Stars Shine on Black-Jewish Dialogue, but Is That All?

By Alana Newhouse

Published January 17, 2003, issue of January 17, 2003.
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Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Russell Simmons, Stevie Wonder. No, this is not the nominee list for this year’s MTV Awards. They are the new faces of black-Jewish relations.

Last November’s reception for an organization devoted to nurturing the relationship between the African-American and Jewish communities was a star-studded affair. The crowd at the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding event, which included producer Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray and Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, watched as Fred Durst of the rock group Limp Bizkit presented awards and rap impresario P. Diddy divulged that throughout his 2001 trial on gun possession and bribery charges, he wore a red Jewish good-luck bracelet given to him by his Orthodox lawyer.

“Even controversial personalities, like Sharpton and Farrakhan, have acknowledged” that reconciliation is the order of the day, said Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder and president of the foundation. “Today it’s very chic, very ‘in vogue’ for blacks and Jews to get along.”

Perhaps in the entertainment world. But some observers wonder if black-Jewish relations are succeeding only in the celebrity stratosphere. The year 2002 witnessed a contentious election cycle, when Jewish groups poured in campaign dollars to help defeat Democratic Reps. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia and Earl Hilliard of Alabama, both of whom were perceived as anti-Israeli. Some black leaders, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, bristled at Jewish involvement in the races.

Black-Jewish relations were tested again when New Jersey’s poet laureate, Amiri Baraka, suggested in a poem that Israelis had advance knowledge of the attacks on the World Trade Center — and rebuffed calls that he apologize or resign. And some black leaders were disappointed that Jewish groups largely stayed mum during the national debate over former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s racial insensitivity.

As Martin Luther King Day 2003 approaches, some observers have started to ask: Are the lines of black-Jewish communication blocked, or do we just not like what we’re hearing?

According to some Jewish observers, the McKinney and Hilliard affairs underscore the confusion over whether the glass is half empty or half full. On the one hand, the races highlighted the tensions between the two groups, especially over the issue of American support for Israel. But others are quick to point out that both candidates, both of whom represent largely black districts, lost their primary races to more moderate African-American contenders.

All of this ambiguity has left some re-enacting what has become a perennial ritual: pining away for what is remembered as the heyday of black-Jewish relations.

“It was better in the 1960s — we had a common purpose when the KKK wanted to kill both of us,” said Peter Noel, a veteran black journalist who co-hosts a morning radio show with author and speaker Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. Noel said that the relationship between the two groups began to deteriorate during the late 1960s, and hit low points during the 1970s and 1980s. “I don’t think it’s ever recovered,” he said.

In recent times, most blacks and Jews have remained on the same page about certain issues, such as school vouchers and racial profiling, but have diverged on affirmative action and Middle East policy.

Some Jewish leaders believe that the original bonds, though frayed, can be healed.

“The greatest threat to civil rights and the greatest threat to the Jewish community’s ability to continue to live comfortably in a pluralistic society is the threat posed by the federal courts,” said Sammie Moshenberg, director of Washington operations at the National Council of Jewish Women, which has been spear-heading an effort to torpedo federal judicial nominees with civil rights records her group deems questionable. “I’m hoping this year we’ll see more involvement of Jewish groups,” she said.

But others refuse to romanticize the 1960s. “The relationship between the blacks and the Jews wasn’t as good in the 1960s as people made it out to be, and it wasn’t as bad in the 1980s and 1990s,” said the director of the New Jersey office of the Anti-Defamation League, Shai Goldstein, who has been urging legislators to strip the state’s poet laureate of his official title. In the meantime, the Newark Public School Board named Baraka as the district’s poet laureate.

“The situation with Baraka is not a conflict between African Americans and the Jewish community,” said Goldstein, who added that most of the major African-Americans groups in the state had come out against Baraka. “It’s a conflict between Baraka and the Jewish community.”

But Noel says Baraka is a man with “his finger on the pulse of the times,” and that the problem lies with Jewish efforts to silence black voices with which they disagree.

“The biggest obstacle to improving black-Jewish relations is the Jewish community,” said Noel, who objected to what he called the community’s “blacklisting,” or energetic branding of people as antisemitic. “My Jewish brothers and sisters need to let go of some of these things.”

Noel went further. The 2004 field of Democratic presidential contenders will likely include a black candidate, Reverend Al Sharpton, and a Jewish candidate, Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, who officially announced his candidacy earlier this week. Noel argued that if Lieberman wants to stay viable in the race, he will have to engage all parts of the black community, including controversial figures such as Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

Noel’s co-host, Boteach, doubted a Sharpton-Lieberman rift would further strain the coalition between blacks and Jews. “What’s left of the black-Jewish coalition?” he asked.

“I feel it’s been an uneventful year,” said Boteach, summing up 2002. “I don’t see a lot of progress but then, thank God, I don’t see a lot of blow-ups either.”

Schneier’s foundation says it sees progress in the high school and college curriculums it has in place in schools, Hillel foundations and historically black colleges around the country. In June 2003, it is planning to break ground on its Washington, D.C., office, through which representatives will work to bring together black, Jewish, Asian and Hispanic members of Congress. But its clearest success has been in garnering celebrity spokesmen — most recently, hip-hop mogul Simmons, who joined the foundation last year as its secretary.

“Especially outside of New York, people don’t know what great partners the Jews have been — in business and in life,” Simmons told the Forward. “It’s important for celebrities to use their voices to bring that bond back.”

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