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The Complicated History Between America’s Blacks and Jews

One August morning in 1967, Will Maslow, executive director of the American Jewish Congress and a civil rights activist, opened the newsletter of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the group famous for organizing sit-ins and the Freedom rides. Maslow felt hurt and betrayed when he noticed a feature titled “The Palestine Problem: Test Your Knowledge.” The article consisted of a list of 32 questions about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Some drew on clearly established fact: “Do you know,” asked one question “that in 1947, Zionists owned no more than six percent of the total land area of Palestine?” Others invoked anti-Semitic tropes: “Do you know that the famous European Jews, the Rothschilds, who have long controlled the wealth of many European nations, were involved in the original conspiracy with the British to create the ‘State of Israel?’”

The accompanying images went further. One photograph purported to show Israeli soldiers killing Palestinians during 1956. “This is the Gaza Strip, Palestine, not Dachau Germany,” read the caption. On the facing page, a drawing depicted a hand inscribed with a Jewish star and a dollar sign holding a noose that encircled the necks of Nasser, the President of Egypt as well as Mohammad Ali. A dark-skinned arm labeled “third world liberation movement” cuts down the rope.

Drawing from the SNCC Newsletter Image by Courtesy

Maslow quickly responded. He told the New York Times, “There is no room for racists in the struggle against racism.” The American Zionist Council called the newsletter “crude and unadulterated anti-Semitism.” Bernard Katzen, the vice chairman of the New York State Commission for Human Rights called SNCC’s accusations “scurrilous.” These organizations went on to emphasize the role that American Jews had played in the Civil Rights Movement. They noted with great pride the sacrifice of Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two Jewish college students killed along with James Chaney while registering African American voters in Mississippi. Above all, many American Jewish leaders were perplexed. They wondered, “What does Muhammad Ali have to do with relative merits of the Arab and Israeli causes?”

It was hard not to feel déjà vu this week watching the reactions of Jewish leaders to the new Black Lives Matter platform. Along with calls for criminal justice reform and investment in Black communities, the platform criticizes Israel. It seems to draw on many of the criticisms expressed in the SNCC newsletter, condemning Israel for the “genocide taking place against the Palestinian people” and calling Israel “an apartheid state.”

American Jewish responses have mirrored the reactions of American Jews to SNCC decades ago. Some said the platform’s accusations “perpetuate anti-Semitism”. Others called the accusations “offensive and odious.” In almost every case, American Jewish leaders reaffirmed their commitment to racial justice and reminded readers of the long history of American Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.

Like those American Jews perplexed by the SNCC newsletter, many responses to the Black Lives Matter platform question whether any connection exists between the struggle for racial justice in the US and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The ADL, for example, called the accusations against Israel “a disingenuous non-sequitur”. The AJC wrote that activists were “hijacking and important social justice platform to smear Israel.”

A lot has changed since 1967. Today, Israel has occupied the West Bank and Gaza for almost fifty years imposing military rule on millions of Palestinians. In 1967, the occupation had barely begun and few would have predicted its course. In 2016, everyone has heard Israel called a racist apartheid state. In 1967, this accusation was all but unknown. Before the early 1960s, left-wing critics of Israel tended to castigate Israel for failing to fulfill its socialist promise, but they didn’t see Israel as a racial conflict.

Malcolm X was the first to describe the Arab-Israeli conflict as a racial conflict. In fact, he interpreted all global conflicts as battles between Whites and Blacks. In 1964, while travelling in Africa, Malcolm wrote an op-ed for the Egyptian Gazette in which he described the Arab-Israeli conflict as a case of white, European colonization of “the African masses.”

Apparently, SNCC’s newsletter grew out of a feeling of solidarity with “black” Palestinians fighting “white” Israelis. But as SNCC came under fire in the days after the newsletter was released, it started to seem that their focus on Israel had as with SNCC members’ feelings about Jews in general. When Jewish organizations accused SNCC of distributing anti-Semitic propaganda, Program Director Ralph Featherstone held a press conference. He explained that SNCC wasn’t indicting all Jews, just “Jewish oppressors.” He applied this category to Israel as well as “those Jews in the little Jew shops in the ghettos.” Understandably, his statement did little to mollify his critics.

There is no question that the newsletter was anti-Semitic. But all the responses to the SNCC newsletter and Black Lives Matter platform miss a dimension of this story that can only be seen from the vantage of history. As much as civil rights groups’ positions on Israel reflect their perspectives on the details of the conflict, they also reflect the fraught relationship between African Americans and American Jews. Until the mid-1960s, American Jews had been among the most visible supporters of the Civil Rights movement. Jews helped found the NAACP in 1909 and Jewish lawyers fought many of the legal battles of the 1940s and 50s. Jewish donors funded many of SNCC’s activities, and Jews made up more than half of all the white college students who headed south during Freedom Summer.

But there is a second story of the relationship between the two communities. As thousands of African Americans moved to northern cities during the first half of the 20th century, they became the neighbors of Jewish immigrants. These relationships were not always smooth. As early as 1948, James Baldwin described the tension between African Americans and American Jews. He wrote, “Jews in Harlem are small tradesman, rent collectors, real estate agents and pawnbrokers; they operate in accordance with the American business tradition of exploiting Negroes and are hated for it.” In Norman Podhoretz’s famous 1963 essay, “My Negro Problem—And Ours,” the editor of Commentary described his childhood fears of African Americans and his persistent prejudice: “The hatred I still feel for Negroes is the hardest of all the old feelings to face…how then do I know that that this hatred has never entirely disappeared? I know it from the insane rage that can stir in me at the thought of Negro anti-Semitism.”

When the Civil Rights movement turned North after 1964, it thrust longstanding racial tensions into the spotlight. The alliance responsible for so many early civil rights victories began to fracture. The social and economic relationships among African Americans and Jews in Northern cities became emblematic of the inequalities activists hoped to address.

At the same time, Jewish support for civil rights proved flimsier than many Civil Rights leaders had hoped. Many Northern Jews supported desegregation in Arkansas, but resisted desegregation in their own cities. In Cincinnati, for example, the Jewish neighborhood playground association instituted whites only policies in their facilities and the AJC noted, “more and more Jewish voices are being heard expressing fear of the advent of Negroes in their schools.”

The publication of SNCC’s newsletter had as much to do with the domestic Civil Rights Movement as with the details of the conflict in the Middle East. American Jews, dedicated comrades during the southern phase of the movement, became symbols of social and economic inequality when the movement turned to the North. Leaders, struggling to demonstrate their independence from white supporters, chose to alienate Jewish supporters in order to placate a radical base. They may have succeeded too well. In the days after the newsletter was published, Jewish donors withdrew their support en masse. As one SNCC member working in the New York office reported, “donations just stopped coming in.” SNCC never regained its financial footing, and eventually, ceased to operate.

In an open letter, former SNCC members endorsed Black Lives Matter’s new platform. In an open letter, the SNCC members wrote, “We salute today’s Movement for Black lives for taking hold of the torch to continue to light this flame of truth.” Black Lives Matter responded, “[We] are honored to have SNCC’s support. Our leaders and organizers pull from the SNCC playbook often.” Indeed, Black Lives Matter’s stance on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has its roots in the SNCC newsletter of 1967.

It shouldn’t be necessary to point out that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is far more complicated than White vs. Black. Inappropriately using terms like “genocide” only incites hatred and makes intercommunal collaboration more difficult. But the story of SNCC suggests that, sometimes, accusing Israel of genocide may have little to do with the actual Israeli policies. Instead, these accusations may offer an opportunity for American Jews to reconsider their place in the Civil Rights Movement and in American society at large. James Baldwin finds the roots of SNCC’s anti-Semitism in this simple fact: Jews became white. He wrote, “[The Jew] is never despised, here, as the Negro is, because he is an American. The Jewish travail occurred across the sea and America rescued him from the house of bondage. But America is the house of bondage for the Negro, and no country can rescue him. What happens to the Negro here happens to him because he is an American.” Yes, American Jews have the examples of Goodman and Schwerner and Heschel marching with King. But admirable figures like these have never represented the majority of American Jews. Many American Jews were deeply ambivalent about Civil Rights and, in some cases felt advocated against school integration seeing it as a threat to the Jewish community. Jewish success in America has relied on the very structures of discrimination that the Civil Rights Movement sought to dismantle. When we read Black Lives Matter’s statement on Israel, we have a responsibility to correct it. At the same time, if we want to live up to our ideals of pursuing justice, we have a responsibility to address the complexity of relations between African Americans and American Jews both in the past and in today.


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