“The history of the ‘Black-Jewish alliance’ is, of course, much more complicated than the narrative evoked by the march in Selma, and its ambiguities provide some helpful context for the current controversy”

Tensions between Jewish liberals and black radicals are, of course, not new. It was 49 years ago this summer, after all, that SNCC released its newsletter describing Zionism as colonialism and comparing the treatment of Palestinians in Gaza with the treatment of Jews by Nazis. What is new is the landscape in which the present controversy unfolds. Two dynamics have transformed the terrain, unsettling efforts to dismiss this flare-up as just the latest chapter in a long story.

First, as a result of enormous institutional investment, support for racial justice has become central to the identity of American Jews. The photograph of Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Martin Luther King adorns offices of rabbis throughout the country. Students in NFTY, the youth program of the Reform Movement, are proudly taught that the Civil Rights Act was signed in the Movement’s offices in Washington, D.C. Today, a plethora of institutions dedicated to “Jewish Social Justice” dot the American Jewish landscape, offering internships and programs for young people in most every major American city.

The history of the “Black-Jewish alliance” is, of course, much more complicated than the narrative evoked by the march in Selma, and its ambiguities provide some helpful context for the current controversy. It is true that more than half of the freedom riders that risked their lives to desegregate buses in the South were Jewish—but so was Solomon Blatt, speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives throughout the 1950s and ’60s, who fought integration with all his political power. It is true that rabbis marched with King in Selma—and that rabbis signed the letter opposing King’s organizing in Birmingham, inspiring his famous response. Jews were more likely to rent to blacks in Northern cities than non-Jewish whites. They were also more likely to be slumlords for black tenants.

Jews were, through those tumultuous years, perhaps the least racist whites (Quakers, maybe, could battle for the title?). But this is a low bar, and the story of black-Jewish solidarity has always meant far more to Jews than to the vast majority of black and brown folks, for whom Jews were and are generally experienced as indistinct from the rest of white America. As James Baldwin put it in in the title of his 1967 essay (just after the supposed black-Jewish alliance had peaked) “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White.” Or as Chris Rock joked more recently in a routine mocking Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism, “We don’t got time to dice white people up into little groups! I hate all white people!” However tenuous we may consider our status within America’s power structure, people of color justifiably see us as inseparable from it. To most black Americans, there is little to “betray.”

Which brings us to the second dynamic. When presidential candidates pander to Jews, they don’t talk about public housing or police brutality. For though the American Jewish community has built many institutions dedicated to social justice, its real political power has been directed, like most groups, in support of its own interests—which, over the last 50 years, has meant Israel. Any tension between the domestic and international program was reconciled by declaring that the values of democracy advanced at home are the same values protected in Israel—and where they were not (in the West Bank and Gaza) this was the fault of Palestinian leadership.

This position has become untenable. The expansion of settlements, the rightward drift of Israeli politics, the biannual assaults on Gaza, and the festering and aggressive racism that permeates any society that administers a 50-year occupation has led many to conclude that Israel is engulfed in a moral crisis of its own. And despite the immense difference in context, to Americans who stand in a tradition of our own struggle for justice, the similarities are striking.
American Jews tend to reject these parallels outright. We point to terrorism, the rejection by Palestinian leadership of various peace offers, the legitimacy of Jewish national self-determination. The contexts are different, we insist; to compare is to dismiss history.

Daniel May, “The Problem Isn’t Black Lives Matter. It’s the Occupation.”, Tablet (15 August 2016) [http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/210838/the-problem-is-the-occupation]