A day and a half into the University of the District of Columbia's conference on black-Jewish relations, panelist Charles Stith, a black Methodist minister from Boston, mentioned that blacks' and Jews' problems are different "in degree rather than in kind." As soon as he had finished, a middle-aged black man in work clothes stood up to an audience microphone. "I'd like to advise the minister to be careful on such points," he said in soft, cultured tones. "There is a difference between fool's gold and gold."
Academic conferences on broad, knotty problems such as "black-Jewish relations in the United States" sometimes achieve a perverse success: jolting their previously detached participants and spectators to the awareness that, good Lord, this is a serious problem. That's what happened at the UDC conference last month -- an event where the most dramatic lesson was the contrast between the reasoned, analytic tone of the panel discussions and the fear and anger and bitterness that kept bubbling up around their edges.
The invited speakers -- some 50 sociologists, journalists, politicians and historians from as far away as McGill University in Montreal -- were there to talk calmly about such matters as "Jews, Blacks and the Media" and "Differing Styles of Political Behavior and Group Leadership Between Blacks and Jews." But UDC's special status as a largely minority university with strong ties to community service organizations and local government brought to the audience a fair number of people -- such as highly politicized and angry young people -- not often seen at academic conferences. And that in turn broadened the debate more than many of the academic participants might have expected.
Along with their insights came strained moments aplenty -- in the hallways between panels, in the spontaneous spatters of applause or annoyed murmuring during the presentations and most often in the question periods after each discussion. The question period after an Israel-and- South Africa panel became a shouting match, which, one audience member admitted afterward, "kind of got out of hand." But the gaps in perception showed up best in the daily informal discussions.
At the one I attended -- a fairly even mix of about 30, chaired by a scrupulously nonpartisan white priest -- it swiftly became clear that the "black-Jewish conflicts" we had been talking about all day meant quite separate things to each group. When the Jews present talked about black-Jewish troubles in recent years, they were talking about Louis Farrakhan. The black group members, by contrast, were willing to discuss Farrakhan, sometimes hotly, when he was mentioned; but when they spoke of problems in black-Jewish relations, they mostly meant two events the Jewish members would have called peripheral. One was the foundering of Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign after he made his comment about "hymies." The other was the firing of U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young from his post after he dealt directly with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Both incidents were widely perceived by blacks as the result of organized Jewish pressure.
The friction in the meeting began with the first question. An elderly Jewish woman asked why so many blacks seem willing to disregard the PLO's terrorist actions -- do they feel a personal kinship with another nonwhite people, she asked, or what? The question echoed a theme touched on by sociologist Glenn Loury in his luncheon speech less than an hour before. Loury had suggested that the experience of constant rejection makes blacks feel "in but not of the West" and thus highly susceptible to the "fundamentally anti-West" nature of anti-Israel movements in the Third World. But the young conference organizer who fielded the question answered quite differently.
"First of all, I object to the condescension of your question -- as if we have to have some emotional reason, as if we couldn't support the PLO on the merits," she said. "But more important, we reject the idea that the PLO is a terrorist group just because the United States says it is. We were victims of such terrorism on the part of the U.S., the kidnapping in Africa, the slavery, that we don't see any reason to accept its values on the subject. How dare they?"
But actions are actions whoever describes them, argued a Jewish woman: "You can evaluate the PLO for yourselves. A terrorist is a terrorist even if a terrorist says he is." The first speaker shook her head, reiterating, "Those are your values." Another black participant, urban affairs specialist Charles Cassell, tried to make it clearer by drawing the connection between her emotion and the flap over Jackson and Farrakhan.
"Our relation to our country is different from yours; naturally, we'd see things differently," he said. "Every black person feels betrayed every day by the country of his birth. Getting a good man up there -- we don't get many -- changes that. And then all of a sudden he's in serious trouble because of this term 'hymie' that most blacks didn't even know was an ethnic slur. I mean, we knew he wouldn't make it to the finish line, but we didn't expect the interference to come from that quarter."
The tones stayed heated as the discussion swung to other subjects. When a black participant (a bit acidly) said she had "always wondered" why "we lost our Jewish allies" when it came to integrating college faculties, a bearded young white man, a teacher, answered, "Well, you're an intelligent person. Have you got a theory about it?" Twenty minutes after the discussion ended, he and Cassell were still arguing over whether the phrase "you're an intelligent person" had constituted racist condescension.
Are there counterarguments to address such emotion? Well, maybe a parallel observation, which a speaker from the American Jewish Conference drew in the concluding panel. If Jewish attacks on Jackson probed the most sensitive spot in blacks' American experience -- their sense that they don't belong -- then casual anti-Semitic comments strike likewise at the central sore spot of American Jews -- their sense that the society could at any time turn against them.
Neither argument satisfactorily addresses the other; neither touches on any of the complex social issues brought up by the sociologists and the historians -- issues of class difference, of institutional control versus influence through lobbying, even of Jews' greater ability in white society to "pass." And yet the near-anger of the discussion-group exchanges was what made the event more illuminating than the sum of its panels. Many participants left with consternation visibly deepening on their faces -- yes, there are anti-Semitic blacks who focus on Jews their larger resentments of white society; yes, there are racist Jews for whom blacks personify their worst fears. Both groups occupy the fringes of an intellectual and emotional debate whose deeper currents, it's clear, are swaying them in ways that reasoned argument is unlikely to touch. And if we call ourselves paranoid or write such people off as extremists, they will still be angrily there.