Twenty years after the violent riots that raged through the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, the state of the black-Jewish relationship — a source of much anguish in the riot’s wake — has almost disappeared from the Jewish communal agenda.
It is still debatable whether a local conflict that pitted Caribbean blacks against Hasidim of the Lubavitch sect should have provided any larger insight into how one of the great American ethnic coalitions was faring. But that didn’t stop American Jews from seeing the anger exploding on the streets as a direct result of hate speech by black leaders and as a further sign that the storied alliance between the two communities was in trouble.
The fact that the relationship is not a matter of concern today for blacks or Jews could be read as a sign that efforts of reconciliation after the riots were successful, or that the bond between the two groups is so insignificant that it has lost any relevance. Tellingly, when candidate Barack Obama spoke about the black-Jewish alliance on the campaign trail in 2008, he talked about needing to “rebuild” it.
The 20th anniversary of the riot provides an opportunity to examine what has changed and why there seems to be, for better or worse, little fire left in what had been for a time a volatile coexistence. It might be true, as David Levering-Lewis, a history professor at New York University, told the Forward, that “no news is good news on this score.” But this doesn’t answer the question of why there is no news.
When the riot broke out on the sweltering streets of Brooklyn in the summer of 1991, the ground was already prepared for each community to see the motives of the other in the worst light. In many ways, this was a relationship that was hitting its nadir after decades of decline.
The notion of a special bond between American Jewish and black communities dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, according to Jonathan Rieder, professor of sociology at Barnard College and former editor of CommonQuest: The Magazine of Black-Jewish Relations. Rieder said that Jewish immigrants from Russia saw in the lynching of Southern blacks an echo of the pogroms they themselves had fled.
To some degree, the sense of identification was shared among blacks. “In the 1940s and 1950s, I certainly grew up believing that Jews were different than white people and Jews could be trusted where white people could not be,” wrote Julius Lester, a retired professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, in an e-mail to the Forward. Lester converted to Judaism in 1982.
That affinity strengthened during the civil rights movement, when Jews were overrepresented among whites who traveled south to support black marchers. But relations were strained by the mid-1960s, with the concurrent rise of Black Power and with increased Jewish alienation from the anti-Zionist worldview of the New Left. The 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville dispute between the middle-class, largely Jewish New York City teachers union and African Americans in Brooklyn pushing for greater local control of public schools signaled the beginning of the end. Both communities trucked in anti-Semitic and anti-black rhetoric, leaving permanent scars.
In the ensuing decades, a set of issues led to even further distancing. Jews, anxious about the specter of a return to a quota-based admission system for colleges, broadly rejected affirmative action. This didn’t sit well with middle-class blacks, who saw affirmative action as the key to social mobility. “The opposition to affirmative action by mainstream Jewish groups was widely seen as racist by blacks and did much to change black perceptions of Jews as allies,” Lester wrote.
Meanwhile, it was clear that fears of rising anti-Semitism in the black community were at the top of the Jewish agenda. Front pages of the Forward in the weeks preceding the riots featured stories on a fundraising dinner in honor of Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader then notorious for his anti-Semitic views, and a controversial speech by City College of New York professor Leonard Jeffries in which he claimed that Jews had controlled the slave trade.
For the black community, there was less anxiety about this breakdown in relations, according to Clayborne Carson, professor of history at Stanford University and expert on Martin Luther King Jr. “It was kind of a one-way conversation from the beginning,” Carson told the Forward. “You would go to these meetings, and there would typically, at least in California, be more Jewish people there than black people, and the black people didn’t have any problems with the relationship.”
But for Jews, the failing alliance was perceived to be at the heart of the Crown Heights violence. In an August 23 editorial column that year, the Forward laid blame for the eventual death in the riot of an Orthodox Jewish man at the feet of black leadership. “That is an event that it is impossible to view other than in the context of the recent hatemongering that has been going on in New York, much of it purveyed by the black intelligentsia,” the Forward wrote.
Today, the notion that Jews would be anxious over a black intelligentsia directing anger at them feels deeply anachronistic.
Some see this as the result of years of effort to bring the two communities together again. Rabbi Marc Schneier, spiritual leader of Long Island’s Hampton Synagogue and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, one of the leading dialogue groups, said that the work of his organization and others had had a galvanizing effect on relations between the two communities.
Today, Schneier said, “I believe we’re very close in terms of black-Jewish relations to the heyday of the civil rights era.” Though Schneier allowed that his organization had shifted its focus six years ago to work between Jewish and Muslim communities, he asserted that the conversation about black-Jewish relations had again become a relevant one.” “Today, black-Jewish relations is in vogue; black-Jewish relations is chic once gain,” Schneier said. “You see that manifestation across the board in terms of African-American and Jewish leadership.” But others point to a far more complex set of explanations for why the issue of black-Jewish relations has drifted from the communal agenda.
On the one hand, experts say, the ethnic landscape in America has changed drastically in the past two decades, particularly in New York, where many of the flare-ups between blacks and Jews occurred.
“What’s changed for us is the whole nature of diversity in New York,” said Rabbi Robert Kaplan, lead intergroup relations official at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. “In 1991 we thought about diversity as being blacks, some Latinos and some others.”
Today, Kaplan said, perceptions have changed as the variety of ethnic and faith groups in the city has grown, and his organization’s efforts have become more broadly focused. “It’s a lot of folks we weren’t necessarily thinking about back then,” he said.
In this expansion of the melting pot, the Jewish and black communities have become less critical.
“The broad trend was that relations between the black and Jewish communities have pretty much remained stable over the years,” Carson said. “Black and Jewish liberals get along, and they always have, and they still do. They still are the leading elements in any kind of national liberal effort. But the national significance of that relationship has declined gradually over the years, to the point where whether or not black and Jewish liberals get along is just not a critical political issue in the U.S. in 2011.”
Beyond those sorts of broad cultural shifts, however, some observers say that the issue of black-Jewish relations has faded because the specific and narrow circumstances that sparked the tensions have passed. With the benefit of hindsight, they say, the tension was actually a perception based on a few high-profile events in the early 1990s, most of which took place in New York City.
“A lot of these trigger events that made for visible media spectacles stopped happening,” Rieder said, explaining why black-Jewish issues are infrequently discussed today. “Take away the Andrew Young affair, Crown Heights and Bakke, and you see how dependent that whole debate on black anti-Semitism was on particular historical phenomena,” Rieder said, referring to a controversial meeting between then United Nations ambassador Andrew Young and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1979, the riots in 1991 and a 1978 Supreme Court decision on affirmative action.
Others pin blame for the tensions even more narrowly. “My sense is that Farrakhan being out of the news has done more to lessen tensions than anything else,” Lester wrote.
According to Rieder, the dynamic between black provocateurs like Farrakhan and the Jewish communal watchdogs became reciprocal. “To some extent, black-Jewish conflict took on a ritual form, as Jewish sensitivity offered a wonderful resource for black demagogues in search of a foil,” Rieder said. “There was almost a theatrical convergence: Some black would say some crackpot thing; the Jewish community would get in a tizzy; the liberal part would say, ‘We need more dialogue’; Jewish self-defense groups would demand that other blacks condemn the crackpot; blacks would rejoin: ‘I’m not going to let the Jews tell me what to do.’”
But that sort of back and forth, Rieder said, gave a warped impression of the actual state of relations between the communities. “It was on the surface of things, and therefore things looked much more dire than they actually were,” Rieder said. “At the height of all the brouhaha, blacks had a more favorable impression of Jews than of white people in general.”
As Farrakhan has faded, other African-American leaders once given to making statements often seen as stoking the flames of black-Jewish tensions have moderated their views. Both Jesse Jackson, who drew anger when, in a 1984 interview with a reporter, he referred to New York City as “Hymietown,” and Al Sharpton, whose comments during the Crown Heights riots were seen as inflammatory, enjoy good relations with the Jewish community.
“I’m not in any way defending his remarks during the Crown Heights riots,” Schneier said of Sharpton. “Nevertheless, I have witnessed how this man has grown. I have witnessed how the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. has evolved,” he added.
Seeing the riot as a product of specific incidents and personalities and not broad cultural trends certainly provides a more hopeful prognosis for the future of the black-Jewish relationship. It’s also a more positive interpretation of the current quiet that reigns between the two groups. But it also means that, given the right set of circumstances in a local, urban setting, it’s not inconceivable that similar violence could occur again.
In late 2010, tensions flared between Orthodox Jews and blacks in the Park Heights neighborhood of Baltimore, where a member of the Shomrim, a Jewish community patrol group, was arrested in the beating of a black teenager. An editorial published on December 5 in The Baltimore Times made reference to the Crown Heights riot.
“Baltimore has not experienced the kind of violent clashes seen in New York City’s Crown Heights neighborhood during the 1990s,” the paper intoned. “Nevertheless, this incident brought to the fore resentment among many blacks at what they see as Shomrim’s presumption that all black youths are potential criminals and fair game for intimidation and harassment.”
It’s tensions like these that intercommunal relations activists say keep their work necessary. “There’s still a carryover in terms of mistrust between the black and Jewish communities,” said Walter Strong, executive vice president of Dillard University, a historically black university in New Orleans. Strong, who received what he called a “generous” grant from the American Jewish Committee in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, said that he is working to relaunch the school’s black-Jewish relations program, which hosted annual conferences in the 1990s.
“I do admit the fact that our communities have grown apart, as they have, but I do hope there can be a greater understanding, and I’ve begun to see some of that in certain areas,” Strong said. Strong grew up in Crown Heights, and his parents still live there. “When I travel back home, there’s much less tension between our communities,” he said, and “much greater opportunities to understand and have dialogue.”
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @joshnathankazis.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.