Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (left) and Martin Luther King (center) marching in Selma, Alabama
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (left) and Martin Luther King (center) marching in Selma, Alabama

Dismantling the myths of the black-Jewish civil rights alliance

In 1982, when 18-year-old Marc Dollinger walked onto the UC Berkeley campus as a freshman, he immediately joined the campus Jewish Student Union. His next move was to wander over to Sproul Plaza, where there was a Black Student Union table, and ask to join the group.

The young man at the table laughed.

Marc Dollinger
Marc Dollinger

“That was a huge wake-up call for me,” says Dollinger, today the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Chair in Jewish Studies and Social Responsibility at San Francisco State University. “That was the moment when I realized that everything I learned growing up in the suburbs may not have been the whole story.”

Thirty-five years later, Dollinger has written “Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s,” which explains why he got laughed out of Sproul Plaza.

Dollinger examines the short-lived alliance between blacks and Jews, how and why it fractured — and how that split led to the rise of Jewish activism, for Jewish causes. It also reveals how for decades, many in the Jewish community were in denial about the fact that blacks did not want Jews to be part of their movement. That, in fact, the Jewish narrative that American Jews were also an oppressed minority and therefore were partners in the fight for civil rights was a powerful and self-serving story, but a false one.

J.: So why did that young man at Cal laugh at you?

Marc Dollinger: I had grown up in a suburb of L.A. in the ’70s, raised by parents who idolized Dr. Martin Luther King, and hearing stories how Jews were an integral factor in the civil rights movement. In that narrative, I came to believe that blacks love Jews, Jews love blacks. Blacks and Jews work together. Everybody was united against segregation. Martin Luther King was a hero. Arm in arm, Kumbaya, peace, love, Bobby Sherman. But when I came to Cal, I realized that there were African Americans who did not have the same assumptions that I did. When that student laughed in my face, it was a repudiation of not only my question asking to join the union, but of my very upbringing and Jewish identity.

How did that Kumbaya narrative come to be?

There was a very short window from 1954, the year of Brown vs. Board of Education, to 1964, when the Civil Rights Act passed, that Jews and blacks did work together for civil rights. Rabbis marched in Selma with Martin Luther King, young Jews put themselves on the line in the South, and Jews were considered allies. When I was growing up in the ’70s, that black-Jewish coalition was still the dominant narrative.

cover of dollinger book "black power, jewish politics"What changed?

First, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which ended legal segregation in America, the Jews celebrated and thought a great victory was won. But the blacks did not see it the same way. They knew there was still deep institutional systemic racism that had not been addressed.

Then, also in 1964, there was an internal struggle within the black civil rights movement between King and a new generation of more militant black youth. Eventually the influential black organization SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], purged whites from the leadership — which in effect meant Jews.

These younger leaders of the black power movement believed that blacks needed to help themselves and allying with whites would not advance their cause. This philosophy soon spread to other groups — women, Latinos, gays and lesbians, etc. — the start of what we now call identity politics.

Did blacks at the time also view Jews as part of the problem?

Yes. The black power activists and also the Nation of Islam saw the Jews as white, not as fellow travelers who also have suffered from oppression. The Jews, in their point of view, were firmly entrenched in the white establishment but didn’t own it.

Further, in the 1950s, the suburbs opened up to Jews before they opened up to blacks. So Jews moved into these brand-new homes but blacks could not do the same. Then, in the cities, as soon as the blacks moved into their neighborhood, the Jews took off — except that Jews still owned the apartment buildings. So when they fled to the suburbs they were profiting from blacks but refusing to live with them. The Jews were putting on this public face of being liberal, but in terms of the actual lives they were leading, it was anything but that.

Did Jewish leaders recognize this new landscape and contradiction?

The most surprising thing I learned in researching my book, in reading the primary sources, was that Jewish leaders at the time — even during that 10-year window when Jews and blacks were working together — not only understood the limits of Jewish liberal support for civil rights and the inevitability of a black-Jewish split, they were also writing and saying this publicly. But Jews did not want to hear that story, so they didn’t listen. For decades, Jews have wanted to retain the fantasy that they were, and still are, allies with the blacks.

So what happened when Jews found out they were not being accepted into the civil rights movement?

Like other groups, they turned inward and began to form Jewish activist groups around Jewish causes. After the Six-Day War, which came right at the time of this rise in identity politics and rejection from the black power activists, there was a surge in Jewish pride. Jews began to focus their political energy on the fate of Soviet Jews and the security of Israel instead.

You write that the blacks and Jews formed a partnership of sorts at this time.

These Jewish activists used the template established by the black power activists. They learned that ethnic groups needed to advocate for themselves, and they learned the mechanics of how to do this effectively, such as with protests and marches. This clearly came into play when American Jews formed a powerful movement to bring Jews out of the Soviet Union.

How can Jews today help support the causes of African Americans? The Black Lives Matter movement is prominent, but it creates political conflicts for many Jews.

Black Lives Matters pressed American Jews, once again, into a conflict between their support for the fight against racism on the domestic front and their support for the State of Israel on the international scene, reactivating a 50-year-old conflict between the two communities on the question of Jewish nationalism. That makes Jewish participation in the movement difficult. But perhaps there are other ways Jews can support African Americans. Some Jewish groups, such as Bend the Arc, are doing this. I am a historian, not a politico, but in contemporary times, Jews need to listen, to observe what’s happening and then see what role, if any, would be most effective in terms of achieving social justice.

Jackie Krentzman

Jackie Krentzman is a Berkeley-based writer and editor. krentzmancommunications.com