Marc Dollinger, a professor of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University and author of Quest for Inclusion: Jewish and Liberalism in Modern America (2000), has written an interesting and provocative study of black-Jewish relations in the United States during the 1960s and ’70s. Conventional wisdom has it that blacks and Jews enjoyed a fairly harmonious relationship through the ’50s, with both groups part of an interracial alliance seeking to purge the U.S. of racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination. The goal was, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., to create a society in which people would “not be judged by the color of the skin, but by the content of their character.” This alliance, however, was challenged in the ’60s by Black Power activists skeptical of their erstwhile white supporters, and of Jews in particular, who they sought to eliminate from leadership positions in the civil rights movement. As a result, Jews became embittered, and the hallowed and much-romanticized political alliance between blacks and Jews was seriously damaged.
Dollinger argues that this narrative is misleading, especially in its account of the response of Jews to the emergence of young black extremists like Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, and Eldridge Cleaver. According to Dollinger, manyJewish leaders actually welcomed the new black political radicalism and believed that Jews could learn from and apply black radical principles to their own political agenda. These Jewish leaders had a long history of involvement in the civil rights movement and were involved with Jewish human relations organizations such as the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and local Jewish community relations councils. Their numbers also included Reform rabbis for whom liberal politics and support for the civil rights movement were important in defining their Jewish identity.
In the wake of the appearance of the Black Power movements of the 1960s, Dollinger writes, “a new, powerful, and transformative partnership” between blacks and Jews emerged, with Jews offering “strong public … support” for black militants. Watching Black Power activists who seemed to have no fear of confrontation encouraged Jews to be more assertive in their own advocacy on behalf of Soviet Jewry, Israel, and Jews left behind in racially-changing neighborhoods. If black was beautiful, as black nationalists claimed, then Jewish must be beautiful, too; this belief spurred a Jewish ethnic, religious, and cultural revival that has continued to the present day. “A new generation of American Jews,” Dollinger concludes, “owed its very definition of Jewishness to African American nationalist constructions.”
Dollinger correctly recognizes that the support of Jewish leaders for Black Power was limited. It certainly did not include support for quotas, racial or otherwise, in employment and university admissions. For Dollinger, these leaders were caught in a bind. On one hand, they believed Black Power furthered the cause of racial justice. On the other, they feared it undermined their ultimate goal of creating a color-blind society. Dollinger’s Jewish leaders, far from championing Black Power, could accept it only to the point at which it didn’t impinge on fundamental Jewish values and interests.