Eric J. Sundquist, professor of literature at UCLA, has written a book which demonstrates both his erudition and his textured grasp of the pragmatic bond between blacks and Jews in post-World War II America. Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America offers a rich, scholarly analysis of America’s social and intellectual history in the late 20th century. It is the disproportionate influence on American consciousness of these groups, considering their size, which defines much of what we now know as American culture. The black-Jewish paradigm is in large measure the history of post- World War II America.
This is a book rich in ideas. Sundquist examines what has been portrayed as a special relationship between blacks and Jews in an unromanticized fashion, acknowledging the tensions that exist both between these groups of outsiders, and between them and an America that would deny full citizenship status to “the other.” He provides extended analysis of literary contributions that enlighten, political trends that define alliances and conflicts, sociological experiences that illuminate debate, and religious loyalties that often exclude, while defining the liberal-conservative dichotomy found in modern life. What Sundquist calls the “fault line in Jewish liberalism” has evolved into a “shift from a universalist focus on social action to a more particularist focus on Jewish ‘reawakening’ and renewal of community,” and this increasingly reflects how we behave on the cusp of the 21st century.
A prodigious volume of thought, this is not a book for the casual reader. But for a scholar, or for someone who is reasonably well-read and can appreciate an interplay of ideas filtered through the edifying light of literature, this is a compelling and admirable work. Moreover, the precarious existence of blacks and Jews merits study and continued dialogue if their past resilience is to be assured in the future.
Noel Kriftcher was a professor and administrator at Polytechnic University, having previously served as Superintendent of New York City’s Brooklyn & Staten Island High Schools district.