Panel on black-Jewish alliance: Its always been coming apart

"One aspect of the black-Jewish alliance," said Stanford University history Professor Clayborne Carson, "is that it's always been coming apart."

Carson, among panelists discussing black-Jewish relations at San Francisco's Castro Theater on Sunday, was reading from a 1942 statement bemoaning the state of black-Jewish ties.

The statement showed that, as some maintained, black-Jewish ties have long been less than ideal.

Barbara Emerson, associate provost at New York's New School for Social Research, also exploded the myth of affinity between the two groups.

"The assumption that blacks and Jews should or would be natural allies because of genocide may be erroneous," she said.

Following Sunday's Jewish Film Festival screening of "Blacks and Jews" at the Castro, a panel of academicians, activists and community organizers gathered to assess black-Jewish relations.

The film, by Bay Area filmmakers Alan Snitow, Deborah Kaufman and Bari Scott, gives a powerful account of the history of black-Jewish relations, from the highs of the civil-rights movement to the lows of the 1991 Crown Heights riots and the 1994 disruption of "Schindler's List" by students at Oakland's Castlemont High School.

Some of the film fest panelists earned their stripes in the civil rights movement a generation and a half ago. The moderator, San Francisco Supervisor Leslie Katz (a last-minute stand-in for Mayor Willie Brown, who was returning from Mineola, Texas, but never showed) is the daughter of an attorney who represented Martin Luther King.

Carson, who is editing King's papers at the request of Coretta Scott King, said blacks and Jews are engaged in a ritual dance that usually begins with some anti-Semitic statement by an African American.

The Jews take issue and ask black community leaders to repudiate the statement. Black leaders, who have no control over the person who made the statement, disagree with the comment but refuse to repudiate it because they don't want to be controlled by the Jews.

Then come discussions and dialogues to see where relations broke down.

Carson, an African-American married to a Jewish woman, questions whether a good relationship between blacks and Jews is even necessary for the advancement of either group. He also sees a shift within both communities from the coalition politics of the civil-rights movement to group-identity politics.

Coalition politics, he said, no longer provides the spiritual satisfaction each group can get individually by exploring its own culture and heritage.

David Biale, of Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union, says Jewish support for black causes may be motivated in part by guilt and anxiety.

"Jews have achieved political, economic and social success. Blacks have not," said Biale, a Koret professor of Jewish history and director of the Richard S. Diner Center for Jewish Studies at the GTU.

But success for Jews has come at a price.

One problem is the conflict created by the "increasing bank account and [remaining] working-class conscience," Biale said.

The memory of powerlessness also generates anxiety, sparking fears of losing the spoils of success. Jews then reason that if they can make the world safe for everyone, it will be safe for them.

The building of the U.S. Holocaust Museum is a prime example of this conflict of consciousness, said Biale. It shows that Jews are powerful and wealthy enough to build a state-of-the-art monument to commemorate Jewish oppression in the heart of the nation's capital.

Biale pointed out there is no museum solely devoted to the atrocities against blacks and Native Americans committed on U.S. soil.

Emerson, whose father was civil rights activist Hosea Williams, said she and other blacks involved in the voter registration project saw whites in two categories: those who supported them and those who didn't.

Whites were not seen as Jews or Christians in part because Jews did not strongly identify themselves as Jews, she said.

Like Carson, Emerson, who is also a senior lecturer at the School of Management and Urban Planning in New York, sees the increase in Jewish ethnocentrism as a product of the civil-rights movement.

In the late 1980s, she organized a 25-year reunion of those involved in the black voter registration effort and was struck by how many people remained activists. Furthering the momentum of that movement, she said, requires not only activism but supporting and encouraging youth involvement.

Meanwhile, "blacks and Jews are longing to figure out how to have an authentic relationship with each other," said Cherie Brown, executive director of the National Coalition Building Institute in Washington, D.C.

Taking a practical rather than theoretical approach, Brown proposed four steps to achieve a new black-Jewish coalition:

First, know who you are. Jews in the civil-rights movement were largely invisible as Jews, Brown said. To succeed, Jews have to come to the table as Jews.

Second, people need to take leaps of faith. She cited the Million Man March as an example. At the time, Brown was working with a black organization and was asked if she supported the event. Although she saw positive potential, she had reservations about Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

But Brown said she supported the march 100 percent, stretching the limits of what she usually trusted.

Third, those on both sides have to look inside themselves and at their racism, without denying it.

Finally, it's critical to defy the voices that pit blacks and Jews against each other.

"Listen, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you, do not deny or minimize what causes each other pain," said Brown.

"Learn from what causes pain. It's the only reliable way to build a black-Jewish alliance."