Blacks and Jews in Amer­i­ca: An Invi­ta­tion to Dialogue

Ter­rence L. John­son; Jacques Berlinerblau

  • Review
By – August 15, 2022

Two icon­ic moments from the Civ­il Rights era of the fifties and six­ties involve the rela­tion­ship between Blacks and Jews: the abduc­tion and mur­der of three rights work­ers (two Jews and a Black) in Mis­sis­sip­pi in 1964; and the 1965 cross­ing of the Edmund Pet­tus Bridge in Sel­ma, Alaba­ma, by an assem­blage of cler­gy sur­round­ing Mar­tin Luther King, Jr., includ­ing the­olo­gian Rab­bi Abra­ham Joshua Hes­chel and sev­er­al oth­er rab­bis. Jews work­ing and march­ing (and, in the case of Mis­sis­sip­pi, dying) along­side Blacks in both moments cre­at­ed the aura of a spe­cial bond between the two groups.

As John­son and Berlinerblau point out in their vol­ume of dia­logue, the bond was not new to this peri­od, yet it was also not always the ide­al rela­tion­ship that it has come to be seen as. With­in a year or two of the march in Sel­ma, the bond was riv­en by the grow­ing mil­i­tan­cy of the Black Pow­er move­ment, which expelled most of the white and Jew­ish vol­un­teers in many rights orga­ni­za­tions and iden­ti­fied with the plight of the Pales­tini­ans in Israel. Since then, the rift has not healed and, in some ways, has become exac­er­bat­ed by the anti-Israel stance of the Black Lives Mat­ter movement.

John­son and Berlinerblau, pro­fes­sors at George­town Uni­ver­si­ty, co-teach a course that explores the many dimen­sions of the spe­cial rela­tion­ship between Blacks and Jews. In this chal­leng­ing and thought-pro­vok­ing (though occa­sion­al­ly repet­i­tive) vol­ume, they dis­till the essence of their research about the fraught his­to­ry and mod­el the kind of dia­logue they would like to see take place that might work toward heal­ing the rift. Theirs aren’t the only voic­es in the vol­ume; they inter­view Pro­fes­sor Susan­nah Hes­chel, the daugh­ter of Abra­ham Joshua Hes­chel, and Pro­fes­sor Yvonne Chireau, author of sev­er­al vol­umes exam­in­ing the Black-Jew­ish rela­tion­ship. In addi­tion to the dia­logue, John­son and Berlinerblau con­tribute indi­vid­ual essays inves­ti­gat­ing the col­lapse of the bond and what might be done to repair it.

In his chap­ter, Berlinerblau presents a fair­ly straight­for­ward, detailed, and nuanced his­tor­i­cal account of the rise and decline of Black-Jew­ish rela­tion­ships. Johnson’s approach is a lit­tle more con­vo­lut­ed, blend­ing ele­ments of reli­gious his­to­ry (the great affin­i­ty among Amer­i­can Blacks in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry for the Exo­dus nar­ra­tive as a sym­bol­ic sto­ry of their quest for free­dom) with a polit­i­cal analy­sis of why lib­er­al­ism, though appeal­ing to Jews, has been a bar­ri­er to Black progress. For read­ers not well-schooled in crit­i­cal the­o­ry, it may not be an easy con­nec­tion to fol­low. Mean­while, both authors touch upon the fraught issue of racial iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. Does Jew­ish iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as white pose an obsta­cle to form­ing mean­ing­ful rela­tion­ships with the Black com­mu­ni­ty? What spe­cial role can be played by Jews of color?

The read­er may come away from the vol­ume a bit pes­simistic about whether a renew­al of dia­logue is pos­si­ble. That being said, the authors hope that some of what sep­a­rates Blacks and Jews from dia­logue can be, as they say, brack­et­ed, so that the com­mon cause that orig­i­nal­ly brought Jews and Blacks togeth­er in the civ­il rights strug­gle can once again be found. To which one can only add the fer­vent Jew­ish litur­gi­cal response, Keyn y’hi rat­zon—“May it be His will!”

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

Discussion Questions