Black-Jewish history not as tidy as often presented

This month, students across the United States commemorate Black History Month. But at one Bay Area Jewish day school, every month is black history month.

Students at this Jewish day school — where I spent a semester observing U.S. history classes — spent much of the school year learning about the role African Americans have had in shaping our nation’s history. Their studies also took a Jewish twist as they learned about a special bond between black and Jewish communities. It sounds like an appropriate lesson for a Jewish school.

There’s only one problem: It’s not good history.

An explicit focus on African American history is certainly not unique to this day school. Educational researchers have found a growing emphasis on African American history in schools across the United States. History standards in California and many other states require schools to teach about African American contributions to this country, especially during the civil rights era. And according to one survey, today’s high school students believe that, after presidents, black civil rights leaders are the most important figures in U.S. history.

What is uncommon about this Jewish school, and others, is that they often put a uniquely Jewish gloss on African American history.

Students and their teacher repeatedly drew parallels between African Americans and Jews. The history of both peoples, students learned, was a story about the journey from slavery to redemption. Jews and blacks overcame enslavement and persecution, and ultimately they united as allies fighting for justice and equality in the civil rights era.

But by focusing on this “shared” heritage, students learned a history that was too simplistic to be true. These Jewish teens became familiar with only the rosy parts of black-Jewish relations. They knew, for example, that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. They learned about the involvement of Jewish leaders like Rabbi Stephen Wise in the formation of the NAACP. They were proud of the fact that a disproportionate number of white civil rights activists were Jews. But they mistook these moments in shared black-Jewish history as the entire story.

In fact, the history of black-Jewish relations has always been more complicated, marked as much by conflict as by collaboration. Jewish racism and black anti-Semitism are also part of this history; so is a dynamic that allowed Jews, once regarded as immigrant outsiders, to successfully merge into white U.S. culture — a process that has been much slower, if not impossible, for blacks, despite a longer history on American soil.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. walks with Rabbi Ralph Simon (second from right) in March 1968, when King addressed the Rabbinical Assembly convention at the Concord Hotel in New York’s Catskill Mountains. photo/jta/courtesy of matthew simon

Even during the civil rights era, which many historians refer to as the golden age of black-Jewish partnership, the relationship was murky. For at the same time that Jewish and black civil rights organizations formed alliances to combat bigotry and discrimination, Jews were often serving as landlords, employers and shopkeepers in black communities.

Historians have attributed this both to Jews’ greater willingness than other whites to integrate black people, and to a racial and economic power imbalance between blacks and Jews. As Trinity College professor Cheryl Lynn Greenberg explains, “African Americans and Jewish Americans, increasingly brought together as political allies, found themselves divided as racial, ethnic, religious and class competitors.” But this is a narrative largely ignored in Jewish communal institutions.

Jewish schools should use Black History Month as an opportunity to round out students’ understanding of black-Jewish relations.

Jewish students certainly need to know about what Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, calls the “shared dreams” of black and Jewish Americans. But the story should not end there.

Students also need to know about the moments of conflict and ambivalence that have shaped our shared past. For example, students should learn that many Jewish storeowners in Harlem moved to employ blacks not out of benevolence or sympathy — but in order not to lose customers to the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign. And they must understand that many American Jews have benefited from having white skin, even if they were hampered by anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish quotas.

Such history is less inspiring. But it’s true. And, as such, it presents students with the opportunity to really understand the history of black and Jewish communities’ struggles to help shape this nation. Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders. If they are to realize a more perfect union, they must first learn to honestly face our past.

Sivan Zakai

Sivan Zakai is director of Research and Teacher Education at the Graduate Center for Education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles. She received her Ph.D. in education from Stanford University and lives in Los Angeles.