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Professor and journalist reflect on complicated black-Jewish relations

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Section: Features

November 9, 2012

Professor Ibrahim Sundiata’s new Class, “The History of Black-Jewish Relations in America,” examines two groups that have helped to define the American experience. On Monday, the topic was explored in a new light at the joint Brandeis Black Student Organization and Hillel organized “Common Ground: Exploring Black and Jewish Relations.”

Jonathan Kaufman, Pulitzer Prize-winner and Bloomberg News education editor, spoke alongside Professor Ibrahim Sundiata (HIST). They discussed the history of relations between America’s Jewish and black communities, emphasizing their cooperation in the Civil Rights movement and a precipitous decline in mutual understanding during the following decades.

Both groups define themselves by struggle. The Atlantic slave trade and the treatment of slaves in the New World was a brutal display of inhumanity. In the United States, some slaves managed to have families, but relied on their master’s whim. At any time, couples and children could be split apart. Struggle did not end with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Today, this history is central to the identity of blacks in America, Sundiata said.

Meanwhile, Jewish communities in Europe experienced adversity that stretched from pogroms in the East to exclusion from daily life and pseudo-scientific racialization in the West. Understandably, many were tempted to drop it all and jump onto a ship to America.

In the beginning there were few Jews coming to America and most whites accepted the newcomers as not black. A few Jews owned slaves, while some in the North supported abolition early, Sundiata said.

But in the 20th century, places like Manhattan’s Lower East Side became flashpoints for conflict. When blacks moved to the North for work during the war years, Jews were already beginning to move out of the cities. Blacks replaced them, but Jews retained property and businesses. For a time, the perception grew among blacks that Jews lorded power over tenants and store patrons.

But there was a sense of empathy within the Jewish community. As Sundiata explained, grants from Jews helped encourage the prolific artists of the Harlem Renaissance and Jewish donors supported institutions helping blacks in the rural South. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was a cooperative effort by leaders from both communities.

Kaufman offered explanations for a few peculiarities of black and Jewish interaction. During the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King had a strong connection with Jewish leaders like Rabbi Abraham Heschel, a central figure in the Reform and Conservative movements. He likened his march at King’s side during the Selma to Montgomery March to “praying with his feet.”

The “Common Ground” event helped build an understanding of relations between blacks and Jews in the present. Following the speeches, Malika Imhotep ’15 encouraged discussion, which took place at individual tables instead of with the entire room.

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