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

By Alana Newhouse

Published January 17, 2003, issue of January 17, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.”






Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.