Academic probes parallels in black, Jewish experience

Instead, his book explores the relatedness of blacks and Jews.

Philipson, who has a Ph.D. in comparative literature, specialized in the writings of Africa and black America.

The parallels between the black and Jewish experience "struck me very forcibly," he said. "It was natural for me to meditate on that, and eventually I decided to write a book where I explored that parallel."

The recently released book, which he worked on intermittently for 20 years, begins with a look at the relationship blacks and Jews had to their respective societies in the 18th century.

Philipson maintains that both black and Jewish identity have largely been shaped by attitudes from the Enlightenment.

"Blacks and Jews had the same positioning vis-à-vis the mainstream culture," said Philipson. "In theory, they could become insiders on the condition that they shed all ethnic loyalty and difference from the political mainstream culture."

But reality, he said, was quite different. "You had a severely oppressed Jewish population, who were subject to pogroms and ghettos in Europe. And slavery in the colonies, where blacks were completely dehumanized."

Philipson relied on two autobiographies to illustrate these parallels.

Olaudah Equiano was a black man living in Great Britain, who bought himself out of slavery. And Solomon Maimon was a Polish Jew, a prodigy who was ordained a rabbi as a child. Later moving to Berlin, he took part in the "Haskalah," or enlightenment, and fell into a circle of those associated with Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. He eventually became a commentator on Kantian philosophy.

In both autobiographies, Philipson said, "there is a desire to relate to the universal culture and an inability to shed all ethnic identification. Equiano is aware that slavery continues as an institution and works to stamp it out, while Maimon continues to associate with Jews, and write about Jewish subjects. He can't ever escape it."

The difference between theory and practice of how the two groups were treated continued into the next centuries.

As the Jewish population in the United States began to grow, Philipson said, anti-Semitism grew with it. "Even though the degree of ostracism and prejudice was different, blacks suffered more than Jews," he said. "But their coping strategies were similar."

Moving into the 19th and 20th centuries, Philipson describes the atmosphere of racism and anti-Semitism in the United States. He does this by tracking such events as the founding and rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the lynching of Leo Frank.

Then, once again relying on autobiography, Philipson uses works by black and Jewish writers, Richard Wright's "Black Boy" and Alfred Kazin's "Walker in the City."

According to Philipson, Kazin and Wright "are doing the same things Equiano and Maimon are doing, going from the ethnic margins to the universal center of American culture, with the same desire to attain universal ideals."

On the other hand, he said, there were efforts by both peoples — in Black nationalists and Orthodox Jews — to resist mainstream culture.

Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey sparked the "Back to Africa" movement in 1920s America, he said, in which he had people sending money to found a black republic in Africa. And some Orthodox Jews had a similar response, in that "neither wanted anything to do with mainstream American culture."

Being a scholar of African and African-American literature who was not raised particularly Jewish, Philipson had to do much more research to formulate his conclusions about the Jews.

"I didn't know what the Talmud consisted of," he said. This led him to write his own autobiography as a Jew. "I was ignorant in all of that, and part of me wanted to go into this direction."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."