Once bound in blood, Jews, blacks lose sight of alliance

new york | The storied tale of Jewish Northerners heading South in the 1960s to fight for blacks’ voting rights has taken its place as one of the most distinctive cross-cultural relationships in American history.

The recent arrest of a suspect in the 1964 Mississippi murders of three civil rights campaigners — Andrew Goodwin and Michael Schwerner, both Jews, and James Chaney, a black man — has refocused attention on a relationship once bound in blood.

As Americans prepare to mark Martin Luther King Day on Monday, Jan. 17, many Jews are asking to what extent black-Jewish relations have shifted from their historic marriage.

A very long way, say some academics and Jewish community officials.

The American black-Jewish relationship began in the 1920s and 1930s as blacks moved into neighborhoods Jews were leaving. Still, Jewish businesses often remained, serving the black community.

A common bond rose in response to American anti-Semitism and racism, culminating in the civil rights movement. But black riots against Jewish-owned businesses in the mid-1960s and the rise of black nationalism that carried undertones of anti-Semitism often polarized the groups.

Today many of the flashpoints in the relationship, like Jesse Jackson’s 1984 reference to New York as “Hymietown” and the 1991 Crown Heights riots — when blacks rioted against Jews after a Lubavitch-driven vehicle accidentally hit and killed a black child in Brooklyn — are in the past.

Now a new phase has dawned as both groups focus their energies on internal issues. Quieter ties have emerged.

“We’ve passed through a period of hostility and animosity,” says Murray Friedman, author of “What Went Wrong: The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance.”

“The black-Jewish alliance as it once was is dead,” he said. “It has moved in the direction that has been normal in American life, where groups join together on certain issues and break apart on certain issues.”

In the Bay Area, The Isaiah Project, a black-Jewish dialogue group, was established following the Crown Heights riots. After monthly meetings and yearly events such as the Passover Freedom Seder, the project last year expanded to encompass other racial and religious groups and now meets more sporadically.

Abby Porth, the assistant director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, said that Jewish community leaders maintain “constant relationships” with leaders in the black and other communities, and noted that black leaders are always represented on the JCRC’s two yearly trips to Israel.

Sherry Frank said that in her 24 years as director of the Atlanta chapter of the American Jewish Committee, black-Jewish relations have grown stronger.

Top black leaders in Atlanta invite local rabbis to speak at their pulpits, and Atlanta’s black mayor has helped raise funds for the local Jewish federation’s Super Sunday.

But Ann Schaffer, director of the AJCommittee’s Belfer Center for American Pluralism, says national relations aren’t so rosy.

In comparison to Jews’ relations with other groups, “we’re not seeing the kind of reciprocity that we would like to see in the relationship” with blacks, she said.

Many black leaders are consumed with internal issues, such as job discrimination and lifting their people out of poverty, she said. In addition, the black community “is not forthcoming” in defending Israel and condemning anti-Semitism.

In part, that’s because blacks identify with the Palestinians, whom they see

as disenfranchised like themselves, she added.

In fact, an AJCommittee 2000 study showed that few blacks feel much in common with Jews.

Academics say the turning point in the black-Jewish relationship was the 1967 Six-Day War, which they say prompted Jews to turn inward and focus on Israel and Jewish concerns.

In subsequent years, the Soviet Jewry movement occupied the energies of Jews who once had worked for civil rights, Friedman said.

Around that time came the rise of black nationalism, which aimed to muster internal strength and rejected Jewish outreach.

Both groups largely turned inward, a trend that continues today.