Quiet Diplomacy

Showy efforts at black-Jewish dialogue are being replaced by smaller, joint projects that tackle issues of mutual interest

New York

WHEN THIS YEAR’S “SAlute to Israel” parade and the annual march to commemorate Martin Luther King fell on the same day in May and were due to take place on the same Fifth Avenue route, fears of a possible flare-up of the perennial black-Jewish conflict didn’t seem unrealistic.

After all, just four years before, visible tension arose between the black and Jewish communites in Crown Heights when the annual West Indian parade along Eastern Parkway, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, fell on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. Although the parade went on as scheduled, it did so only with increased police patrols, which the Jews – afraid that they would not be able to go about their holiday observance – had asked for. Even more powerful, of course, is the painful legacy of the 1991 riots in the same neighborhood, which for many came to symbolize the fragility of the black-Jewish relationship.

But this year, instead of a dispute, the opposite occurred. The organizers of the two parades met quietly and decided to hold the parades jointly, each under their own banner. Black high-school marching bands alternated with floats carrying Jewish youth groups, as the two parades made their way down Fifth Avenue. The crowds watching this unlikely fusion may have been a bit baffled, but the day passed with nothing but cheers for the marchers.

The pragmatic solution to this potential conflict is, in many ways, representative of the change in the larger story of black-Jewish relations today. The acrimony between the two communities appears to have died down, and with it, the showy efforts at dialogue have dropped out of the headlines.

But attempts at reconciliation have not been forsaken. Rather, black and Jewish leaders say, a subtle shift has taken place, with organizations working together on quieter, smaller-scale projects. The focus now is on specific communal issues – such as inner-city economic development, better health care in impoverished neighborhoods and youth leadership development – while working on the black-Jewish relationship is nearly an afterthought.

“There remain across the country, in city after city, very vital, vigorous black-Jewish alliances,” says Prof. Jonathan Rieder, chair of the sociology department at Columbia University’s Barnard College, “and these tend not to be airy flights, but people working together on common interests, getting to know one another.”

Adds Rieder, who also co-edits Common Quest, a two-year-old magazine on black-Jewish relations jointly published by the American Jewish Committee and Howard, a black university in Washington, D.C.: “What I would say characterizes a number of these new efforts at collaboration is their focus on doing rather than talking. There is less of an embarrassment that their moral, mutual appreciation can be linked to mutual self-interest.”

What also seems to characterize these new alliances is that while many of the previous attempts at reconciliation were organizational efforts to force some dialogue, these seem to be coming from the bottom up, almost as a grass-roots attempt at coalition-building.

“People, tangibly, have made the effort to reach out,” says Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of New York’s Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which promotes and monitors efforts at black-Jewish cooperation. “That’s what has changed. The result is that things have improved and that’s why you don’t read about it that much.”

In a way, these new efforts seem to be driven by the same issues- and goal-oriented ethos that guided the black-Jewish partnership during its 1960s civil-rights heyday, when the focus was on fighting social ills, not on improving the relationship.

Says Clarence Page, the nationally syndicated black columnist for the Chicago Tribune: “I think everyone is being kind of pragmatic now and saying, ‘Well, we want to get something done and do we have people who are natural allies whom we can work with or not?’ And people are taking a pretty good common sense approach about it.”

In Seattle, for example, blacks and Jews joined forces in 1995 to create the African-American Community Endowment Fund, which provides low-interest loans to minority-owned small businesses. The fund, modeled after the Hebrew Free Loan society founded by Jewish immigrants in New York at the turn of the century, has a steering committee that is one-third Jewish, while a third of its $ 250,000 endowment was raised by the Jewish community.

“We felt that if we were going to have a partnership, it should center around communal concerns and not just the rhetoric of getting along with each other,” says Robert Jeffrey, a coordinator for the fund, which has given out close to $ 40,000 in loans to small businesses and individuals in central and southeast Seattle since its inception, from start-up money for an African clothing boutique to tuition money for a man who wanted to attend trucking school.

Meanwhile, says Jeffrey, the work of the endowment fund has led to the founding of the African-American Jewish Coalition, whose mission is to support the fund (which hopes to double its endowment by next year), and which also pairs blacks and Jews as a way of developing social and professional links between them. SITTING IN A HARLEM church pew, Emily Cohen, a petite 16-year-old, seems out of place and far removed from her Rockville, Maryland, home. Cohen, along with 28 other black and Jewish high-school students from the Washington, D.C. area, is in Harlem as part of a month-long summer tour of important sites in American black and Jewish history, including New York and a number of cities in the Deep South.

The tour – the culmination of a year-long program of bimonthly meetings, as well as retreats and skills workshops – is put on by Operation Understanding D.C., a four-year-old nonprofit organization that aims to work on the black-Jewish relationship through developing a generation of young leaders who can deal effectively with questions of race and diversity.

“I think that when they came in, they thought that the differences are so big it would take a superhuman effort to bridge them,” says program director Christian Dorsey. “But it only takes a few days to realize we’re from the same planet. A few months later, they realize they’re from the same species.”

The skills the students have learned came in handy after their visit to Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. In a meeting with Reverend Calvin O. Butts III, the church’s outspoken leader asks the group if they know that the original Jews were black – in what seems to be a deliberate attempt to provoke the Jewish students, who seem to take his comment as a direct attack on their sense of Jewish identity. When the meeting is over, the group’s Jewish members, clearly agitated, head back to the rented yellow school bus that is ferrying them around town. Soon they are joined by the group’s black members and they all settle into heated discussion. What is clear was that these teenagers are incredibly comfortable talking to each other about difficult issues.

“In school, we’ve had discussions where race came up and I was prepared,” says Cohen, before joining in the debate. “I’m learning not to take things at face value; that you have to listen closely and get the whole story.”

A health-care expo in racially diverse northern Queens last November, offering free glaucoma screenings and cholesterol tests, is another example of the new approach to black-Jewish relations. The expo is one of the programs offered by a health-care coalition initiated by the Jewish Community Relations Council, an umbrella group of some 60 Jewish groups, and the New York Urban League, a social services and civil-rights organization that focuses on the black community, in an attempt to improve the neighborhood’s medical services.

“We are putting together coalitions that will work with issues in the community, not necessarily between the communities,” says Robert Kaplan, the JCRC’s director of intergroup relations and community concerns. “That’s not the kind of stuff that makes the news. That’s not the flashy stuff,” he adds. The JCRC has also begun a similar effort in southern Brooklyn, where it is working with a number of local groups to bring better health care to the predominantly black-Caribbean area. APPARENTLY, THE COALITION building has been bearing some fruit. When the Lubavitcher rebbe’s Yahrzeit fell on a Saturday this year, the mostly black-Caribbean residents of the Queens neighborhood where the rebbe’s grave is located feared the area would be overrun by thousands of hasidim who would have to stay over because they could not travel to the gravesite on Shabbat. Because of the relationships that were built up with the community and between the JCRC and the Urban League, Kaplan says, the two organizations were able to work with local residents to defuse the situation, attending community board meetings and staying in close contact to deal with any crises that arose. Meanwhile, alternative housing for some 500 Lubavitchers was found in a Jewish center nearby, and the weekend passed without incident.

“We have an ongoing line of communication that’s just grown stronger with each year,” says Dennis M. Walcott, president of the Urban League. “I think the key to ‘black-Jewish’ relations is honesty and confidence with each other. I don’t think either one of us is afraid to tell the other how we feel on a subject, or to call early in the morning when an issue comes up.”

This kind of communication, of course, is not something that can be practiced on a community-wide scale. Misunderstandings and an economic disparity between the two communities remain and there are still trouble spots in the relationship.

Although a recent poll commissioned by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding found that a majority of the blacks and Jews questioned think that the relationship between the two groups has improved in the last year, the poll also found that a majority of blacks interviewed hold a favorable opinion of Louis Farrakhan and his militant Nation of Islam. “There is a perception in the Jewish community that there is anti-Semitism within the black community,” says the foundation’s Schneier. But, he adds, “the African American community has a teaching where they can separate the message from the messenger. Martin Luther King always spoke about that. That concept is alien to the Jewish community. I think we will always have this type of conflict on this very principle.”

(The issue of black anti-Semitism has made headlines recently, following the events surrounding a September 5 Harlem youth march and rally organized by Khalid Muhammad, a particularly virulent former Farrakhan aide. Upon finding out that the city would deny his request for a permit to stage the rally in Harlem, Muhammad was quoted in The New York Times as saying he would “take Eastern Parkway.” “This will be a direct confrontation with Jews of that area who have misused and abused our people in Brooklyn and Crown Heights for so long,” Muhammad said. On August 27, a Federal judge ordered the city to allow the march on constitutional grounds.)

The recent debate over ending government support for affirmative action, meanwhile, has emerged as another chasm in the relationship. While blacks have previously counted on the traditionally liberal Jewish community to support affirmative action, a number of prominent Jewish writers and organizations (most notably the Anti-Defamation League) have recently come out as forceful critics of affirmative-action policies, calling for an end to racial preferences in hiring. According to some community leaders, this shift has left a number of blacks feeling betrayed.

But blacks and Jews active in coalition-building hope that the new pragmatic alliances created over the last few years will work to blunt the extremists on both sides, while also providing a mechanism for discussing the issues over which the two communities don’t see eye-to-eye. The two groups’ mutual interests, they say, may make that a reality, while pushing the relationship even further forward.

“I think that when you look at it every day, we still are closer in most ways than blacks are to other white folk,” says the Chicago Tribune’s Page. “We still have got more in common than we have different. There are still a lot of areas in which we can work together.”

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