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An Alliance Gone Awry

ISSUE:  Summer 1995

What Went Wrong: The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance. By Murray Friedman, with the assistance of Peter Binzen. Free Press. $24.95.

There is little argument that since the founding of the National Association of Colored People in 1909, Jews have played an important role in the struggle for civil rights in America. The Brown case in 1954 is unimaginable without factoring in the pioneering work of Jews such as Joel and Arthur Spingarn, Louis Marshall, Franz Boas, Will Maslow, Stanley Levison, Joseph Rauh, Jack Greenberg, and many others, who worked together with blacks in courts, in academe, and in the civic arena to mount the successful fight against racial segregation. In recent years, however, black revisionist historians such as Harold Cruse, David Levering Lewis, and the “historians” of the Nation of Islam have challenged the history of the Jewish involvement in behalf of African-Americans either by diminishing the Jewish record on civil rights or by exaggerating the role played by Jews in the slave trade and support for the institution of slavery.

In Murray Friedman’s timely and detailed account of the history of the black-Jewish alliance, the author finds that there has always been a bitter-sweet relationship between blacks and Jews. Friedman, who is the former vice chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and heads the Center for American Jewish History at Temple University, documents the false but widely held belief that both groups throughout American history united in a common fight against bigotry and racism until the alliance began to fall apart in the mid-1960’s. Rather, Friedman argues, from the start there were differences, disputes, and bad feelings between both groups and that “mutual distrust was always present alongside the sense of common experience and a willingness to cooperate in overcoming prejudice and discrimination.” But this does not justify Harold Cruse’s characterization of German-Jewish reformers, like Louis Marshall and Julius Rosenwald, as involving themselves in the cause of the “Negro” in order to gain desperately sought recognition as champions of social justice and democracy. Friedman rebuts this view by pointing out that the civil rights interests of both Jews and blacks in the 1920’s and 1930’s were virtually identical. Marshall, argues Friedman, understood that in battling for blacks, he was also fighting for Jews and other outsiders. In a letter to Senator William E. Rorah, Marshall observed that Washington’s restrictive covenant case “affects not only colored people but those of every race and every nationality or origin.” That Jews benefitted from Marshall’s civil rights litigation did not minimize its benefits for blacks. In a similar vein, Friedman takes issue with black revisionists such as David Levering Lewis and Claybourne Carson, Jr., who argue that the formation of the NAACP and other racial justice efforts by the German-Jewish elite was propelled by their desire to curry favor with upper class liberal WASPs as well as to fight anti-Semitism by remote control. Carson has even argued that most Jews (except for a small number of highly assimilated left-wingers) have been uninvolved and rejecting of liberal causes, which he claims are outside the Jewish tradition.

Carson, Jr.’s claim was echoed in a different fashion by author and social critic Charles Silberman, who a few years ago raised the question as to how Jewish were the Jews who went South during the 60’s. Silberman saw those involved in the civil rights struggle as lacking a commitment to Judaism and those committed to Judaism as rarely involved in the fight for civil rights. He noted that Jewish activists received their training not from Jewish organizations but from groups such as the National Council of Churches (ironically, funeral services for Jewish civil rights martyr Andrew Goodman was held at the Ethical Culture Hall and for Michael Schwerner at the Community Church in New York). After citing the fact that Jews made up two-thirds of the white Freedom Riders going to the South in the summer of 1961 and about one half of the Mississippi summer volunteers three years later, Friedman argues that the high proportion of Jews involved in the Freedom Rides and other protest activities were “undoubtedly motivated because of the egalitarian strains within Judaism, as well as the entire Jewish historical experience as an oppressed group.” In short, contends Friedman, there was nothing that prevented “real Jews” from participating in the Civil Rights Movement, a fact reinforced by the significant role played by Abraham Joshua Heschel and other rabbis in the struggle for social justice.

Friedman defends the role of some Jewish religious and organizational leaders who were slow to join the movement by pointing out their reliance on the technical expertise of organizations such as the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and other civic agencies. The author argues that the confrontational methods of the protest movement and the radicalism of the National Lawyers Guild activists proved worrisome to mainline Jewish organizations “who remembered only too well how groups were destroyed during the McCarthy era.”

That mainline Jewish agencies had a great deal to fear from a backlash against the Civil Rights Movement is evidenced by Friedman’s interesting chapter on the relationship between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Stanley Levison, his closest advisor, who was also a Jew. According to Friedman, Levison was under constant FBI surveillance because he was suspected of being a link between the Communists and the Civil Rights Movement. King, in fact, was asked by the Kennedys to fire Levison in order to protect his organization. That King refused, ultimately, to terminate his friendship with Levison because of these unfounded allegations tells us a great deal not only about King’s character but also about the indispensable role Levison played in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Friedman contends that King’s murder removed the last important African-American leader who was strongly committed to the black-Jewish alliance. Already in the late 60’s, one could foresee the breaking of the link between both groups with the emergence of Stokley Carmichael as the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the founding of the Black Panther Party with its anti-American, anti-Israel rhetoric. It was not, however, until the 1970’s that the break between both communities emerged, full-blown, over such issues as community control over the Ocean-Hill, Brooklyn, public school controversy, affirmative action, the ever-increasing pro-Palestinian position of many black leaders, and the identification of Jews with the economic exploitation of the black ghettos. With this also came the “spokesman” for the new generation of black anti-Semites; Sonny Carson, Gus Savage, Herbert Daugh-erty, Al Sharpton, Louis Farrakhan, and others.

Among this new generation of anti-Semites, Leonard Jeffries, in particular, has been active in fanning the rift between blacks and Jews. Jeffries, a professor of Afrikaner Studies at the City University of New York, charged in a speech in 1991 that an agenda of white supremacy was “planned and plotted and programmed out of Hollywood where people called Greenberg and Weisberg and Trigliani … put together a system of destruction of black people.” The accusation that Hollywood’s Jews exploited blacks was joined by Spike Lee, who defended his caricature of two Jewish promoters in his Mo’ Better Blues by claiming that the characters were based on “the many, many, many, Jewish club owners throughout the years, when every great jazz musician had to fight for the couple of pennies they got.” Friedman points out that this was not the first time that charges of this sort were made against Jews in the entertainment industry. Harold Cruse in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual argued that Jews on the left, who Cruse felt enforced cultural standards, had “retarded and smothered Negro artists and writers and kept them from developing creativity.” Friedman does not deny that some Jews exploited black musicians, but they also did the same to fellow Jews and gentiles alike. The issue, argues Friedman, is not that Jews engaged in exploitation but to what extent this was characteristic of Jews in the entertainment industry. Based on the record, Friedman finds little to substantiate either Jeffries or Spike Lee’s accusations. On the contrary, the author documents the important role played by Jews in helping blacks move from the margin to the center of the American cultural establishment. From Paul Roberson to Langston Hughes to James Baldwin, Jews such as Joel Spingarn, Blanche Knopf, Elliot Cohen and Robert Warshaw at Commentary, Saul Levitas at the New Leader and Phillip Rahv at the Partisan Review as well as George Gershwin and Jerome Kern, are only a fraction of the many Jews who opened up contemporary culture to African-Americans.

But if there is little evidence to support the charges made by such African-American spokesmen as Jeffries, Khalil Muhammed, and Spike Lee, then where did these lies come from? Friedman argues that the answer can only be based on anecdotal evidence passed on within the black community, especially among some black intellectuals. If this is so, states Friedman, then there is little prospect of persuading Spike Lee, Leonard Jeffries, the followers of the Nation of Islam, and others like them, to adopt a different view “even though the actual historical record shows Jews, in relation to other whites, in a more positive light.” The evidence, continues Friedman, shows a more balanced picture of wealthy and not so wealthy Jews as the primary advocates and supporters of black literary, artistic, and intellectual achievements throughout this century.

The Jewish exploitation of blacks in the arts is not the only calumny that divides black and Jews. Both Jeffries and the Nation of Islam have also claimed that Jews dominated the slave trade and were major owners of slaves in the New World. In addition, they have charged that Jewish financiers backed the major British and Dutch slave trading enterprises. This distortion was published by the Nation of Islam in a book, The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, and is the centerpiece of lectures given by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and his aide, Khalil Muhammed, on college campuses.

Having perused the scholarship of such historians of slavery as David Brion Davis (whose talk on the factual record behind these charges was cancelled by the Howard University administration for fear that his presentation would lead to violence) and Harold Rrackman, Friedman shows that although a few Jews owned slaves, the evidence indicates that Jews represented no more than 2 percent of slave importers and rarely played a role in the Dutch or Rritish slave trading companies. Furthermore, in citing Davis, Friedman makes the point that while the precise figures are impossible to establish, the number of free black planters who owned and worked slaves in the South and in the Caribbean was many times greater than the number of Jews! The author concludes that the overall record of Jews in all aspects of the institution of slavery was marginal at best.

In this well-written and important book, Friedman has documented the crisis in black-Jewish relations during the past 30 years and thus makes an important contribution to setting the record straight in regard to those who would distort history for their own political agendas. As Friedman reminds us:

Once upon a time, Jews and blacks together wrote some of the finest pages in that story, shedding their blood to redeem the promise of American life. That is a fact, and it should not be forgotten.


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