Thoughtful Night: Can Alliance of Blacks and Jews Cross Barriers?

By CHRIS BURRELL

Is George W. Bush's brand of conservatism so reprehensible that it could create a new alliance between America's blacks and Jews? Or is the economic gap between the two groups simply too great to allow them to find common ground?

These were some of the questions left hanging in the air after a provocative Wednesday night in Vineyard Haven at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center, part of the summer institute series, this one headlined by two heavy-hitters - Julian Bond, NAACP chairman and civil rights hero, and Rabbi David Saperstein, a leader in Reform Judaism who also teaches at Georgetown Law School.

What made this week's event particularly interesting is that the audience, to some extent, mirrored the topic.

It's doubtful that there was much of an economic differential in this Vineyard summer crowd, but there they were, more than 300 people, a mix of Jews and blacks sitting together. It was remarkable also because the Island intellectual circuit so often remains segregated along racial lines.

Last year's high-powered legal panel on the issue of reparations for African Americans - held at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs - was attended largely by blacks. And the Hebrew Center series - whose topics range over health care, feminism, globalism and the media - draws a mostly white audience.

Wednesday night's audience was different. What they heard was a history lesson, mixed with some present-day politics and preaching. In any case, this was no debate. Mr. Saperstein and Mr. Bond stood right on the same page even if their deliveries were distinct.

But it was the rabbi who sounded the alarm and tried to incite a sense of urgency.

"We feel a great distance has grown up between us," he told the crowd. "Social interactions are all too rare. There are not many occasions where blacks are inviting Jews into their homes or where Jews are inviting blacks. We are not forging relationships that stand the test of time. Our interests are not always congruent."

The observation that African American and Jews have drifted apart might not be as big a deal if it weren't for their shared history - a history of pain, discrimination and slavery.

Mr. Bond and Mr. Saperstein returned to that theme repeatedly throughout the night, stressing the similarities between Jews and blacks and emphasizing their collaboration in the civil rights movement.

"In 1964, blacks and Jews died in a common grave in Mississippi," said Mr. Bond. He solemnly repeated those names - Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner - and then quickly rattled off names of other Jews who were critical to the civil rights effort as early as 1950.

He cited Jewish philanthropy that supported education for blacks, $22 million handed out to predominantly black colleges between 1917 and 1948, the Julius Rosenwald fellowships granted to W.E.B. DuBois, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Gordon Parks and Ralph Bunche.

But despite the emphasis on history, the achievements of the past and a hall of fame filled with Jews and blacks working side by side, both speakers agreed the real challenge lies in the present.

Again, the two men searched for the common ground shared by Jews and blacks in today's world.

"We are both victims and objects of disdain," said Mr. Bond. One bit of proof he offered up was a recent poll that asked Americans about their perceptions of minorities.

The results? People polled thought 18 per cent of Americans were Jewish when the real figure is three per cent. They thought Hispanics accounted for 21 per cent of the total population when the real number is 12 per cent. And they were convinced that 32 per cent of America is black when in fact they only make up 12 per cent.

"The imaginary perception of minorities is that blacks and Hispanics are lazier and less patriotic and that Jews are only a little better," said Mr. Bond.

But if bigotry has lumped Jews and blacks into roughly the same camp and their strong history from the 1960s has given them a shared heritage, then what explains the flashpoints of tension between the two groups?

Mr. Saperstein blamed the media for making things worse. ‘The media bears responsibility for fanning the flames," he said. "For 20 years, the media has had an obsession with black-Jewish tensions. And the more one looks at a distortion, the more it becomes reality."

But the rabbi didn't try to pretend that tensions don't exist. Neither he nor Mr. Bond could ignore the economic factor, the fact that Jews have reached a higher rung than blacks.

The legacy is a relationship viewed across an economic divide: black tenant and Jewish landlord or a white housewife and the black servant. Mr. Bond quoted from the novelist James Baldwin, who said that "blacks and Jews dare not trust each other."

Heated debates over school desegregation and affirmative action, said Mr. Bond, "tore further at the web connecting blacks and Jews."

Other events exacerbated the relations. Rabbi Saperstein alluded to extremist Jews who advocated racism against blacks. He acknowledged the anti-Semitic rhetoric of Louis Farrakhan and the "hymie-town" comment made by The Rev. Jesse Jackson.

But his prescription for improving relations went beyond the headlines.

"We must be prepared to engage in honest soul-searching and sharing," said Mr. Saperstein, advocating an attitude of empathy.

"Too many Jews fail to appreciate affirmative action, to know that one in three black children is growing up in poverty, to understand that the sympathy for Farrakhan has little to do with Jews," he said.

Conversely, he added, blacks need to understand the soul of the Jew, only one generation removed from Auschwitz. "We feel vulnerable and marginal," he said. "The pogroms were white. The architects, Hitler and Mengel, were white. We, too, are white, but we are different."

The rabbi urged blacks and whites to denounce extremists on either side who seek to widen the divide. "If we remain silent in the face of hate, we legitimize the hate," he said.

Mr. Saperstein said blacks and Jews have banded together politically over a variety of issues - electing black mayors in cities and fighting for reforms and improvements to the vote-counting system in Florida.

Both Mr. Bond and Mr. Saperstein quickly turned to the Bush administration as a common enemy, threatening the social advances made by both Jews and blacks.

"We stand together at an extraordinary moment … that could unravel 80 years of social justice achievement for the poor, the ill, the elderly," said the rabbi.

Mr. Bond expressed his fears about the President's plan to appoint extreme conservatives as lifetime judges in federal courts. "It's a concentrated assault on the judiciary. Never have I seen so many candidates in the ideological extreme put forward," he said.

At times, Mr. Bond punctuated his lecturing with a joke in order to drive home a message. "We're helping the Iraqis build a government," he said. "I heard a suggestion that we could give them our Constitution, because we're not using it."

In the end, both men urged the audience to take action, to repair the relations between blacks and Jews. No minority is safe when one if threatened, said the rabbi. "We blacks and Jews," he said, "our fates are tied up together."