African Americans and American Jews have interacted throughout much of the history of the United States. This relationship has included widely publicized cooperation and conflict, and—since the 1970s—has been an area of significant academic research. The most significant aspect of the relationship was the cooperation during the civil rights movement, culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But the relationship has also been marred by conflict and controversy involving subjects such as the Black Power movement, Zionism, affirmative action, and the roles of Jews in the slave trade.
Jewish producers in the United States entertainment industry produced many works on black subjects in the film industry, Broadway, and the music industry. Many portrayals of blacks were sympathetic, but historian Michael Rogin discusses how some of the treatments could be considered exploitive.
Rogin also analyzes the instances when Jewish actors, such as Al Jolson, portrayed blacks in blackface – Rogin asserts that these portrayals were not overt racism, but simply a reflection of the times, since Blacks could not appear in leading roles at the time: “Jewish blackface neither signified a distinctive Jewish racism nor produced a distinctive black anti-Semitism”.
Jews often interpreted black culture in film, music, and stageplays, and historian Jeffrey Melnick argues that Jewish artists such as Irving Berlin and George Gershwin (composer of Porgy and Bess) created the myth that they were the proper interpreters of Black culture, “elbowing out ‘real’ Black Americans in the process.” Despite evidence from Black musicians and critics that Jews in the music business played an important role in paving the way for mainstream acceptance of Black culture, Melnick concludes that “while both Jews and African-Americans contributed to the rhetoric of musical affinity, the fruits of this labor belonged exclusively to the former”
Black academic Harold Cruse viewed the arts scene as a white-dominated misrepresentation of black culture, epitomized by works like George Gershwin’s folk opera Porgy and Bess.
Some blacks have criticized Jewish movie producers for portraying blacks in a racist manner. In 1990, at a NAACP convention in Los Angeles, Legrand Clegg, founder of the Coalition Against Black Exploitation, a pressure group that lobbied against negative screen images of African-Americans, alleged that “the century-old problem of Jewish racism in Hollywood” denies blacks access to positions of power in the industry and portrays blacks in a derogatory manner: “If Jewish leaders can complain of black anti-Semitism, our leaders should certainly raise the issue of the century-old problem of Jewish racism in Hollywood…. No Jewish people ever attacked or killed black people. But we’re concerned with Jewish producers who degrade the black image. It’s a genuine concern. And when we bring it up, our statements are distorted and we’re dragged through the press as anti-Semites.” Professor Leonard Jeffries echoed those comments in a speech in 1991 at the Empire State Black Arts and Cultural Festival, in Albany, New York: Jeffries said that Jews controlled the film industry, using it to paint a negative stereotype of blacks.
Criticism of Zionism
After Israel occupied Palestinian territory following the 1967 Six-Day War, some American blacks supported the Palestinians and criticized Israel’s actions, for example by publicly supporting Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat and calling for the destruction of the Jewish state. Immediately after the war, the editor of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) newsletter wrote an article criticizing Israel, and asserting that the war was an effort to regain Palestinian land and that during the 1948 war, “Zionists conquered the Arab homes and land through terror, force, and massacres”. This article led to conflict between Jews and the SNCC, but black SNCC leaders treated the war as a “test of their willingness to demonstrate SNCC’s break from its civil rights past”.
The concerns of blacks continued, and in 1993, black philosopher Cornel West wrote in Race Matters: “Jews will not comprehend what the symbolic predicament and literal plight of Palestinans in Israel means to blacks…. Blacks often perceive the Jewish defense of the state of Israel as a second instance of naked group interest, and, again, an abandonment of substantive moral deliberation.”
The support of Palestinians is frequently due to the consideration of them as people of color – Andrew Hacker writes: “The presence of Israel in the Middle East is perceived as thwarting the rightful status of people of color. Some blacks view Israel as essentially a white and European power, supported from the outside, and occupying space that rightfully belongs to the original inhabitants of Palestine.”
The counterpoint to black antisemitism is Jewish anti-black racism. Some black customers and tenants felt that the Jewish shopkeepers and landlords treated them unfairly or were racist.
Political scientist Andrew Hacker documented an African-American author who said: “Jews tend to be a little self-righteous about their liberal record, … we realize that they were pitying us and wanted our gratitude, not the realization of the principles of justice and humanity… Blacks consider [Jews] paternalistic. Black people have destroyed the previous relationship which they had with the Jewish community, in which we were the victims of a kind of paternalism, which is only a benevolent racism.”
Historian Taylor Branch in his 1992 essay “Blacks and Jews: The Uncivil War”, asserts the Jews have been “perpetrators of racial hate”, citing the example where three thousand members of a sect of Black Jews from Chicago were denied citizenship under the Israeli law of return because of anti-Black sentiment among Israeli Jews. Branch was criticized by Seth Forman, who said the claims seem baseless, particularly in light of Israel’s airlift of thousands of black Ethiopian Jews in the early 1990s. A group of American civil rights activist led by Bayard Rustin investigated and concluded that racism was not the cause of Black Hebrews’ situation.
Historian Hasia Diner writes: “Never a relationship of equals, [many blacks] assert, Jews sat on the boards of black organizations and held power in black institutions but never allowed for the reverse. [Jews] gave money to civil rights organizations and demanded the right to make decisions by virtue of the power of their purses.”
To read more on Afircan-American-Jewish relations, please visit the Wikipedia site at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African-American_%E2%80%93_Jewish_relations#Black_power_movement