Trou­bling the Waters: Black-Jew­ish Rela­tions in the Amer­i­can Century

Cheryl Lynn Greenberg
  • Review
By – October 24, 2011

This is a schol­ar­ly analy­sis of black-Jew­ish rela­tions as seen through the lens of the his­to­ry and soci­ol­o­gy of the lead­er­ship orga­ni­za­tions of both groups in the 20th cen­tu­ry. Green­berg con­cludes that African- Amer­i­cans and Jew­ish Amer­i­cans have often worked as polit­i­cal allies despite the fact that their pri­or­i­ties and approach­es may rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer and that with­in each com­mu­ni­ty, orga­ni­za­tions dra­mat­i­cal­ly dif­fer from each oth­er and at times from their own con­stituen­cies. How­ev­er, there are endur­ing com­mon­al­i­ties. Both groups are America’s quin­tes­sen­tial lib­er­als”; and both com­mu­ni­ties have faced severe big­otry and dis­crim­i­na­tion. At times, class, eth­nic, reli­gious dif­fer­ences, and com­pe­ti­tion have served to dis­rupt their col­lab­o­ra­tive efforts. Jews have always ben­e­fit­ed” from hav­ing white skin and this white­ness” has informed their pol­i­tics more than they rec­og­nize. One well-known exam­ple is the con­flict that occurred in the 1960s. Amer­i­can Jews sought and ben­e­fit­ed from poli­cies that enforced blind­ness to race and reli­gion,” while many African- Amer­i­can orga­ni­za­tions chal­lenged the mer­i­toc­ra­cy mod­el and vocif­er­ous­ly sought to imple­ment affir­ma­tive action poli­cies for minor­i­ty candidates. 

The author sug­gests that what is need­ed today is a return to the strug­gle for jus­tice and a return to lib­er­al pol­i­tics” based on spa­cious self-inter­est,” where there is mutu­al respect, democ­ra­cy, the pro­tec­tion of indi­vid­ual rights, and the respon­si­bil­i­ty of the state to pro­tect those rights and ensure equal opportunity. 

The book has its strengths and weak­ness. The author pro­vides extreme­ly detailed his­to­ries of Jew­ish and African Amer­i­can civ­il rights efforts, togeth­er and as sep­a­rate com­mu­ni­ties. For the aver­age read­er this lev­el of detail might prove tedious, but for the schol­ar and polit­i­cal tac­ti­cian, the vol­ume is a gold­mine of infor­ma­tion. Polit­i­cal­ly con­ser­v­a­tive read­ers might ques­tion the author’s basic assump­tion, which she clear­ly states, that a return to lib­er­al­ism will ben­e­fit both groups and soci­ety as a whole. That said, this book is like­ly to become one of the clas­sic his­to­ries of black-Jew­ish rela­tions in the Unit­ed States. 

Cheryl Lynn Green­berg is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at Trin­i­ty Col­lege in Hart­ford, Con­necti­cut. She is the author of Or Does it Explode?” Black Harlem in the Great Depres­sion and the edi­tor of A Cir­cle of Trust: Remem­ber­ing SNCC. Abbre­vi­a­tions, index, notes.

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions