Historic ties between blacks and Jews, classic allies in the long struggle to overcome the discrimination that has victimized both, have taken a buffeting in events of recent years, but the alliance still holds.
That was the conclusion of a panel of distinguished speakers from both groups who addressed a forum on the question at the Washington Hebrew Congregation here this week.
But the speakers cautioned that both groups need "sensitivity" and "understanding" of the issues critical to the other if efforts to rejuvenate the alliance are to succeed.
Blacks must understand that "Jews are very sensitive right now because Israel is going through a very bad patch," said Roger Wilkins, writer and senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and the Joint Center for Political Studies.
"But Jews have to understand that blacks are going through a bad patch too . . . because of the mood of the country and the political situation," he said. "We must talk to each other with great sensitivity and care."
Wilkins tended to take the most pessimistic view among the forum participants.
Although he said he "can't quantify it," he said he is aware of "more black anti-Semitism" at present "than I have ever encountered in my adult life."
On the other side, he said, "I have found more hostility toward the black community and me personally, and some of the things I have done, than at any time in my adult life."
Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.) acknowledged that "there are a number of differences which have surfaced" in recent years. But "in the context of American life as a whole, there are no two communities which have so much in common."
In Congress, he said, "the coalition is very much alive and well."
On a range of issues, he continued, blacks and Jews have supported each other's causes with their votes.
"In Congress, you don't have to be Jewish to be committed to [the welfare of] Israel and you don't have to be black to be committed to the abolition of apartheid in South Africa . . . .
"Jewish members have been able to look to the black members for both sympathy and support" and vice versa.
The two groups, "whose agendas are so similar, can't succeed without each other," Solarz said, adding that each group needs leaders "who can do more than simply galvanize their own community. We need leaders who can build bridges."
Eleanor Holmes Norton, a law professor at Georgetown University, traced the cooperation of the two groups in the assault on segregation a generation ago. She said that more recent tensions were characterized by "flare-ups rather than sustained anger."
"Jews file a brief" challenging affirmative-action quotas, to which blacks look in order to redress past inequalities while "a black expresses sympathy for the PLO," she said.
Resentments flare, she continued, because "most blacks do not know of the widespread use of quotas to keep down the Jews" in years past. By the same token, the question of Israel, "the overriding issue for most Jews, was hardly on the landscape for most blacks," who, she said, have historically tended to "identify with the dispossessed" -- in this case, the Palestinians.
If the resultant tensions "have been bad for the Jews and bad for blacks, it has not been good for social justice in America," she said.
She praised recent efforts at reviving the coalition, such as the joint session here last month of leaders of the NAACP and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. "The coalition needs energizing, it needs leadership," she said. "It is getting both."
Veteran civil rights attorney Joseph L. Rauh Jr. said that "Black-Jewish relations are not as bad as most people are saying, and not as good as they once were."
Describing Jews and blacks historically as "two oppressed groups with shared troubles," he said the alliance also had a religious base. "If you believe in one God, and that man is made in the image of God, then there is one humanity," he said.
One of the factors that contributed to the tensions between the two groups, Rauh said, was the failure to recognize the changing nature of the relationships, the emergence of skilled black professionals into the leadership roles that committed Jewish activists once filled.
"People ask me, 'Aren't you hurt that blacks don't need you any more?' Well, for God's sake! That's what the whole thing was based on," he exclaimed.
Rauh challenged his Jewish listeners, who made up about three-fourths of the audience of 450, "to continue to work in the field of civil rights."
"No sacrifice is too great to keep our country progressive . . . , " he said.
Despite the tensions of recent years, Solarz said, "here in Washington, in an arena where it really counts, blacks and Jews work hand-in-hand to benefit not only our communities, but the interests of our country as well."