San Francisco State University professor Marc Dollinger (second from right) speaks at the "Jews and Black Theory" conference held May 15-16 at Harvard University. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
San Francisco State University professor Marc Dollinger (second from right) speaks at the "Jews and Black Theory" conference held May 15-16 at Harvard University. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

Jewish and Black studies scholars converge at unique Harvard conference

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Updated June 5

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — In academia, the relationship between white Jews and Black non-Jews in the United States has generally fallen within the purview of historians and sociologists. Numerous books and articles have been published on so-called Black-Jewish relations, the rise and fall of the Grand Alliance of Black and Jewish leaders during the civil rights era, and the enduring problems of antisemitism within Black communities and anti-Black racism within Jewish communities.

At a first-of-its-kind academic conference this month at Harvard University, Shaul Magid and Terrence L. Johnson sought to broaden the Black-Jewish conversation. The Harvard Divinity School professors invited scholars from across the country and from a variety of disciplines — including Jewish studies, Black studies, anthropology, literature, religion and urban geography — to meet each other, present papers and engage in an interdisciplinary, critical theory–based dialogue about whiteness, Blackness, Jewishness and their intersections.

Among the scholars who participated in “Jews and Black Theory: Conceptualizing Otherness in the Twenty-First Century” were the cultural critic and MacArthur Fellowship recipient Fred Moten, who holds a Ph.D. in English from UC Berkeley; San Francisco State University historian Marc Dollinger, author of “Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s”; and Susannah Heschel, a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth and the daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the revered theologian and friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Susannah Heschel, a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth, speaks at the "Jews and Black Theory" conference. (Photo/Ilene Perlman)
Susannah Heschel, a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth, answers questions after delivering a paper titled “Blacks, Jews, and Arabs: Dialogue in the Shadow of the Germans.” (Photo/Ilene Perlman)

One of the goals of the conference, which grew out of summer workshops organized by Cornell University anthropologist Jonathan Boyarin in 2022 and 2023, was to create a new “web” of scholarly interactions, according to Magid.

“There is a deep sophistication in the way that Black theory is engaged in theorizing notions of Blackness and anti-Blackness,” Magid told J., referring to frameworks such as critical race theory and Afropessimism. “People that study Jews just aren’t doing that, and I thought it would be very helpful for us to begin to integrate.”

Reflecting on the two-day gathering in rainy Cambridge, Dollinger wrote in an email that it was a significant moment for the academy. “This meeting proved an important, even vital, opportunity to expand knowledge by bringing all the brightest minds into the same room to listen, learn, and challenge one another,” he said.

Jews are white and non-white

The conference began with a keynote address by Moten, a professor of performance studies and comparative literature at New York University. His talk — a partially improvised, jazz solo-esque combination of personal anecdotes, ideas, connections, interruptions, apologies and provocations that defies summarizing — touched on the work of Plato, Frederick Douglass, Albert Einstein, Frantz Fanon, Denise Ferreira da Silva, Duke Ellington and many other scholars and cultural icons.

After Moten finished his hourlong talk/performance, Magid announced: “When I asked Fred to come and give this talk, his first response was, ‘I don’t really have that much to say.’” That earned a hearty laugh from the 65 attendees.

Historian Cheryl Greenberg, an emerita professor at Trinity College, delivered the keynote talk on the second day of the conference. Titled “I’m Not White, I’m Jewish!: Ashkenazi Jews and the Complexities of Race in America,” the presentation traced how Jews of European descent assimilated into white society in the U.S., and how that process impacted their ties with non-Jewish Black communities.

When white Jews focus on their victimhood and not their privilege, they fail to recognize that much of their success rested on white supremacist structures that have blocked so many African Americans from progress.

Today, Greenberg asserted, white-skinned Ashkenazi Jews could be considered both white and non-white. “They are white by economic opportunity, and non-white by the bigotry of white nationalists,” she said.

To explore this point, she played a clip from the 2016 song “I’m Not White I’m Jewish” by the artist and educator Matt Barr. “Their view is, really, don’t blame me for racism, I am also a target of white supremacists, which is of course true. But that misses the point,” she said. “When white Jews focus on their victimhood and not their privilege, they fail to recognize that much of their success rested on white supremacist structures that have blocked so many African Americans from progress.”

Still, Greenberg said, Jews and Black non-Jews remain natural allies. “I want to argue that most Black and Jewish people were and are still motivated by shared values,” she said. “The fact is that all along, most white Jews still looked a lot like traditional liberals in their lesser level of racism, their continued commitment to traditional civil rights and their attitudes towards social issues.”

Attaching theory to Jewishness

Perhaps the most provocative paper was delivered by Saul Zaritt, a professor of Yiddish literature at Harvard. “Why is it so difficult to attach theory to Jewishness?” Zaritt asked, before proposing a framework that he called Jew theory. Similar to queer theory and Black theory, Zaritt said, Jew theory is “a mode of reading in which figurations of the Jew and Jewishness within sites of proposed certainty expose a grammar of impropriety and undecidability.” (Translation: Jew theory analyzes the world through the figure of the Jew, as conceived by both Jews and non-Jews.)

The paper generated lots of questions and discussion among the conference participants. “I wonder if your origin lies in Christianity, because Christianity is the original Jew theory,” one person commented.

“Jewish studies is Christian studies, if you want to extend the metaphor,” Zaritt replied. “I’m OK with that legacy, as long as you’re constantly interrogating it.” (In an email after the conference, he elaborated that the history of the university is “deeply entwined with the history of Christianity and its systems of knowledge,” and that Jewish studies emerged “as an attempt to rival and/or enter the Christian university.”)

Other conference highlights included a presentation by Samira Mehta, director of Jewish studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, on the ways that Michael Twitty — a celebrated Black, Jewish and gay chef and culinary historian — has theorized a relationship between Blackness and Jewishness in his own life and work; a talk by Judah Isseroff, a postdoctoral associate at Washington University in St. Louis, on NBA star Kyrie Irving’s 2022 antisemitism controversy and the way he “scrambled most conventional assumptions” about the relationship between Blackness and Jewishness when he publicly declared, cryptically, “I cannot be antisemitic if I know where I come from”; and University of Chicago religion professor Sarah Hammerschlag’s reading of Philip Roth’s 1993 novel “Operation Shylock” through the lens of Jamaican cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter.

(From left) Susannah Heschel, Jacques Berlinerblau, Terrence L. Johnson and Derek Penslar speak on a conference panel. (Photo/Ilene Perlman)
From left, Susannah Heschel, Jacques Berlinerblau, Terrence L. Johnson and Derek Penslar speak on a panel titled “Jews, Blacks, and the Judeo-Christian.” (Photo/Ilene Perlman)

Johnson of Harvard Divinity School and Jacques Berlinerblau of Georgetown University, co-authors of the 2022 book “Blacks and Jews in America: An Invitation to Dialogue,” also gave engaging talks — Johnson on the African American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Berlinerblau on encounters between both Jewish and non-Jewish Black characters and white Jewish characters in American literature and film. (He cited Chester Himes’ novel “Lonely Crusade,” Bernard Malamud’s short story “Angel Levine” and novel “The Tenants,” Fran Ross’ novel “Oreo,” Paul Beatty’s novel “Tuff,” Spike Lee’s film “BlackKklansman” and the Safdie brothers’ film “Uncut Gems.”)

“I can’t think of any other two groups in the United States who in dialectic have produced this much stuff — polemics, literature, music, political activism, legal innovations [and] conferences such as this one,” Berlingerblau said.

But the star of the conference, in many ways, was a thinker who’s been dead for more than half a century.

W. E. B. Du Bois (Photo/James E. Purdy-National Portrait Gallery)
W. E. B. Du Bois (Photo/James E. Purdy-National Portrait Gallery)

Multiple scholars invoked the name and work of W. E. B. Du Bois — the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard, a founding father of Black studies and the author of several influential books, including “The Souls of Black Folk” (1903) and “Black Reconstruction in America” (1935).

In his opening remarks on the first day of the conference, Magid suggested the Black-Jewish alliance began in 1909, with the founding of the NAACP by a group of African Americans and Jews that included Du Bois and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. Moten spoke about Du Bois’ 1905 essay “Sociology Hesitant.” Elissa Sampson of Cornell University revisited “The Philadelphia Negro,” the first sociological study of a Black American community, which Du Bois published in 1899. And Ben Ratskoff of Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles spoke about Du Bois’ travels through Nazi Germany in 1936 and his visit to the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1949, both of which shaped his understanding of the “color line” in the U.S.

Then there was Rabbi Shais Rishon, better known as the writer MaNishtana, who read excerpts from an unpublished essay of his riffing on Du Bois titled “The Souls of Black Jewish Folk.”

Why does Du Bois’ work continue to resonate in 2024?

“He always had this kind of global perspective,” Ratskoff explained during a break between sessions. “His insistence that race and colonialism, and specifically Black people, were at the center of world history was radical, certainly in the 1890s, when white European men were supposed to be at the center of it.”

He also lived a long life — he died in 1963 at age 95 — and “saw it all,” Ratskoff added. “He was witness to post-Civil War Reconstruction, the rise of the Klan-Jim Crow-white supremacy, World War I, World War II, McCarthyism … it’s like, what didn’t he write on?”

Blacks, Jews, Black Jews

As more than one scholar pointed out, the phrases “Blacks and Jews” and “Black-Jewish alliance” reinforce a false binary that excludes Black Jews.

During a panel on the history and future of that alliance, Dollinger noted that the second chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was a Black and Jewish man, Charles McDew.

The panel’s moderator, Ginna Green, was one of the few non-academics who attended the conference. A social justice consultant and writer, Green said she was inspired to travel to Cambridge from Columbia, South Carolina, because she wanted to “go high level” in thinking about questions facing the communities she belongs to — she is also Black and Jewish — and to add her perspective to the mix.

“I think it was important to bring that intersectional voice into the room,” she said, “and to situate that lived, practical experience amongst the conversations on theory and otherness and other concepts that make their way into social movements.”

Indeed, Berlinerblau predicted in his talk that Afro-Jews — the term he used for people of African descent who identify as either Jews or Israelites — will come to “dominate and own” the conversation about Black-Jewish relations moving forward.

“As they should,” he added.

Magid told J. he hopes to publish the papers presented at the conference as a book. If he were to organize a follow-up gathering, he said, it might focus on the racial dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The current war between Israel and Hamas was clearly on the minds of several speakers. Heschel referred to the war as “the worst Jewish ethical crisis I know in Jewish history,” and she argued that Jews’ involvement in the Civil Rights Movement gave them “a moral free card to support the occupation without need for justification.” Moten noted that he was speaking on “Nakba Day,” the term used by Palestinians to refer to the “catastrophe” of Israel’s founding on May 15, 1948. “What’s going on in Palestine, no less than what’s going on in Haiti or Sudan or Myanmar, is a matter of post-colonial/neo-colonial administration,” he said. Greenberg called the destruction of Gaza, settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank and Israel’s “demeaning” treatment of its Arab citizens “the moral equivalent of Jim Crow terror and persistent structural racism.”

Magid said the conflict “doesn’t just complicate the Black-Jewish alliance, it ruptures it.” A future conference might explore how it has done that — and whether or not the alliance can be pieced back together.

This article was updated to correct Judah Isseroff’s current position.

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.