Julius Lester: Theres no magic formula for blacks and Jews

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During a recent lecture to a group of Jews, Julius Lester was confronted with the "you-people" questions.

"Why don't you people have more education?" asked an audience member.

The queries were directed at Lester the black man, not Lester the Jewish convert.

"They were as racist as anyone I've ever heard," he said.

But the audience also shared a redeeming quality that Lester often finds among Jews: Their racism stems from ignorance, he maintains, not malevolence.

"Their hearts are good. They want to listen," he said. "What I find remarkable about Jews: They're the only ethnic group that seems to care about blacks. At least Jews want to learn. I think it's remarkable."

Lester, a professor of Judaic and Near Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, will discuss black-Jewish relations and other topics Friday, Feb. 23 to Sunday, Feb. 25 as Tiburon Congregation Kol Shofar's scholar-in-residence.

The 57-year-old academic and author of 23 books said ignorance, in fact, is at least partly to blame for the problems that polarize blacks and Jews today.

"Jews make the assumption that they have a lot in common with blacks. It's not an assumption that blacks share," he said during a telephone interview earlier this month from his Amherst office.

"The black assumption is that Jews are white people. And blacks don't understand that most Jews don't see themselves as white."

Lester, who now lives in both worlds, first garnered attention as a black radical, when his first book, "Look Out, Whitey! Black Power's Gon' Get Your Mama," was published in 1968. He hosted a New York radio show and gained notoriety as an anti-Semite when he allowed one guest to read a black teen's poem that included the line: "Hey Jewboy, with that yarmulke on your head, You pale-face Jewboy — I wish you were dead."

But during the 1970s, Lester's politics took on a more moderate slant. In 1979, he turned a corner when he publicly lashed out at anti-Semitism among black leaders and began supporting Israel. These leaders had blamed Jews for Andrew Young's resignation as U.S. envoy to the United Nations after Young violated U.S. policy by meeting with Palestine Liberation Organization members.

During that period, Lester, the son of a Methodist minister and great-grandson of a German Jew, was in the midst of a spiritual search that eventually led to his conversion to Judaism in 1982.

The transformation in his politics and religion didn't come without consequences. Black leaders shunned him and continue to today. After 17 years in the UMass Afro-American studies department, Lester was forced out in 1988 after his book "Lovesong" criticized author James Baldwin for anti-Semitic remarks.

Today, Lester describes himself a "Reconservadox" Jew who takes a little from each of the religion's movements. He belongs to Reconstructionist and Conservative synagogues and serves as an independent congregation's lay leader.

As a result of his experiences and frequent lectures across the country, Lester maintains that the future of black-Jewish relations isn't as hopeless as it might appear.

"Things are more complex than the picture we get in the media," he said. But Lester also acknowledges that "in the past 20 years, things have certainly gotten worse" — especially public expressions of anti-Semitism by blacks.

The rise of Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader who has called Jews "bloodsuckers" and Judaism "a gutter religion," is the most prominent example of this chasm. Yet during Lester's travels to college campuses in the past year, he's heard increasing numbers of black students voicing criticism of Farrakhan.

Lester isn't sure why this opinion shift is occurring, but he wonders whether these young black adults are becoming numb to Farrakhan's rhetoric because they've heard it since childhood.

Farrakhan, however, may find more ammunition for his anti-Semitic diatribes in the recent disclosure that Israel systematically dumped blood donated by Ethiopian Jews.

"Those blacks who are always looking for something against Jews will use it," Lester said.

Lester himself sees the Israeli blood bank's handling of Ethiopians as "very contemptuous of people who were giving blood to save people's lives."

However, Lester doesn't believe he should react more strongly because of his skin color.

"Why should I? A shanda is a shanda," he said. "I don't believe you have to be black or Ethiopian to be outraged…Was racism involved? Yes. Was stupidity involved? Yes. Was dishonesty involved? Yes."

Yet Lester won't use this incident to measure all Jews. He compares judging Jews based on one incident to stereotyping blacks based on one black welfare mother.

While this academic frequently finds himself asked for insights into black-Jewish divisions, Lester more often wishes he could just talk about God, about prayer, about being a Jew.

"People think I have some magic formula. And I don't."