 15, 2009 By:
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The American Jewish Committee and Urban League Young Professionals hosted a joint Chanukah-Kwanzaa celebration back in 1995: (from left) Jennifer Abramson, evangelist Vance Evans, Rabbi Andrea Weiss and Lenard Shotwell.
In the midst of a bruising campaign for the Pennsylvania Democratic primary, less than 12 hours before he debated his rival on national television, Barack Obama met with Jewish leaders and activists in Philadelphia.

In addition to covering ubiquitous campaign topics such as his support for Israel, the man who became the first African-American elected to the presidency addressed something unique to the historical and political moment: the complex relationship between African-Americans and Jewish Americans.

"A lot of [the concern] has been generated as a consequence of the fact that I'm African-American, and at times there have been tensions between the African-American leadership and the Jewish community," said a tired-sounding Obama, speaking to about 70 rabbis and lay leaders at Congregation Rodeph Shalom on North Broad Street.

"So I just want to emphasize what's in my heart. My ties to the Jewish community are not political. They precede me entering politics," said Obama, who went on to say that his thought has been shaped by Jewish values, theology and culture. He professed an affinity for celebrated Jewish novelists, such as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.

Less than a month before, Obama had delivered a landmark speech at the National Constitution Center in which he sought to turn questions about his relationship to his controversial pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright -- whose sermons included diatribes against Israel -- to a discussion on American attitudes on race.

For months, the perception lingered that Obama wasn't faring as well as expected among Jews, a reliable and influential constituency in the Democratic Party.

Of course, the outcome is now history.

Obama went on to lose the Pennsylvania primary, but win the Democratic nomination and claim a sweeping victory in November. Despite the efforts of Republicans to paint Obama as risky on Israel and national security, he carried 78 percent of the Jewish vote nationwide.

The inauguration festivities just happen to fall the day after the commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s 80th birthday.

Are the Two Groups Close?
But is the acrimony and misgivings that have often characterized Jewish-black relations in recent decades -- and all of the effort made on both sides to mend fences -- now history as well? If so, what is the state of black-Jewish relations in 2009?

"There is not much hostility today, but I can't tell you there is all that much closeness either," said Burt Siegel, who recently retired after serving 35 years as the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Philadelphia. "Black-Jewish relations is not the pressing issue it once was, but it is a relationship that most leaders in both communities say they still value."

J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP, is one of those allies. Last year, he traveled to Israel and wrote about the experience of the mother of a kidnapped Israel soldier in his newspaper The Philadelphia Sunday Sun. And last week, he forcefully defended Israel's military campaign in a speech at the Israel Solidarity Rally in Love Park.

Mondesire noted that while black-Jewish relations aren't much of a problem these days, it's not much of a communal priority either. Instead, he pointed to violent crime in the black community as his No. 1 concern, adding that the Philadelphia murder rate fell by 15 percent in 2008, but remains far too high.

"The No. 1 issue in the black community is staying alive. The majority of people physically and emotionally attacking African-Americans are African-Americans," said Mondesire. "Jewish-black relations is not something I have to confront on a regular basis."

African-Americans account for more than 40 percent of the city's population.

Siegel lamented that, for the most part, Jewish groups have not taken a more active role on the issue of gun violence and lobbying for stricter legislations. But he sees it as understandable in an era of declining resources and economic crises. Jewish organizations are busy trying to combat assimilation and raise the standard of Jewish education, while waging a seemingly continual public-relations effort on behalf of Israel, which is in the midst of its second war in 21/2 years.

Rabbi George Stern, executive director of the Germantown-based Neighborhood Interfaith movement, is more overly critical and argues that the Jewish community has focused too much of its energy on Israel, at the expense of domestic concerns.

"The Jewish community judges its alliances based on Israel," said Stern. "We have to learn to listen to African-Americans and not just have our own expectations."

There was a time when the agendas of the two communities dovetailed.

From the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, to the signing of the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Jews filled with idealism flooded the ranks of the movement to end legalized discrimination in the Jim Crow South. At a time when anti-Semitism in America was still pronounced, self-interest also played a part in Jewish involvement with civil rights, at least at the organizational level.

For example, into the late 1950s and early 1960s, Jews had trouble getting hired at many Philadelphia law firms.

The iconic images of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr. served as a tangible representation of the alliance. A far more tragic reminder was the 1964 Ku Klux Klan murders of three civil-rights volunteers -- James Chaney, a 21-year-old African-American, and Michael Schwerner, 23, and Andrew Goodman, 20, both Jewish -- outside Philadelphia, Miss.

Obama himself hailed the three during his May address at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, D.C.

By the late 1960s, with the outbreak of urban riots in northern cities -- combined with white flight, and the emergence of the Black Power movement and its emulation of Third World revolutionary ideals, which were hostile to Israel -- the foundation of the alliance appeared full of cracks.

A number of historians have pointed out that no incident exposed those cracks like the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville school-district controversy in New York City, an experiment in community school control that ultimately pitted working-class Jewish teachers against black activists and parents.

When, after months of friction, a number of Jewish teachers were dismissed by a black superintendent, seemingly a whole generation of Jewish teachers who had taught in mostly black school districts suddenly felt unappreciated -- or worse, utterly rejected.

Before long, two communities that had found themselves in agreement on so many issues were suddenly on the opposite sides of things like affirmative action and the use of quotas for minorities entering universities.

"The things that brought us together, those conditions evaporated -- dissipated -- many years ago," said Robert Bogle, president and CEO of The Philadelphia Tribune, a 124-year-old newspaper that primarily covers the African-American community.

In the ensuing decades, examples of flashpoints abound: Jesse Jackson's infamous 1984 "Hymietown" remark, the 1991 Crown Heights Riots and repeated controversies stemming from Nation of Islam Leader Louis Farrakhan, who once called Judaism a "gutter religion," and often claimed that Jews played a disproportionate role in the West African slave trade.

And many African-Americans were hurt by the fact that in the 1970s and 1980s, Israel forged close ties with white-ruled South Africa.

"But here in Philadelphia, relations were never at a crisis point like they were in New York," said Mondesire.

Of course, minor flare-ups did occur, such as when former Mayor Ed Rendell appeared alongside Farrakhan in 1997.

A number of joint efforts were made in Philadelphia to ease tensions and improve the climate between the two communities. Some, like the youth program Operation Understanding, still exists; others, like the joint Black Jewish Coalition, do not.

Siegel said that the coalition was founded about 20 years ago and petered out roughly six years ago. He described it as a thriving umbrella group comprised of representatives of the Jewish council, as well as the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity. It combined a mixture of activism on issues like Soviet Jewry, and opposition to apartheid with "soft" programming like joint concerts and Passover freedom seders. Structured dialogue was an important component as well.

"For a young generation, the idea of sitting down and talking and explaining oneself to somebody else no longer has the caché it once had," said Siegel.

Yet the Rev. James Allen, pastor of Vine Memorial Baptist Church in West Philadelphia and original co-founder of the coalition, has been asked to revitalize black-Jewish ties and talks.

The 72-year-old said that he's hoping to reform the coalition because blacks and Jews have a special, historic relationship that cannot simply be relegated to history books and nostalgia.

"It would be good to sit down together from time to time to talk, even if we didn't have particular issues," said Allen. And when something major happens, like the current conflagration with Israel and Hamas in Gaza, the existence of regular contacts might allow Christian clerics to better understand the situation and explain it to their congregations.

(Several sources said that relations with the area's African-American Muslim community had never reached the same level of cooperation as it did with Christian clergy, but there's been almost no public acrimony either.)

The Tribune's Bogle sees little need to re-establish black-Jewish talks, and thinks that it's long past time to stop talking about the alliance that existed during the civil-rights era.

"We shouldn't expect more from the Jewish community than we should from any other. Why single out the Jews?" said Bogle.

He added that Jews are part the white establishment, and therefore should be looking to correct the ongoing socio-economic imbalance and find ways to offer more opportunities to blacks who remain disenfranchised.

Dialogue Takes Place in Certain Circles

However, it does seem that there really is some interest in renewing black-Jewish dialogue.

Last year, Carolyn Nichols, an African-American attorney who lives in West Philadelphia and the former head of the Minority Business Council, attended an American Jewish Committee program and approached its staff about starting a women's dialogue group.

A few meetings with a small group of women have taken place at the AJC offices.

Nichols, who is in her 40s, explained that she wasn't interested in rehashing the past as much as exploring the present and future with other women with similar educational and professional, yet different ethnic and religious backgrounds.

She also hopes to develop friendships, and learn more about Judaism and events in the Middle East.

"We talked about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright a lot at the beginning, and 'Is that the view of the black church?'

"Of course, there is no such thing as 'the black church'," said Nichols. "I certainly don't believe or endorse the things he was saying and neither do a lot of African-Americans."

Ilana Wilensik, director of the Philadelphia chapter of AJC, described the meetings as professionally guided dialogue.

"We are really working toward feeling safe enough with each other to bring up some of the most heated issues," she said.

Interfaith Activities Are Growing
There's a wealth of interfaith activities in the city that are bringing Jews in close contact with African-American Christians and Muslims.

Many congregations, such as Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia, have had longstanding relationships with black churches -- a rabbi there recently brought Hebrew-school students to Sunday services at Bright Hope Baptist Church in North Philadelphia. Rodeph Shalom also planned to host Bright Hope this weekend -- one of a number of Shabbat services across the area honoring King's birthday.

Coupled with the founding of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia in 2004, those relationships are becoming more extensive and formalized. That center brings teenagers of different faiths -- and vastly different socio-economic backgrounds -- together in a program that combines interfaith dialogue and community service.

But as Obama prepares to assume the presidency and complete a political ascendancy that would have been unimaginable not that long ago, does the occasion bear any significance on black-Jewish relations?

Bogle doesn't think so.

"I do believe that a relative degree of racism will continue whether Obama is president or not," said the publisher. "I don't want America to be deceived that everything is fine now."

But David Hyman, former AJC president and Operation Understanding co-founder who has been heavily involved in Philadelphia politics, said that the triumphs of Obama nationally and Mayor Michael Nutter locally proved to be major shifts in both American and urban politics.

Race is not such a factor, and doesn't have the same potential to play the divisive role it once did in local politics.

And Hyman noted that it certainly could help black-Jewish ties that Obama has tapped a number of Jews for key positions, including senior advisor David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel, the incoming White House chief of staff.

"The civil-rights era was an exception. I don't think that should be our frame of reference," said Hyman. "I think relations are healthy and normal." 

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