Such Good Friends: Blacks and Jews in Conflict

"Anyone who has followed the disintegration of the civil rights alliance in recent years knows that open conflict was inevitable. Blacks and Jews in this country have been on a collision course for more than a decade"


Such Good Friends: Blacks and Jews in Conflict
August 27, 1979

We consider the ouster of An­drew Young as a hostile act toward the black community.”
— Richard Hatcher, mayor of Gary, Indiana

“The issue right now is not Jews and blacks. The issue is the Middle East.”
— Andy Young

Andrew Young would be out of character if he did not attempt to play down the ethnic frictions that have been exposed by his sudden resignation as the American Am­bassador to the United Nations. Young was known as a conciliator during the Civil Rights era. It was this instinct that led him to the fateful meeting with the representative of the Palestinian Liberation Organization that precipitated his downfall. But Young’s considerable talent will be hard-­pressed to soothe the troubled wa­ters of relations between Jews and blacks. It should be said now that the conflict is real and that its origins go far beyond the bound­aries of international diplomacy.

Anyone who has followed the disintegration of the civil rights alliance in recent years knows that open conflict was inevitable. Blacks and Jews in this country have been on a collision course for more than a decade. The only surprise is Andy Young serving as unwilling catalyst for the escalation of hostilities. Any number of other events could have triggered the confrontations: the war against affirmative action waged by the major Jewish organizations; the role of Jewish-controlled institutions in perpetuating racial stereotypes; and the political rela­tionship of Israel to southern Africa.

It is dishonest to suggest that Andy Young’s color had nothing to with the uproar he caused as U.N. Ambassador. As a black man, he articulated a view of the world shared by many blacks and some whites in this county and elsewhere. The objections to Young’s statements came from people who take a different view of world events, a view that has long been dominant in Western coun­tries, but whose credibility has come under intense pressure as the balance of power in the world has begun to shift.

The resignation of Andrew Young therefore, is metaphor: for a struggle between competing ethnic groups; for relations be­tween the “haves” and “have­-nots” here and elsewhere; and for differing visions of the future. The conflict between blacks and Jews reflects the fact that these two groups have made their alliances with opposing camps in an international strug­gle for power.

My interest in Jewish-black relations begins with my own origins. My grand­father, Emmanuel Dreyfuss, migrated from France to Haiti in the 1880s to escape anti-Semitism and married into an old Haitian family. As the child of interna­tional civil servants growing up in the Caribbean, West Africa, and Europe, I found no contradictions between being black and having roots that were Jewish, French African, and Latin American. But when my family settled in New York in 1960, I learned quickly that I could no longer straddle my multiple origins. I was black in America, but I retained a deep personal concern about American Jews and their relationship to American blacks.

I had grown up in a world where class was more important than color and power, more effective than morality, so I was fascinated by race relations in America. The civil rights movement seemed terribly naive, but its successes confirmed the promise of America. During my American­ization in New York public schools and at City College, I accepted without question the explanation that blacks and Jews were allies because of their common history of oppression. Most of my white friends were Jews and we seemed to share a vision of the benefits, contradictions, and injustices of the American system. But a series of events in the 1960s began to strain that alliance — and my own personal rela­tionships with Jewish friends.

The emergence of the black power movement seemed logical to me. I had grown up accustomed to blacks exercising power in Haiti and in Africa. Once the laws declaring racial equality were put in place here, I thought it natural for blacks to want to control institutions that would meet their needs and reflect their own perceptions. Stokely Carmichael’s famous 1966 declaration that whites should com­bat racism and leave blacks to organize themselves hardly seemed to warrant the hostile reaction it provoked in the Jewish community. I couldn’t understand why Jews were so resentful of a sense of group identity among blacks that they them­selves had always enjoyed.

From conversations with my friends I concluded that the reaction was more emotional than rational. Jews had pro­vided much support to the civil rights movement and they felt blacks were being ungrateful. The fact that blacks played no prominent role in B’nai B’rith and the American Jewish Committee was not an acceptable comparison to them. I would learn much later that some Jewish in­tellectuals were beginning to have serious doubts about the direction of the movement and could foresee a time when blacks would threaten their achievements. Af­firmative action, then known as “preferen­tial treatment,” was considered dangerous by the editors of Commentary, who also feared that blacks were becoming anti­-Semitic and would switch their allegiance to the Wasp establishment.

Most studies show, however, that black anti-Semitism is concentrated among poorer blacks whose contact with Jews is limited to exploitive shops and stores in ghetto areas. In his essay “The Harlem Ghetto,” James Baldwin explained the problem as being “in accordance with the American business tradition,” to which the Jewish Press responded by claiming that were it not for the Jews in Harlem there would be no businesses at all there to provide jobs for blacks. The fallacy of Baldwin’s and the Jewish Press’s reason­ing was exposed by Harold Cruse in the Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, when he says that “There was a time, not too many years ago, when these Jewish-owned busi­nesses would not hire Negro help at all. They did not do so, in fact, until forced too… by the Black Nationalist Movement [and Adam Clayton Powell, Cruse should have added].”

The issue was not just political theory. There was a real conflict over roles. The coalition of blacks and Jews, the joining of two groups with vastly unequal power and resources, was more symbiosis than alliance. Blacks had benefited from the involvement in the civil rights movement and would suffer a damaging blow when that support was withdrawn. The Jews had also benefited from the civil rights era. They had been able to confront their own alienation from the American mainstream — and exclusion similar in concep­tion but vastly different in degree from the black experience in America — by partici­pating in the struggle for equality. The rebuff by blacks forced Jews to reevaluate their standing in America and led them to conclude that they could no longer classify themselves among the “have nots” of this country. If they had become a powerful force in America, what was the benefit of associating with a powerless and increas­ingly unpopular group?

For some blacks, the patronizing tone of some Jews and their unwillingness to cooperate on a more equal basis indicated that the racial attitude of Jews were not so different from that of other whites. Black self-assertion, often exaggerated in its nov­elty, was as much a threat to liberal friends as it was to conservative foes. To those blacks who had hoped that Jews would somehow be “different,” the revel­ation provoked a disappointment that was matched by Jewish dismay at black “sepa­ratism.”

The parting of the ways came at a time when civil rights leaders were realizing the inadequacy of protest for confronting eco­nomic issues. Martin Luther King’s Chi­cago campaign, his first movement north, had been a dismal failure. There had been fierce white resistance, Mayor Daly side­stepped the issue and King was literally stoned. This caused trepidation in the northern liberal community. King’s early opposition to the Vietnam War completed the break. This, after all, was the war against Communism, and besides, blacks, as a Times editorial counseled at the time, should not be concerned with foreign poli­cy matters. (Andy Young’s appearance on Face the Nation last Sunday showed how little this attitude has changed: Washington Post reporter Martin Schram won­dered aloud if blacks should be concerned about the Middle East issue.) King was also criticized by Roy Wilkins, then head of the NAACP, and Whitney Young of the National Urban League for his position on the war. This rift reflected their depen­dence on Jewish support, since Jews strongly supported the U.S. presence in Vietnam. It was this dependence that undermined the credibility of these organiza­tions in the eyes of militant nationalist blacks at the time. After King’s death, the fear of black violence chased some white liberals back to the fold, but the alliance could not last because black and Jewish interests no longer coincided.

Neither did their perceptions of the methods useful for black liberation. In an April 30, 1954, issue of the Jewish Press, the Black Muslims were compared to American Nazis like Lincoln Rockwell and likened to racists and extremists. Harold Cruse suggests, however, that this was a convenient forgetting of the fact that the Irgun Zvai Leumi and the Stern Gang in pre-1948 Israel were called the same things. “Yet,” says Harold Cruse, “it was these very people who truly forged Israel by forcing the British Army to vacate the territory.” In fact, the Black Muslims and the movement of Malcolm X, which tried to forge an international black conscious­ness movement was heavily attacked by Jews and other white liberals. As time goes on the need for black institutions seems more legitimate than ever. The relative lack of black political and economic power seems the result of the lack of such institutions.

American Jews had routed anti-Semitism and opened all but the most sacred doors of the American system. Blacks were still on the outside and they would become their natural competitors in the urban middle classes.

The Ocean Hill-Brownsville controversy in New York was a microcosm of the emerging conflict. The public school system in New York was largely in the hands of Jews and generally ineffective in educating blacks. The struggle for power centered on the issue of community control, but its implications were broader. The demand of black parents for black teachers and administrators was a direct threat to Jewish jobs. In the struggle between liberalism and employment, the children of New York were the losers. Opportunists on both sides of the issue resorted to race baiting and obscured what might have been an important discussion of the roles blacks and Jews would play in the future of American cities. Once the spectre of anti-Semitism was raised, any intelligent attempt to redistribute power and make the schools more effective became impossible. Lacking the influence to define the issue on their own terms and focus public attention on the problem, blacks were doomed to lose.

There is a variation on this conflict in the recent battles of blacks and the Koch administration. For the first time in the 300-year history of New York City, Jews have taken control of the city’s political apparatus. In the process of exercising their new powers they have neglected to appease the powerless in the tradition of their predecessors. We no longer hear about balanced tickets, an ancient tradi­tion in urban politics. In a city with the concentration of black talent that is New York, there is no excuse for Koch’s inabili­ty — or unwillingness — to find blacks to play substantive roles in his administration. Black politicians in New York must bear some of the blame for the de­cline of their influence. But they had always depended on white benevolence and its swift end left them unprepared.

The peculiar madness of being black in America in the 1970s is due primarily to the chasm between our experiences and their interpretation by whites. Public opin­ion polls show most whites believe that racism is no longer an obstacle to black progress. Yet racism, in its more subtle forms, is an experience shared by blacks regardless of background, education, or class.

Journalism is an area where black-­white relations have never been good. American newspapers rank among the most segregated institutions in this coun­try, undoubtedly because of the power they wield in their communities. Recently, a young black woman on the staff of an influential newspaper was congratulated by a colleague for a front-page article she had written about one of the country’s most powerful families.

“Great article,” gushed her white col­league, “The editors did a great job of putting in that background material.”

“What background material? What editors?” asked the bewildered reporter.

“You know, all that research.”

“Wait a minute,” said the black wom­an. “My by-line was the only one on the story, why do you assume I didn’t do that research?”

Black reporters at the New York Times who have accused their employers of racial discrimination in a Title VII class-action suit tell the story of the editor who walked into the newsroom one evening and came upon a group of black reporters chatting after a hard day’s work.

“Can we help you?” asked one of the black reporters.

“No,” the editor replied. “I came to look for some writers, but I see everyone has left.”

The Invisible Man has made a come­back in the 1970s. The experiences that most blacks live never make the evening news, prime-time television, or the world of Woody Allen. Whites continue to deny their racism and reveal it for all to see in their fantasies. Blacks will obviously play no role in the future of Star Wars and Close Encounters. They don’t exist in the present of Manhattan and Superman. They are written out of the past in the Deerhunter and Loose Change. Blacks didn’t exist in the pages of best-selling books or in the indexes of journals and magazines.

While blacks are absent from the ex­periences of whites, they find it nearly impossible to express their own vision. Black writers cannot get published. Black actors are asked to play blacks that exist only in the mind of white writers and directors. This situation reflects the dis­tribution of power in this country, but it has other ramifications.

Jewish power in America has always been a difficult subjects to address. Jewish leaders, fearing a backlash, have tried to downplay their influence on America. Their most effective tactic has been to attack any references to the power of Jews as “anti-Semitic,” immediately blocking further discussion of the issue. But it is impossible to discuss the conflict between blacks and Jews without addressing the issue of power. American Jews exert an economic, political, and intellectual influence on this country far out of propor­tion to their numbers. American blacks have far less impact than their numbers could lead them to expect.

American Jews dominate the image­-shaping industries of our era: film, tele­vision, journalism, and book publishing. In the past, Hollywood excused its racism on the grounds that it was only catering to the taste of the marketplace. Now, some blacks suspect, the seriously distorted rep­resentation of blacks in America may not be accidental but the product of hostilities that go back to the 1960s. The fact that these industries are associated with Jews does little for relations between the races.

Blacks, envious of the power that Jews wield in America, find it difficult to under­stand the profound insecurity of Jews about their own role in this country. This insecurity led to the reaction against black power and is reflected in the vehemence of the attacks against affirmative action. Any system which looks at numbers in the population is seen as a threat to Jewish achievement. But a sensitivity to race has been the most effective way of bringing blacks into the mainstream. To pretend that racial attitudes do not affect eval­uations, selection, and promotions is to deny hundreds of years of conditioning in America. That is the kernel of last June’s Weber Supreme Court decision, an ac­knowledgement of historical fact strangely absent from the Bakke decision of 1978.

In briefs filed in the Bakke case, notably those of B’nai B’rith and the neo­conservative Committee for Academic Non-Discrimination and Integrity (Sidney Hook, Nathan Glazer, Bruno Bettelheim), there were attempts to equate the Jewish experience in America with that of blacks. The CANI brief even went so far as to argue that Allan Bakke had fewer rights under affirmative action than a black after Reconstruction.

Unsatisfied with the Bakke decision, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith declared this summer that it would visit major professional schools to ensure that the Supreme Court ban was not vio­lated in the procedures for admitting minority students. This is another example of Jews applying their considerable powers for their own interests without considering the possible repercussions.

The only indication of Jewish concern about relations with blacks in recent years was a decision by the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Com­mittee not to file briefs in the Weber Supreme Court case. They were persuaded by the argument that Jews did not have such vital interests in a case involving blue-collar jobs. However, the Anti-Defamation League pressed on with its cam­paign to prevent any consideration of race in the redistribution of opportunities. The League perceived Weber as possibly opening the doors to proportional distribution of opportunities, which, to the ADL, meant that Jews, more highly represented in professional schools and the blue-collar work force than their 2 percent of the population, would lose these places to blacks.

Jews were certainly denied op­portunities in this country. But that denial was never a part of official govern­ment policy. It can never compare to the systematic cruelty and frequent savagery of efforts to enforce white supremacy in America. Jews and other white ethnics were able to work, to vote, to join unions, and to form political organizations. The advantages these groups have over blacks today can be attributed to the 100 years that followed emancipation. To suggest, as Nathan Glazer has in his famous book Affirmative Discrimination, that white immigrants played no part in oppressing blacks is not only bad history but down­right dishonest. The union movement was all white. Political patronage systems did not include blacks. Traditionally, immi­grants adopted the racial attitudes of those who were already here.

The strategy for resisting minority pressures for a share of the wealth has been to deny any responsibility for their lower status in this country. The theories of the “underclass” come dangerously close to arguments for white supremacy. I learned that a couple of years ago in con­versation with an Afrikaner professor about the Bakke case. He was a member of the Verligkter, or enlightened group, which wants to find a solution to South Africa’s racial impasse. His description of arguments against integration made by his colleagues had an uncanny resemblance to those made here by oppo­nents of affirmative action. The concern about “lowered standards” and “the cul­ture of poverty” had a distinct American ring.

In the eyes of many blacks, American Jews have cast their lot with those who would maintain the status quo. Because many Jewish intellectuals are prominent in this movement, there is a danger that blacks will view all Jews as the enemy.

Many black people believe that as the power of Jews has increased, so has their insensitivity to different views and different cultures. While blacks have to struggle to get the United States to pay any attention to the problems of Africa, the Middle East consumes the energies of successive American administrations. Jewish dissidents in the Soviet Union en­joy a flood of publicity, but black dissidents in South Africa are ignored until they are killed. Black complaints about racism in television fall on deaf ears, but the selection of Vanessa Redgrave to play a concentration camp victim creates an uproar. And now, the suspicion is that Andy Young was ousted to appease Jewish and Israeli anger.

But there have been changes in the recent years. The roles of the “have” and “have nots” have shifted. The American defeat in Vietnam was an important sym­bol for the emerging nationalism of the Third World. If a tiny country could sur­vive the rage of the world’s most powerful nation then the struggle for self-determination was not hopeless. The rout of the Portuguese (and their NATO weap­ons) in Angola and Mozambique reinforced this belief.

The Cold Warriors, righteous in their power, could only see red. Racism con­tributed to the perception of liberation movements as dupes of Soviet Com­munism. After all, it was difficult to believe that blacks in this country could know what was best for them.

In 1967, Israel’s bold military victory in the Six Day War captured the world’s imagination. But Israel as an occupying force soon lost its image as an underdog. By the time of the 1973 war, Israel was being viewed in the Third World as a surrogate for Western interests in the Middle East. Israel and its allies had difficulty understanding this shift. In their arrogance of power, the Western nations had ignored the changes taking place around them. After several generations of military supremacy, they had come to confuse power and merit. They had forgot­ten that a philosophy backed by power becomes politics. The powerful often end believing that their views are the most logical, their systems the most perfect, their actions the most just.

The value of Andrew Young was his ability to empathize with the aspirations of Third World countries. His presence gave credibility to American foreign policy toward the developing countries. He did not approach Africa with the arrogance of Henry Kissinger, who convened his Vien­na summit on southern Africa in 1976 without a single black at the conference table. Kissinger represented an archaic style of foreign diplomacy, a throwback to the days when white men could sit around a table and partition Africa amicably.

Andy Young understood why the blacks of Zimbabwe and South Africa saw white supremacy as a greater threat than Communism. Africans, like their brethren in America, had experienced the cruelties of racism. They could not be intimidated by invocation of the red bogey-man. They also knew that the regimes in southern Africa survived because the Western powers supported them. That part of the world became the test of America’s will­ingness to abandon white supremacy as an ally.

But the Arab states, frustrated militari­ly, had discovered the power of oil. They had found a tool that would accelerate the redistribution of power and force the Western nations to reevaluate their international politics. The fall of the Shah of Iran removed the last buffer between the oil nations and their customers. As long as the Shah was in power, Iran would not act in concert with oil producers in any boycott. After the revolution, Iran not only cut off oil to Israel but to South Africa. Therefore, it is not by accident that the Palestinian cause has suddenly become a legitimate issue. And the fact that there is so much resistance to ever considering the cause of the Palestinians could even lead blacks in this country to sympathize with them as the underdog.

As long as Andrew Young confined himself to African issues, his critics would tolerate him as Jimmy Carter’s burden. But once he stepped into the sacred arena of Middle East politics, he became expen­dable. American Jews have always demanded unequivocal support for Israel from successive administrations and they have always regarded the Middle East as something that should not concern blacks. But in our changing world, two major strands of American foreign policy began to intertwine.

Israel was developing a close rela­tionship with South Africa. There was economic and military cooperation, and even hints that the two countries had shared their nuclear weapons technology. The “Muldergate” influence-buying scan­dal was the result of Israel’s advice to South Africa to concentrate on public rela­tions. Israeli helicopters, purchased from the United States turned up in Rhodesia. Just as American Jews were being re­garded as foes at home, blacks were begin­ning to view Israel as an enemy abroad.

The Israelis and their allies could ig­nore black and Third World indignation as long as they could depend on American power. But the new reality of power eluded them. The frothings of Senator Moynihan and the Commentary crowd was little more than nostalgic — but still dangerous. Suggestions that the United States get tough or seize Arab oil fields revealed the desperateness of people bewildered by change. Andy Young’s so-called diplomatic gaffes were intended to open a dialogue in areas that had to be confronted before genuine peace could be achieved. The black struggle for equality in this country provided an important per­spective for liberation struggles in other countries. There are reports that President Carter will appoint another black to re­place Andy Young. But unless that am­bassador can continue Young’s mission, the president’s appointment will be ex­posed as an empty gesture. If we are to live in peace, we must understand and respect one another. History is on the side of the “have nots” here and abroad. Those that have power today had better make friends among the powerless for tomorrow. There is an old African saying: “What goes ’round comes ’round.”