Blacks and Jews: The Tragedy of Jackson, the Logic of Coalition
March 20, 1984
What Jesse Jackson said is a tragedy: for him, for black-Jewish relations, for champions of compromise in the Middle East, and for the noble concept for a rainbow coalition of the rejected. What Jesse Jackson said will profit and please all the little demagogues who feed off fear and hate.
All we can do now is try to convert this calamity into something positive, by learning from it, by searching our souls, and by becoming more sensitive to each other’s pride, pain, and even to each other’s paranoia.
What is needed now is the courage to transcend our automatic loyalties to our own tribe. We need Jews who can see — and say — the truth about Ed Koch, or any other member of our tribe, who practices discrimination, group stereotyping, scapegoating, or systematic disrespect for any minority in our society. And we need blacks who can see — and say — the truth about Jesse Jackson, or any member of their tribe who does the same thing.
I know this is not easy. When I wrote a series of articles almost 10 years ago exposing Bernard Bergman, an Orthodox rabbi, as a corrupt exploiter of the elderly, I was accused of anti-Semitism by some Jews. They said I was injuring all Jews and Israel. What I was writing was true, and faithful to my ideas of justice. But the attacks hurt, and made me feel misunderstood.
Only by creating loyalties to something more universal than our immediate tribe — to ideas and values like community, tolerance, pluralism, and equality — can we begin the process of reciprocity and reconciliation between blacks and Jews. And this process is the only way out of the present antagonistic predicament that has the people who hate both blacks and Jews laughing and celebrating.
When Ed Koch lied about Basil Paterson, first in interviews, and then, more maliciously, in his book, some Jews did speak up, as best they could, including Rabbi Balfour Brickner, Haskell Lazerre of the American Jewish Committee, union leaders Jacob Sheinkman and Victor Gotbaum, Sol Stern, Victor Kovner, and Letty Pogrebin.
When Jesse Jackson lied, and then admitted his bigoted “Hymie/Hymietown” slur against Jews, some black leaders did speak up, as best they could, including Basil Paterson, the Amsterdam News, Julian Bond, Reverend Calvin Butts, columnist William Raspberry, Denny Farrell, David Dinkins, Carl McCall, and Al Vann.
These leaders, reaching out beyond the tribe, suggest the reciprocal model for future reconciliations. I wish more Jewish politicians would agitate against the abomination of apartheid. I wish more black politicians would crusade against the scandal of Soviet anti-Semitism. I wish Jews focused more on the fact that there is not one black person among this nation’s 100 senators or 50 governors, and that there is no black (and no Latin) on this city’s Board of Estimate, even though New York City’s population is 50 per cent nonwhite. And I wish more blacks who tend to see Jews as powerful would focus on the fact that there is not one Jew in Ronald Reagan’s cabinet, and there is not one Jew on the Supreme Court.
I wish more Jews understood that it was black votes, mobilized by Al Vann and Major Owens, that elected Elizabeth Holtzman district attorney in Brooklyn. I wish more blacks understood that it was Jewish votes that helped elect Harold Washington mayor of Chicago against a Jewish opponent, and that it was Jewish votes that helped elect Bruce Wright to his judgeship in Manhattan, also against a Jewish rival.
In this city, in this time, reconciliation between blacks and Jews — as difficult as it surely will be — is the only practical path from community empowerment to successful electoral coalitions for blacks. And for liberals and labor, it is the only available road from futile opposition to power-sharing with minorities. And this time it must be done with self-respect, mutual respect, and complete honesty.
Jesse Jackson is a polarizing figure because he is perceived so differently by blacks and whites. There is no doubt that he is seen as an inspirational hero by most blacks, especially by poor and younger blacks. But most whites either fear him, or disagree with him. Nevertheless, most of the whites I know who support his candidacy are Jewish.
Until his “Hymie/Hymietown” slur, Jackson’s campaign was having a positive effect. He was forcing the white candidates to deal with important issues like enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, a response to apartheid, and the unfair Democratic Party delegate-selection rules. His eloquence on behalf of the powerless was stunning. He made the most sense on Central America and the military budget. He was a stimulus to voter registration. He spoke for compromise in the Middle East. He was at 16 per cent in the polls in New Hampshire and gaining momentum.
Then, in a conversation with a respected black journalist named Milton Coleman, he used the disgusting insults, Hymie and Hymietown, and everything changed.
At first, Jackson lied. He denied he had said it. On February 19, on CBS’s Face the Nation, Jackson said:
“It’s simply not true, and I think the accuser ought to come forth.”
Three days later, in New Hampshire, Jackson said: “I won’t deny, nor at any level will I admit it.” A few minutes later, he added: “From my point of view it’s a denial.”
Seven days later, Jackson finally admitted he had said it, describing his slur as “an off-color remark that has no bearing on religion or politics.”
That was a minimalist apology. The fact is that what Jackson said was an expression of bigotry, not very different from the well-known ethnic insults by Spiro Agnew, Earl Butz, and Abraham Kauvar, the former New York Health and Hospitals Corporation president who used the slur “nigger” — and was not fired by our mayor, who has a double standard in most matters involving blacks and Jews.
Probably the most sensitive analysis of Jesse Jackson’s retreat from deception to evasion to confession was written by a non-Jew — Murray Kempton, in the March 4 edition of Newsday. Until that column, Kempton had all but endorsed Jackson in several prior essays.
“And then [Kempton wrote] Jesse Jackson was heard speaking of Jews as ‘hymies’. When this charmless lapse came to the public’s attention, his first reaction was to treat questions about it as a worse offense than the one he had committed. He began by pushing failures of recollection to the extremes of the border between truth and falsehood, and, when evasive action finally failed him, he conceded that he had been ‘partially at fault.’ There are few more graceless apologies than those suggesting you were only a minor actor in a trespass that had been exclusively your own.
“If anyone except Jesse Jackson were responsible for indulging in a spot of Jewbaiting, then who else was at fault? The Jews?
“In any case, Lally Weymouth’s portrait of Jackson in the current [March 5] New York magazine, most tellingly suggests that ‘hymie’ is a word of art that comes to his lips not so much from carelessness as from habit.”
Habit is the heart of the matter. It’s habit that makes the remark indefensible. Jesse Jackson has a history of saying things that hurt Jews, that stereotype Jews, that are insensitive to Jewish history, that lump Jews together, that see Jews or Jewish influence where none exists.
This is different from Jackson’s substantive policy statements about Israel and the Palestinians. There is nothing anti-Semitic about wanting to see a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza while supporting secure internationally recognized borders for Israel. This is the view of Israel’s peace movement, George McGovern, Anthony Lewis, Nat Hentoff, Irving Howe, and many other people of conscience. Even mainstream Jewish organizational leaders like Nathan Perlmutter have recently appeared on television to say that Jackson’s position on a Palestinian state “is not anti-Semitic.”
The problem is habit and history. Jackson has too often made references to “Jewish slumlords,” to “Jewish reporters,” to “Jewish businessmen,” that inappropriately single out Jews for attack. He said he was “sick and tired of hearing constantly about the Holocaust.” Bill Singer, who was cochairman with Jackson of the Illinois McGovern delegation in 1972, says Jackson called him “the little Jew” and that he believes Jackson “harbors a great deal of prejudice.” Habit and history.
In October of 1979, Jackson returned from his trip to the Middle East, where he embraced Arafat. Jackson said the journalists who criticized him were “all Jewish.” He singled out David Shipler of The New York Times as one of the reporters who had been unfair because they were Jewish. But David Shipler is not Jewish, and his reporting was not unfair. (Jackson has also mistakenly claimed that Ehrlichman and Haldeman are Jews.) Shipler has subsequently written so sensitively about the deprivations of human rights suffered by the Palestinians, and so accurately about Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, that some Jewish leaders are now complaining that Shipler is biased against Israel.
The point is that Jesse Jackson was wrong to single out reporters he thought were Jewish, and to assert their religion was prejudicing their professionalism.
Jackson fails to recognize differences and distinctions among Jews, a failure which leads him to stereotype. And stereotyping can lead to paranoia. In the last month, Jackson has said that he is a victim of “a conspiracy” by Jewish organizations. He has said the criticisms of him, and the demonstrations against him, were “too orchestrated to be accidental.” He has equated the disruptions and threats of violence that come from the goons of the Jewish Defense League with a memorandum accurately documenting his public remarks circulated by the Anti-Defamation League. To me, what the Jewish Defense League has done is despicable, while the ADL is merely doing what any pressure group should legitimately do to get its point of view across.
There is no Jewish conspiracy to “get” Jesse Jackson. The reporter who first revealed the Hymie remark was black. Jeff Gerth, the Times reporter who revealed the $200,000 donation from the Arab League to PUSH, is one of the best and most honorable investigative journalists in the country. I am writing this article because I believe in what Martin Luther King told the multitude on August 28, 1963: that people should be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
The JDL — and its demagogic leader, Rabbi Meir Kahane — no more represents all Jews than the Five Percenters represent all blacks. When the first inflammatory advertisement from Jews Against Jackson appeared in The New York Times, the ad was immediately condemned by leaders of both the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee. The mainstream Jewish organizations have been restrained and responsible in reacting to Jackson’s candidacy.
On September 16, 1979, Jackson appeared on the CBS show 60 Minutes. He said: “With all of the talk of the black-Jewish alliance, we don’t own radio stations together, we don’t own TV stations together, we don’t own banks together, we do not share in the ownership of the industries they have begun to get some hold on together.”
I fear that Jesse Jackson — and a surprisingly large number of people — believe in the stereotypical myth of the powerful Jew. (Ellen Willis published an excellent essay on this theme in the September 3, 1979, issue of the Voice.) This myth can lead to a form of scapegoating about “the Jews” controlling the banks, and “the Jews” controlling the media.
The real power in America is corporate and military. C. Wright Mills taught us that in The Power Elite more than 20 years ago. Jews do not own the biggest banks, like Chase, or Citibank, or the Bank of America. Jews do not own the biggest corporations, like General Motors or ITT. Jews do not own any oil companies, like Mobil, Gulf, or Texaco. Jews do not control the defense industry, or the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or the CIA. Jews do not own any of the corporations that have become symbols of greed and misconduct, like J.P. Stevens, Hooker Chemical, Kerr-McGee, or Lilco.
There are no Jews on the Supreme Court. There are no Jews in Ronald Reagan’s cabinet. Jews do not own the TV networks. Jews do not even own the New York Post or the Daily News.
But I know from personal conversations how widespread and deep-seated the myth of Jewish power is. And this misconception causes resentment among the truly powerless, who have less privilege than the Jews.
There is a parallel misconception among many whites, which is that blacks have successfully made it into the middle class as a result of the gains of the civil rights movement and the war on poverty. This fallacy is effectively demolished in an essay by Paul Robeson Jr. in the February issue of Jewish Currents. Robeson’s essay is a review of The State of Black America, published by the National Urban League. It documents that blacks are worse off now than 10 years ago, by all economic measures, including median income and the percentage of families living below the poverty level.
During the “Hymie” controversy, Jackson staff members and advisers were quoted several times as saying it wasn’t so serious because Jackson never expected to get many Jewish votes anyway. Marion Barry, the mayor of Washington, said this.
This response is morally blind. It assumes that non-Jews are not offended by a religious slur. I think they are. Most of my non-Jewish friends’ were disgusted by Jackson’s remark, and several ceased to support him because of it. Jackson’s support in New Hampshire shrunk from 16 per cent to 5 per cent after the “Hymie” slur, and the Jewish vote is negligible in New Hampshire.
When Spiro Agnew used the term “fat Jap,” not only Asian-Americans should have been offended. When Abraham Kauvar said “nigger,” not only blacks should have felt violated. When J. Peter Grace said most Puerto Ricans were living off food stamps, we all should have been outraged.
Reciprocity and reconciliation.
I understand that Jesse Jackson has been the victim of some traumatic experiences inflicted by a few extremist Jews. His life has been threatened — no trivial matter to a former aide to Martin Luther King. Dead animals have been left on the doorstep to his office. Bomb threats have been phoned regularly to his New York campaign headquarters. His announcement for president was disrupted by the JDL. Two of his campaign offices outside of New York have been firebombed. His family has been harassed. Some of his quotes have been wrenched out of context and misinterpreted by his critics.
But none of this can exonerate Jackson for what he — a Baptist minister and a candidate for president — said about Jews, and about New York. His choice of language, as Basil Paterson said, was “impermissible when said by anyone, on or off the record.”
Next year Ed Koch will try to use the memory of Jackson’s slur to destroy any black candidate who seeks Jewish votes.
But what is Koch’s moral authority in the realm of racial harmony, sensitivity, and justice? What is Koch’s habit and history?
I would argue that in some ways Koch is the white mirror image of Jackson, and that of the two Koch is the more dangerous, because he has more power. Ed Koch controls the allocation of a $14 billion budget; Jesse Jackson can only agitate. Koch holds life and death power over the people who live in New York; Jackson is a symbolic politician and a Chicago clergyman. If we are to be even-handed we should recognize that because Koch is the mayor of the largest city in this country, he can do more harm to more people with his defects of character than Jackson can.
At this stage in history there should be little need to recapitulate all that Koch has done to injure and insult minorities, except to refresh the memory a bit. He closed Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital in 1979, even though there was a desperate need for medical care in a community with frightening statistics on infant mortality, life expectancy, and tuberculosis. In 1982 the TB rate in central Harlem was 10 times the national average. There were nine deaths from TB in Harlem in 1981, and 22 the next year.
Koch approved a redistricting plan for the City Council that even Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department found biased against blacks and Latins. He refused to fire his health and hospitals president after the man used the word “nigger” in public. He has kept Elliot Gross in his job as medical examiner despite the obvious cover-up autopsy Gross performed on the battered body of Michael Stewart. He has refused to appoint civilians from outside the police department to the brutality review board. Koch endorsed Andrew Stein over David Dinkins, Alfred DelBello over Carl McCall, and Fred Richmond over Bernard Gifford, in a pattern of rejection of superior black candidates. Koch supported the legally unqualified Robert Wagner for schools chancellor over two better-qualified minority applicants. Koch has failed to provide adequate municipal services to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, Harlem, and other poor, black neighborhoods, while hoarding a $500 million budget surplus, and giving millions of dollars in tax abatements and tax exemptions to mid-Manhattan landlords.
And then there is Koch’s comment on blacks and Jews which first appeared in Ken Auletta’s profile in The New Yorker in 1979, and which Koch, incredibly, in his new book, says he still believes to be right and true. What Koch said is this:
“I find the black community very anti-Semitic… My experience with blacks is that they’re basically anti-Semitic… I think whites are basically anti-black.” Think about this remark for a moment. Think about the values behind it. Think of it as a window into the mind of Ed Koch.
In the secrecy of Ed Koch’s mind lurks the belief that black people are “basically anti-Semitic,” and this justifies treating them unequally, just as the belief that whites hate blacks justifies appealing to that hatred to win elections.
Curiously, Koch confuses religion and race. He says blacks are biased against Jews, but he doesn’t say Jews are biased against blacks. He says whites are biased against blacks. Koch’s hate equation is unbalanced.
Koch says “my experience with blacks…” But Koch has no experience with blacks. He has not had one black personal friend since I met him, which was in 1962. Koch has no intimate, personal knowledge of what blacks really think and feel.
Our mayor’s bigoted generalization about blacks has no basis in fact. The available evidence points in the opposite direction. In 1979, Kenneth Clark took a poll of blacks to discover their attitude toward other racial and ethnic groups. The poll showed that blacks feel more sympathy with Jews than with any other white religious or ethnic group. In 1983, The Washington Post and ABC took two polls to measure the attitude of blacks toward Israel and the Arab nations. The poll revealed that blacks feel more sympathetic to Israel by a ratio of 3 to 1 — roughly the same ratio as the American population as a whole.
For the mayor of New York City — the greatest port of refuge in all history for every persecuted immigrant group — to proclaim that blacks hate Jews and that whites hate blacks is demented. And for him to govern on this false and cynical assumption is poison.
The logical morality of black-Jewish coalitions is overwhelming to me. Blacks and Jews share a history of persecution. Slavery and the Holocaust should demonstrate to everyone what intolerance and racism can lead to. Toleration must be a special concern for both blacks and Jews.
Blacks and Jews have a shared history of struggle in the civil rights movement. There is no more haunting symbol of that collaboration than the buried bodies of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner — two Jewish activists from New York and a black activist from rural Mississippi who were murdered together by Ku Klux Klansmen outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi, 20 years ago, during the freedom summer of voter registration.
The reason the FBI bugged and wiretapped Martin Luther King was King’s friendship with a Jewish adviser — Stanley Levison.
But memory, sentiment, or moralism by themselves, are not enough to refashion this coalition of conscience. There has been too much pain inflicted: because of the 1968 school strike, because of Bakke and Defunis, because of the firing of Andrew Young, because of the rise of Koch, because of the habit of Jesse Jackson.
But realism can help rebuild this coalition. Mutual self-interest can help. And I think maybe the most helpful glue can be facts. Simple facts.
A most significant fact to understand is that Jews are still, by far, the most liberal group of whites in this country, and in this city, and the most likely coalition allies with minorities. Despite the images of Podhoretz, Koch, and Kahane, Jews are twice as liberal on race as Italians, the Irish, the Poles, or any other white religious or ethnic grouping. Consider these facts:
• In May 1983, in Chicago, Harold Washington, competing against a Jewish Republican, received 35 per cent of the Jewish vote. This was greater than the vote by any other white ethnic group. And it was twice as high as the overall white vote for Washington, which was 18 per cent. If liberal Jews had not risen above tribal loyalties, and had voted for one of their own, Harold Washington would not be mayor of Chicago today.
• In April 1983, Wilson Goode won the Democratic primary for mayor of Philadelphia against Frank Rizzo with 23 per cent of the white vote. But Goode received 50 per cent of the Jewish vote.
• In November 1982, Tom Bradley, the black mayor of Los Angeles, was defeated for governor by Republican George Deukmejian by less than 1 per cent of the vote. Bradley won 42 per cent of the total white vote, but he won 75 per cent of the Jewish vote. And Bradley received more support from Jews than he got from Mexican-Americans.
• In 1980, Bruce Wright defeated Jack Dubinsky for the civil court in a borough-wide Democratic primary in Manhattan. Wright ran much stronger in Jewish neighborhoods than he did in Italian or Irish districts, even though his opponent was Jewish. And this was only a year after the Andrew Young firing, which increased tensions.
Across the country the pattern of statistical evidence is consistent. Jews are twice as willing to vote for a black candidate like Harold Washington or Bruce Wright as the rest of the white population.
There is other evidence, as well, of the strong, philosophical liberalism of Jewish voters.
According to an ABC nationwide exit poll, Jews voted 77 per cent for Democratic congressional candidates in 1982. Except for blacks, who voted 84 per cent for Democrats, this was a substantially higher proportion than any other group of whites.
One of the best tests of the liberalism of the Jewish community — and of the willingness of Jews to vote for values beyond the tribe — came in the Mario Cuomo–Lew Lehrman race for governor of New York in 1982. Lehrman was Jewish. He ran in favor of the death penalty and in favor of Kemp-Roth-style tax cuts. He outspent Cuomo by 3 to 1. Yet Cuomo, the Italian, won 64 per cent of the Jewish vote with his pro-labor, pro-poor people platform.
And blacks have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to vote in growing numbers for white candidates who show sensitivity to black interests and a black agenda. Blacks were not apathetic or indifferent when Frank Barbaro, Robert Abrams, Liz Holtzman, and Mario Cuomo ran. Blacks voted for these white candidates in numbers that astonished the pollsters and power brokers. Blacks also voted in vast numbers for Howard Metzenbaum in Ohio, and Carl Levin in Michigan — both liberal Jews.
The rainbow coalition that elected Mario Cuomo and the similar coalition that elected Harold Washington are the hope I see for the future. These are the models we must try to replicate to retire Reagan, replace Koch, and to change the direction of America from Charles Darwin to Martin Luther King. ■