We are obsessed with black-Jewish relations

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There’s an old joke that came to mind during Barack Obama’s recent visit to Israel: Why are Jews always naming their summer camps Iroquois or Algonquin or Chippewa? Do you think Indians call theirs Camp Goldberg?

That rhetorical question nicely punctures a certain distinctly Jewish mix of insecurity and self-importance, placing ourselves at the center of human existence while worrying endlessly that we don’t fit anywhere. In this particular mo-ment during this presidential campaign, the barb offers a necessary corrective to the endless, anachronistic obsession with black-Jewish relations.

Or, I should say, a corrective to the endless, anachronistic Jewish obsession with black-Jewish relations. Like the Indians, who don’t name their camps Goldberg, who don’t even have the financial luxury of sending their kids to summer camp, black Americans happen not to share our fixation with how we get along.

With more young black men in prison than in college, with Hispanics surpassing them as America’s largest racial minority, blacks actually have some more pressing things to worry about. We are the ones who keep that myth going, and it’s time to give it a rest.

While much of Obama’s visit was rightly concerned with issues of Israeli security and Iranian aggression, inevitably the subtext was the supposedly special relationship between blacks and Jews.

The relationship that we rhapsodize ended more than 40 years ago, when the civil rights movement turned from civil disobedience and coalition-building to black nationalism and urban rioting. When whites were purged in the mid-1960s from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (itself a misnomer by that point), the ouster put a formal end to the decade-long collaboration.

Even concerning that heyday — roughly from the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 — American Jews have tended to romantically exaggerate their role. Our communal memory, or I should say our communal fantasy, has turned the audience outside the Lincoln Memorial for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech into a United Jewish Appeal convention.

Yes, Jews were disproportionately represented among white activists in the movement. Yes, we can all derive some measure of pride from the contributions of Abraham Joshua Heschel, among others. And, yes, we should study and honor that history — as history.

But the truth is that the civil rights movement was overwhelmingly a black Christian crusade, operated from churches, led by preachers, informed by the praise and protest songs of black theology.

The myth of blacks and Jews has long since stopped serving any useful purpose. In one respect, it provides a self-satisfying narrative that absolves Jews from making the new alliance we should be creating with Hispanics. In another respect, this imagined past is used as a loyalty oath to be invoked against blacks who dare disagree with us on affirmative action or Palestinian statehood.

To embarrassing effect, Obama has had to play the loyalty-oath game, sounding the requisite hawkish tones at the AIPAC convention and extolling Philip Roth’s fiction. Jews should be more worried about provoking a backlash — in an earlier, failed race for Congress in Chicago, some black opponents portrayed him as being controlled by Jewish interests — than about Obama sticking to our script.

When we strip away all the received wisdom, Jews remain allies of blacks simply because Jews are the most liberal group of whites in America. The old saw still applies: “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” The archetype holds true, too, for the Obama candidacy, despite all the ink being spilled in fretting or gloating (depending on your party) about a drain in Jewish support.

The latest Gallup poll, released last month, found Obama leading John McCain 61 percent to 32 percent among Jewish voters. The general population gives Obama only a 45 to 43 lead, the same survey found.

So there is no rational reason for this election to be construed as some kind of plebiscite on black-Jewish relations. What does matter is the practical effect of Jews as swing voters, which really means one state: Florida. There, it could make a decisive difference whether Obama draws the 60 percent of Jewish voters that Jimmy Carter did against Ronald Reagan or the 80 percent Bill Clinton and Al Gore captured in their three races.

But you know what? We are not the only swing voters in this race. Obama (and McCain) are also going to be angling for Arab-American voters in Michigan, Cuban-American voters in Florida, evangelical Christians in Ohio, and Mexican-Americans in Colorado and New Mexico.

I hate to break the news to us, but it isn’t all about us. No matter how much we keep pining for Camp Goldberg.

Samuel Freedman teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. This piece originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post.