(From left) W. Kamau Bell, Mira Stern, Courtney Desiree Morris and Adam Mansbach discussed ties between the Black and Jewish communities at a Jan. 17 forum at St. Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco. (Photo/Bowerbird Photography)
(From left) W. Kamau Bell, Mira Stern, Courtney Desiree Morris and Adam Mansbach discussed ties between the Black and Jewish communities at a Jan. 17 forum at St. Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco. (Photo/Bowerbird Photography)

What does the Black-Jewish alliance look like in 2023? In a word, messy

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“Black and Jewish relations have been written about ad nauseam, discussed ad nauseam,” the Berkeley writer Adam Mansbach said at a recent public forum in San Francisco. “The ups and downs of this relationship have been incredibly well chronicled.”

And yet, he added, “there is still so much to say about them.”

Over the next two hours, Mansbach and a panel of African Americans and Jews held forth on the topic before a crowd of 460 students, parents and community members at St. Ignatius College Preparatory. Titled “Beyond Kanye and Kyrie: Renewing the Historic Black-Jewish Alliance,” the Jan. 17 forum was one of several similarly themed events that took place last month in the Bay Area and online.

I attended four of these events — the “Beyond” forum, a two-part “pulpit exchange” between Congregation Emanu-El and Third Baptist Church of San Francisco, and a virtual panel of Black Jews in the U.S. and Israel organized by the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values.

All of them sought to bring Black and Jewish folks together, psychologically if not physically, following months of tensions stoked by Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, and the NBA player Kyrie Irving. And while the events may have achieved that goal, what they also revealed was how the conversation about Black-Jewish relations has become seriously fragmented along racial, religious and even generational lines.

For more than three decades, Emanu-El and Third Baptist Church have held a “pulpit exchange” around Martin Luther King Jr. Day, providing clergy and congregants with an opportunity to visit each others’ house of worship and pray together.

At Shabbat services on Jan. 13, members of the Third Baptist and Emanu-El choirs sang uplifting songs including “We Shall Overcome” and “Lean on Me.”

Afterward, Amos Brown, Third Baptist’s 81-year-old pastor, preached a rousing sermon in which he shared some of the teachings of “a rabbi called Jesus of Nazareth” and celebrated the long relationship between his church and the San Francisco synagogue. “We have gotten to know each other for 36 years, and we are saying to the world, ‘We ain’t going to let nobody turn us around and stop us from coming together,’” he said.

Rev. Amos C. Brown of Third Baptist Church delivers his annual MLK weekend sermon at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, Jan. 12, 2018. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)
Rev. Amos C. Brown of Third Baptist Church delivers his annual MLK weekend sermon at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, Jan. 12, 2018. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

He went on to quote MLK, who he said was one of his teachers at Howard University in the 1960s: “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

Two days later, during Third Baptist’s Sunday service, Emanu-El Rabbi Jonathan Singer gave a sermon of his own during which he addressed the Ye and Irving controversies. (As many will recall, Ye unleashed a stream of antisemitic vitriol on social media and sundry TV shows and podcasts in the fall, losing lots of business partnerships and fans as a result. Around the same time, Irving, who plays for the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, shared a link to an antisemitic film on his Twitter and Instagram accounts — earning Ye’s approval — and was suspended from his team for eight games after failing to show contrition.)

Just as some Black people hold antisemitic views, Singer said, there are also racist, “small-minded” Jews. But he asserted that “those haters in both our communities” constitute a small minority.

“Our bonds are not just bonds of self-interest, of commonality, of the mutual experience of being on the receiving end of hate,” he said. “No, they are the bonds formed by the love of holiness that these two communities, that these two faces of God, engender.”

Brown and Singer did what religious leaders do best: offer lofty words of comfort and encouragement.

By contrast, at St. Ignatius on Jan. 17, Mansbach and the other panelists — comedian and author W. Kamau Bell, UC Berkeley assistant professor Courtney Desiree Morris, educator Mira Stern and moderator Bakari Kitwana — engaged in a rather academic discussion about whiteness (and Jewish proximity to it), intersectionality, feminism, Zionism and other forces that have shaped Black-Jewish relations over the years.

Bell, the Oakland-based host of the CNN docuseries “United Shades of America,” asserted that conversations about Jewish identity and history are bound to get “messy,” especially when non-Jews are involved.

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“If we’re going to be allies or co-conspirators or resistance buddies, whatever you want to call it, we have to accept that [messiness],” he said. “Especially if we’re coming from different places, different parts of the country, different ethnicities, different races, religions, there will be things that we’re bringing with us that you’re not going to understand.”

Although the title of the forum mentioned “Kanye and Kyrie,” the panelists spent little time dissecting what those celebrities actually said or why antisemitism emanates from segments of the Black community. Stern, a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant, asserted that “it serves the project of white supremacy” to focus on Black people who traffic in antisemitic tropes while giving a pass to white offenders such as former President Donald Trump, political commentator Nick Fuentes and actor-director Mel Gibson.

Instead, the focus was very much on Israel, which Desiree Morris, an assistant professor of gender and women’s studies at Cal, called “the elephant in the room” when it comes to Black-Jewish dialogue. “When you conflate a politics of Zionist nation-building with Jewish identity, it leaves very little room for negotiating critiques that you have on the state project, as opposed to a cultural indictment on a people,” she said.

The audience of mostly S.I. high school students often seemed flummoxed or bored (or both) by the very theoretical discussion. Mansbach had the most success reaching the students, earning laughter during his explanation of how antisemitism represents a conspiracy theory about Jewish power.

“Jews don’t agree on anything,” he said. “We’ve been arguing for millennia over what grains we’re allowed to have in our houses during Passover, you understand what I’m saying? The notion of a high-minded conspiracy would be hilarious if it was not the cause of so much violence.” The real conspiracy in the U.S., he added, is “patriarchal, Christian dominionism, and it’s very upfront about its goals.” It was a dicey thing to say in a room full of Catholics, but the crowd rewarded Mansbach’s truth-telling with enthusiastic applause.

By far the most thought-provoking and, ultimately, hopeful event I attended was the virtual panel convened by the Maryland-based Jewish Institute for Liberal Values on Jan. 22. The invitation noted that JILV asked only Black Jews to participate because they are “frequently uninvited” to conversations about tensions between Black and Jewish communities.

"Black Jewish Perspectives" panelists included Shekhiynah Larks (center), a Black and Jewish content creator based in Oakland. (Screenshot)
“Black Jewish Perspectives” panelists included Shekhiynah Larks (center), a Black and Jewish content creator based in Oakland. (Screenshot)

Moderator Brandy Shufutinsky asked the participants — her sons Noah (better known as the rapper Westside Gravy) and Dmitri, along with Yirmiyahu Danzig, Shekhiynah Larks, Chaya Lev, David Ben Moshe and Tyler Samuels — why that is.

Ben Moshe, a U.S.-born convert who received Israeli citizenship earlier this month after a five-year struggle, cited a “lack of investment” by American Jewish institutions to cultivate Black Jewish leaders.

“We have not spent enough time investing in the Black Jewish voices, helping them educate and grow and become leaders in their communities so that they’re in the right places to make the right statements” when conflicts between the two communities arise, he said.

The panelists, most of whom are Gen Z-ers or millennials, brought a youthful passion to the conversation about Black-Jewish relations — a topic that, for them, is far from theoretical. They debated several contemporary issues, from how both the Jewish and secular education systems have marginalized Jews of color, to the pros and cons of using TikTok to raise awareness about Jewish diversity, to the challenges that Black Jews face in navigating conflicts between two communities to which they belong.

Larks, an Oakland-based content creator who worked with the S.F.-based Jewish diversity nonprofit Be’chol Lashon for about six years, issued a pointed critique of current bridge-building efforts by Jewish organizations. “We’ll go back to the civil rights movement, but what have we done to engage the Black community in the last almost 60 years?” she asked. “Nothing, almost nothing.”

She added, “If we are not willing to educate ourselves about our history, how can we expect other communities to walk on that journey or to hold that line if we don’t understand who we are?”

Asked after the panel if she thought Emanu-El’s pulpit exchange was an effective way to engage the local Black community, she replied, “I’m not sure how you can bring communities together without addressing historical tension, and I don’t think the conversation about Black and Jewish unity will ever move forward if we keep skipping teshuvah. You can sing for a few hours, but what does that change moving forward? What are we committing to?” (To be fair, Emanu-El helped to launch the San Francisco Black & Jewish Unity Coalition, which organizes around issues of concern to African American residents.)

Danzig, an Israeli anti-racism activist with Caribbean heritage, expressed optimism that Jews of color can help create a new paradigm for Black-Jewish relations. “We have so much potential to have such an impact on the Jewish discourse right now,” he said. “Whether they want to hear us or not, that’s not relevant. We’re gonna make them listen.”

So what does the Black-Jewish alliance look like in 2023?

Based on the events I attended, it looks like nostalgia for the civil rights era mixed with stark political disagreements, especially over Israel, all while Black Jews strain to make their voices heard. In a word, it looks messy.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.