Relations between blacks and Jews, those traditional civil-rights allies, are, to put it euphemistically, strained. Deep-seated practical and philosophical differences over "affirmative action," intergroup jealousies and foreign-policy disputes have fostered mutual mistrust and shaken their once-solid coalition.
Just a week ago, the American Jewish Committee filed a friend-of-the- court brief in an attempt to overturn a consent decree that blacks had hailed as a significant victory. The decree, an attempt to settle a 9-year-old discrimination case involving the New Orleans police department, called for the promotion of one black officer for every white promoted. The AJC opposed that provision on the ground that it constitutes a quota.
Jewish groups have objected as well to "goals and timetables" and other numerical measures of nondiscrimination, leading some blacks to suppose that Jews are, despite their protestations to the contrary, opposed to the interests of blacks. That is one reason for the strained relations between them.
But there is another side to this disturbing picture. In the recent Chicago mayoral contest, Jews gave 43 percent of their vote to the victorious Harold Washington, a black candidate, even though he was running against a Jew, Bernard Epton. (Only 18 percent of the total white vote went to Washington.)
In the 1982 California gubernatorial race, 75 percent of the Jewish voters voted for Tom Bradley--well above the 55 percent Hispanic vote garnered by the unsuccessful black candidate.
And in the recent Philadelphia primary, in which 76 percent of all white voters supported former Mayor Frank Rizzo, Wilson Goode, the winning black candidate, captured half of the Jewish vote.
Does this sound like Jewish antipathy to black interests?
One of the major strains on black- Jewish relations in recent years has been in the area of foreign policy-- particularly with regard to the Middle East and Africa.
But my guess is that the strain is based less on particular policy considerations than on a sense of black powerlessness that has very little to do with Jews. If black Americans were able to influence U.S. policy toward Africa as successfully as Jewish Americans influence U.S. policy toward Israel, this particular source of concern would evaporate.
But the main source of unease between blacks and Jews is the philosophical question of how best to enforce nondiscrimination. Any method that can be translated as "quotas" is resisted by Jews, who still remember when quotas were used to limit their participation. For Jews, quotas mean "this many and no more." For blacks, goals and timetables mean "at least this many, or you're still discriminating."
The Jewish leadership finds it frustrating that blacks, focusing on the numbers controversy, doubt the sincerity of Jews on the whole question of affirmative action. In the New Orleans case, for example, the AJC came out in support of all other elements of the consent decree: special recruitment efforts, revised selection procedures, a review of all written examinations, immediate promotion of 44 black officers to newly created supervisory positions, and establishment of a $300,000 back-pay fund for black victims of discrimination. Its only objection was to the one-for-one promotion scheme: to "quotas."
The black leadership finds it frustrating that Jews, focusing on their own recent history, seem incapable of distinguishing between numbers as a limit to participation and numbers as a guarantee of participation. From the black leadership's point of view, recruitment and testing reforms may constitute an appealing recipe, but the proof of the pudding is in results: in numbers.
It may be that the two positions are fundamentally irreconcilable. But it does not follow that blacks and Jews are irreconcilable enemies. Indeed, the recent election returns, though little remarked upon, suggest just the opposite.