Jack Salzman, Cornel West, eds. Struggles in the Promised Land: Toward a History of Black-Jewish Relations in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. viii + 438 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-508828-1.
Reviewed by Edward S. Shapiro (Department of History, Seton Hall University)
Published on H-Judaic (May, 1999)
To the best of my knowledge, there is with one exception no extensive literature on the relationship between American Blacks and Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, Polish-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, or any other American ethnic group. The exception is, of course, that between Blacks and Jews. Struggles in the Promised Land is one of the latest in a long list of books recently published on this topic. This literary outpouring is, in part, a response to several well-publicized recent incidents pitting Blacks against Jews, which have challenged the assumption that the two groups are natural political allies. They include the Ocean Hill-Brownsville (Brooklyn) school controversy of the late 1960s, the policy of open enrollment adopted by the City University of New York, the firing of Andrew Young as American ambassador to the United Nations in 1979, the Crown Heights (Brooklyn) riots of 1991, the accusation by Black Muslims that Jews were responsible for the slave trade, Elijah Muhammad's Million-Man March in Washington in 1995, and an ongoing debate among Jews over affirmative action and other causes dear to American Blacks.
Jack Salzman and Cornel West had two goals in mind in gathering the twenty-one essays comprising Struggles in the Promised Land. The first was to provide the historical background for the current difficulties between Blacks and Jews. Thus there are essays by David Brion Davis ("Jews in the Slave Trade"), Jason H. Silverman, ("The Law of the Land is the Law': Antebellum Jews, Slavery, and the Old South"), Hasia R. Diner ("Between Words and Deeds: Jews and Blacks in America, 1880-1935"), Cheryl Greenberg ("Negotiating Coalition: Black and Jewish Civil Rights Agencies in the Twentieth Century"), Thomas Cripps (African-Americans and Jews in Hollywood: Antagonistic Allies"), Deborah Dash Moore ("Separate Paths: Blacks and Jews in the Twentieth-Century South"), and Paul Buhle and Robin D. G. Kelley ("Allies of a Different Sort: Jews and Blacks in the American Left"). While none of these essays are particularly original, they do offer a handy starting point for the neophyte. They approach their topic realistically, and this is a welcome relief to the romanticism which has often pervaded discussions of this topic, particularly among Jews active in community relations work. Taken together, however, they do not fulfill the editors' objective of providing the first comprehensive history of Black-Jewish relations. Too many topics are left untouched, and some of the essays are too brief to do their subjects justice.
Salzman and West's second purpose was to restore the tattered alliance between Blacks and Jews, which had been so important during that golden age of the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s. The symbolic high water mark of this alliance was the murder in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964 of three civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney--two Jews and one Black. This confirmed for many Jews the longstanding assumption that American Blacks and Jews have shared a common fate stemming from prejudice and discrimination. Forty-seven years earlier, the Yiddish newspaper the Forward, writing in the wake of the East St. Louis race riot of 1917 in which thirty-nine Blacks were killed, compared it to the Kishinev pogrom in Russia in 1903: "Kishinev and St. Louis--the same soil, the same people. It is a distance of four and a half thousand miles between these two cities and yet they are so close and so similar to each other."
For Cornel West ("Walking the Tightrope: Some Personal Reflections on Blacks and Jews"), Michael Walzer, ("Blacks and Jews: A Personal Reflection"), Letty Cottin Pogrebin ("Blacks, Jews, and Gender: The History, Politics and Cultural Anthropology of a Women's Dialogue Group"), and several other contributors to Struggles in the Promised Land, it is natural that relations between Blacks and Jews should be close and friendly, since the two groups have common interests, moral values, and historical and cultural experiences. Thus West writes that his own involvement in the Black-Jewish entente has been "not simply a political effort to buttress progressive forces in American society. It also is a moral endeavor that exemplifies ways in which the most hated group in European history and the most hated group in U.S. history can coalesce in the name of precious democratic ideals--ideals that serve as the sole countervailing force to hatred, fear, and greed." From this moralistic perspective, the most important task is to examine the reasons why this relationship has become frayed, why, in other words, the glass of Black-Jewish relations is now only half-empty rather than half-full. The assumption here is that Black-Jewish relations have been and should continue to be different from that between Blacks and other groups. The fact is, nevertheless, that in crucial respects the interests of Blacks and Jews, with their different problems and distinctive histories, have not merely diverged but have been opposed. This is normal and should not occasion the rending of garments and the gnashing of teeth except among those Jews whose Jewishness involves an identification with victimhood, and in America this necessarily involves an identification with Blacks. "The plight of the Negro must become our most important concern," the theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel told American Jews three decades ago. "Seen in the light of our religious tradition, the Negro problem is God's gift to America, the test of our integrity, a magnificent spiritual opportunity." Blacks, by and large, have a much more realistic attitude toward Black-Jewish relations, partially because they have not attributed to it such cosmic moral significance, and partially because they believe the most important characteristic of Jews is not that they, like Blacks, have been persecuted, but that they have white skins and are part of the American racial aristocracy. "Negroes are Anti-Semitic Because They're Anti-White," James Baldwin titled a 1967 essay.
Pace Heschel's noble sentiments, it was to be expected that the relationship between two groups as socially and economically disparate as Blacks and Jews would be more of a marriage of convenience than of a passionate and lasting romance, and that each group would not long sublimate their concrete interests to liberal abstractions. While many Blacks remain mired in poverty, Jews comprise the most affluent sector of the American population. Jews are also found disproportionately in the highest realms of American politics, culture, and society. It was thus natural that Jews would have a more optimistic attitude than Blacks toward American society and support individualistic standards for economic and social advancement, which have served them so well. "To Blacks, America is the nation that enslaved them and continues to deny them equal opportunities," says Letty Pogrebin, while for Jews, "it is the promised land that made good on its promises." Nor is it surprising that Blacks would not share the visceral attachment of American Jews for Israel, or that Jews would be more critical of national liberation movements in Africa and Asia than Blacks, particularly Black intellectuals.
Jerome A. Chanes ("Affirmative Action: Jewish Ideals, Jewish Interests"), Theodore M. Shaw ("Affirmative Action: African-American and Jewish Perspectives"), Waldo E. Martin, ("Nation Time!': Black Nationalism, the Third World, and Jews"), and Gary E. Rubin (African Americans and Israel") emphasize the different perspectives of Blacks and Jews, and note that any lasting relationship between the two groups must rest on something firmer than left-wing pieties and moral platitudes about democracy and "progressive forces." Cornel West would have us believe that relations between Blacks and Jews "can never be based on a cold calculation of Black and Jewish needs. Rather, it must be regulated by broad and universal ideals of democracy and decency, fairness and dignity, justice and freedom for all." It would be better instead for American Jews (and Blacks) to spend less time reading such bromides and more time considering how they can overcome their differences and cooperate when their interests intersect.
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Edward S. Shapiro. Review of Salzman, Jack; West, Cornel, eds., Struggles in the Promised Land: Toward a History of Black-Jewish Relations in the United States.
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