For many Americans, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington was a time of broad themes, of big-picture talks about race and economic justice. But for some, the events of the past week stirred specific memories — some good and others not — concerning relations between African Americans and Jews.
Jews were extremely active in the civil rights movement, and they played a role that was especially remarkable in light of their making up such a small part of the nation’s population. Prominent rabbis marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and several were involved in the founding of the NAACP.
Historians have noted that, starting in the early part of the 20th century, the two communities found common cause in fighting their exclusion from largely white, largely Christian mainstream society and in overcoming prejudice that would deny them entry to residential neighborhoods, universities and athletic clubs.
“We had common enemies. When there was anti-Semitism and racism, they were often hand in hand,” said D.C. filmmaker Aviva Kempner. Kempner recently made a film about black-Jewish relations that tells the story of Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, who in the early 20th century funded schools for African Americans throughout the South.
By the 1980s and 1990s, however, the relationship had frayed, strained by such points of contention as the opposition of some Jewish leaders to affirmative action and anti-Jewish comments made by black leaders Jesse L. Jackson and Louis Farrakhan.
Although many African Americans and Jews continue to work together on shared, largely liberal, interests — including civil liberties, public education and voting rights — younger generations have drifted apart over such issues as national economic policy and Israel.
So, for about 100 African American and Jewish leaders, the week’s events provided a welcome opportunity to revisit this once-close relationship and consider how it might be restored to its former effectiveness. Participants in a half-day symposium, “Reflections on the Jewish and African American Civil Rights Alliances,” included Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D); Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Rabbi David Saperstein, a leader of Reform Judaism; and Susanna Heschel, a Jewish studies professor and daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a philosopher who marched with King in Selma, Ala.
Among the organizers was Thomas Hart, 57, an African American lawyer, lobbyist and documentary filmmaker in the District. Hart has long partnered with Jewish leaders on such causes at securing voting rights and expanding black-owned media, and he is making a film about black-Jewish relations.
He said the “dire” economic conditions that many black Americans face have contributed to a gap with the Jewish community, as has the growth of the nation’s Muslim community (a quarter of which is African American) and resulting tensions over Middle East policy.
“Right now the relationship is flat, and I think both communities have suffered a bit as a result of the fragmentation,” Hart said Thursday. “But when we are working together, things get done.”
Putting together the symposium, he said, “was like kids at a dance party trying to figure out who was going to go on the dance floor first. And at the end everyone was dancing together.”
The forum focused on three areas of long-standing common interest: education, law and public policy, and media. There was discussion of organizing exchanges between historically black and historically Jewish colleges in the United States as well as between African American schools in the United States and schools in Israel.
In an interview Thursday, Kempner — whose parents were European refugees of violent anti-Semitism — said an earlier generation of Jews was “raised to see racism as the biggest problem in America.” Now that America is becoming more religiously and racially diverse and mixed, identity issues are increasingly complex.
She sees hope in mixed marriages, like the recent wedding she attended of a young black and Jewish couple. “There was the hora [a dance] and jumping the broom. Maybe that’s what we were fighting for,” she said.
But Heschel, who teaches in the Jewish studies program at Dartmouth College, said the civil rights movement has shifted since the 1960s in ways that have affected black-Jewish relations.
One difference, she said, is the movement’s change from one based in churches and synagogues to one that operates largely in courts and legislatures, a shift that has greatly reduced “the religious dimension.”
“It was the religious dimension that brought us together,” Heschel said. “What does it mean to link arms and sing ‘We Shall Overcome’? Is that political or spiritual?”