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Helen Suzman, Barack Obama, and 100 Years of Black-Jewish Relations

Helen Suzman, the Jewish anti-apartheid activist who died earlier this month, was long critical of South Africa’s organized Jewish community for its policy of political non-involvement during the apartheid years. When the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) gave her a humanitarian award in 2007, she accepted the honor with the words, “It’s about time.”

As Claudia Braude points out in her appreciation of Suzman in this week’s Forward:

“For decades, the SAJBD maintained a cordial relationship with the apartheid government. Believing that Jews should not compromise their group interests by opposing the ruling powers, the board’s leaders discouraged criticism of apartheid. This contrasted strikingly with the stance that American Jewish organizations took, in varying degrees and forms, toward racial segregation in the American South during the 20th century. Civil rights was a cause they embraced, even at the cost of discomfiting Jews living in areas where Jim Crow laws reigned.”

Not that it’s clear-cut. Over the past century, the relationship between black Americans and Jewish Americans has been alternately symbiotic and fraught; that relationship is the subject of a spectacular photo essay in the most recent issue of Moment magazine. The feature comprises, among other photographs, images of Jewish academics who found work at historically black colleges after fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe; Reform movement leaders carrying Hebrew-language signs while partaking in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famed March on Washington, and scenes from the riots in Crown Heights (and those from the cross-cultural reconciliation forums that the violence eventually spawned). Four pages are devoted to the President-elect, and his high-profile supporters and advisors. The prose that accompanies the photo essay ends with a quote from the speech Obama gave at last year’s AIPAC conference:

“There is a commitment embedded in the Jewish faith and tradition to freedom and fairness, to social justice and equal opportunity, to tikkun olam, the obligation to repair the world. I will never forget that I would not be standing here today if it weren’t for the commitment that was made not only in the African-American community, but also in the Jewish-American community. In the great social movements in our country’s history, Jews and African-Americans have stood shoulder-to-shoulder.”

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