Black-Jewish alliance on threshold of rejuvenation

This is my test sentence.  Barack Obama’s pledge to use his presidency to revive the black-Jewish alliance starts on Day (minus) One — the day before he becomes president.

The president-elect’s inaugural committee has asked Jewish groups to make black-Jewish dialogue and joint outreach to the poor a focus of Martin Luther King Day commemorations Monday, Jan. 19.

Renewing the classic civil rights alliance is part of the inauguration’s “big picture,” a senior inauguration official said.

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The emphasis comes after a bruising campaign in which Jewish voters were targeted by messages depicting Obama as a secret Muslim, as well as conservatives who questioned the candidate’s pro-Israel bona fides. It also comes after decades of mistrust fueled by disagreements over affirmative action, Israel’s relationship with South Africa and outright expressions of hostility from prominent black figures such as the Rev. Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan.

Obama, who has strong ties with influential members of the Chicago Jewish community, made it clear during the campaign that the alliance that helped bring about civil-rights change in the 1960s was a central focus of his Jewish outreach.

Invoking this alliance was a linchpin of his speech in June to thousands of members of the AIPAC, where references to domestic policy often fall flat. Not so with Obama: The Washington convention center filled with cheers when he invoked the memories of the three civil-rights volunteers — two Jews and an African American — who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964.

“In the great social movements in our country’s history, Jewish and African Americans have stood shoulder to shoulder,” Obama said. “They took buses down south together. They marched together. They bled together. And Jewish Americans like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were willing to die alongside a black man — James Chaney — on behalf of freedom and equality.”

A few months earlier, during a speech at last year’s commemoration of the King holiday at the slain civil-rights leader’s church in Atlanta, Obama criticized anti-immigrant and anti-gay sentiment in some corners of the black community. He also lamented that the “scourge of anti-Semitism has, at times, revealed itself in our community.”

Throughout his campaign, Obama made his desire to bridge the divide a focus of his talks with Jewish leaders, said Deborah Lauter, the Anti-Defamation League’s national civil-rights director.

Referring to Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, Lauter said, “When Abe met with Obama, Obama conveyed to him he would like to see the historic black-Jewish roots renewed.”

Lauter said Obama’s commitment might help spur an alliance that has faltered in recent years. Charged with reviewing what ADL chapters had planned for Martin Luther King Day, she noticed that plans for events bringing blacks and Jews together had decreased.

“There are some pockets of activity, but they’re not what they used to be,” Lauter said. “The ones that exist work well, but it hasn’t been a priority.”

Since Obama got 78 percent support among Jewish voters in November, however, Lauter said she has noticed an enthusiasm for re-establishing the alliance.

Rumors of the demise of the alliance are overstated, said Rabbi Marc Schneier, who co-founded the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding with hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons. The tensions stoked by the radical inclinations of an older generation had been replaced by the outreach favored by younger blacks, including Obama.

“Crown Heights was the lowest point,” he said, referring to the lethal 1991 riots in Brooklyn, “but since those difficult and trying days there has been a cadre of African American and Jewish leaders dedicated to repairing and restoring the relationship.”

Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, says the relationship is thriving — in the leadership.

“The reality is day in, day out, blacks and Jews are working together for education, to help the poor,” he said. But it needs to trickle down, he added.

“There’s too little social interaction,” said Saperstein, who delivered the invocation the night Obama accepted the presidential nomination in August. “We can develop more opportunities for youth groups to work together on common projects. It is the building of levels of trust and personal connection that helps us through tough times.”

Using Internet outreach, ADL is asking people to take the Martin Luther King Day “service pledge.” An array of national and local Jewish groups have signed up.

In Washington, Jews attending inaugural festivities also will be asked to join the Washington Hebrew Congregation’s “work day” on Monday, Jan. 19, which will involve helping the homeless. Other programs include a black-Jewish dialogue infused with sketches and videos, but Schneier insisted such activities were not out of the ordinary.

“We’re close to the heyday of the black-Jewish relations,” he said. “When I saw Rahm Emanuel appointed White House chief of staff, I saw the black-Jewish alliance at work again trying to restore this country.”

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.