The New Preface
Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing The Alliance In the 1960s
San Francisco State University
Submitted: October 12, 2020
Approved: October 13, 2020
Approval withdrawn: October 14, 2020
On May 25, 2020, Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd, sparking protests in cities and towns across the United States. A national reckoning on race followed, with a broad cross-section of American society pausing, reflecting, learning, and then acting to bring an end to systemic racism in the country. Not since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, if not the Reconstruction era after the American Civil War, has the issue of racism reached as deep in the national psyche.
Racial justice activists, long struggling to bring attention to repeated acts of police violence against people from marginalized communities, welcomed new supporters eager to learn what they could do to right a nation long suffering from anti-Black discrimination. At one point in the summer of 2020, the New York Times bestseller list counted almost all of its titles in the anti-racism genre. Politicians at every level of government responded to the grassroots protests by promising action to remedy inequities in law enforcement and the American judicial system, access to high-quality education for all, availability of affordable healthcare to the nation at large, and a focus on addressing the other ways white supremacy perpetuates a race-divided America.
American Jews joined the call. Whether protesting in the streets, rallying friends and neighbors on social media, or beginning their own accounting on racism in America, the national reckoning on race drew white Jews back into a relationship with Black Americans largely unseen since this book’s era of study. For the first time, Jewish leaders both lay and professional took a new look at their organizations as almost all-white entities. Physically distant from the nation’s urban centers, suburban Jews lamented their lack of proximity to communities of color and the ways in which the last few generations of American Jewish social mobility have reinforced elements of white supremacy in their own lived experience.
Across the country, synagogues, Jewish community centers, and other Jewish organizations reflected on memberships and boards of directors without much ethnic or racial diversity. The letters “D.E.I.,” an acronym for “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” entered the Jewish organizational mainstream as new committees and task forces formed to address the systemic exclusion of marginalized Jews. In a public pronouncement that would have seemed impossible to make just a few years earlier, Bend the Arc Jewish Action, the nation’s leading progressive Jewish organization, secured the signatures of over 600 Jewish organizations in a full-page newspaper ad that proclaimed “We speak with one voice when we say, unequivocally: Black Lives Matter.”
This American Jewish reckoning on race reflects and updates several of the themes detailed in Black Power, Jewish Politics Reinventing The Alliance In The 1960s. At its heart, this book challenges Jewish historical memory around the post-war civil rights era. Romanticized notions of Jewish support for racial justice in the early post-war years tended to universalize the friendship between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as a metaphor for all Blacks and Jews. While many American Jews remember a consensus-based inter-racial alliance that brought a disproportionate number of white Jews in solidarity with Black activists, the historical literature also tells of Jewish organizational leaders who understood the depth of institutional racism, the limits of white Jewish liberalism, and the inevitability of Black Power’s rise. The political voices and strategies of Black Americans needed centering and amplification, they argued, while Black Power-inspired tactics could model a Jewish ethno-religious revival.
Since the book’s initial publication and especially since much of the nation has entered a moment of self-reflection on race, American Jews have challenged their long-held historical memory on questions of race. While most of the American Jews living in the era of the civil rights movement remained on the activist sidelines, the contemporary call for racial justice activism has mobilized American Jews across geographic, economic, generational lines. In brand-new synagogue, JCC and other Jewish community-based lectures, white American Jews demand to know the contours of a centuries-long history of Jewish support, complicity or benefit from institutional racism. Even as most of these difficult interactions did not grow from a racist intent, this new understanding of American Jewish history and historical memory illuminates new, more subtle, insights into the ways that white supremacy has separated racial groups over time.
The first step in this evolving Jewish communal consciousness has been white Jewish recognition of the mistreatment of Jews of Color, loosely defined as Black Jews, Latinx Jews, Asian-American Jews, Pacific Islander and Indigenous Jews, though multi-racial, Mizrachi and Sephardic Jews have also been included. Jews of Color have been erased from almost all of the historical literature in American Jewish history, this book included. In work conducted by Stanford University professor Ari Kelman, we learned that underlying assumptions about Jewish whiteness, what is now called Ashkenormativity, have made it impossible to know the Jews of Color population. Local and national demographic studies did not ask the right questions, or did not follow through with the longitudinal discipline necessary to count Jews who are not white. At best, Kelman and his team estimate, 12-15% of the nation’s Jews identify as JOCs. In a nation that is growing ever-more diverse in each generation, as Jews of Color Initiative founder Ilana Kaufman teaches, the number of JOCs will only increase. This only raises the challenge for white Ashkenazi Jews: when will the organized Jewish communal world reflect the diversity that already exists among American Jews?
Rising consciousness about the presence of JOCs and their exclusion from most of organized Jewish life goes to the heart of a new and important historiographic challenge in the study of Jewish participation in the civil rights movement. In this study and most others, scholars have deployed the phrase “Black-Jewish relations” to describe the inter-racial alliance of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet, such a phrase implies Jewish whiteness. What if, as Kaufman revealed, a person was both Black and Jewish? How would that challenge our historical as well as contemporary understandings of what it means to be Jewish in America?
New understandings of this relationship must also look anew at the power differentials at play. As Kaufman recounted in an interview with Hadassah magazine, “Our orientation to Black-Jewish relations was as white Jews helping Black people, which created a hierarchical dynamic that feeds into racism and otherness. The Jewish community has enjoyed upward mobility and, with it, some of the trappings of structural racism. Why would we escape the racism,” she asks, “that’s part of the U.S.?”
We didn’t. Since this book’s publication, white Ashkenazi Jews have been engaged in a wholesale re-evaluation of how their communal structures embrace the supremacy of whites. Synagogue boards of directors hired armed guards to protect their congregants without considering how racial profiling could make those security officers a threat to their congregants of color. Well-intentioned congregants, perhaps out of a misguided sense of curiosity, pepper Jews of Color with questions about how they are Jewish, an admission test not required of white Jews. In other instances, Jews of Color tell of how they are assumed to be members of the custodial crew or are denied name-tags from people who never imagined a person of color could have a Jewish name.
The experiences of JOCs demand a re-evaluation of historical causality, the forces that cause history to develop as it did. In some ways, this project moved in that direction. Stepping back from the paternalistic and self-serving narrative of white Jews helping Black Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, these pages flip the narrative, investigating how white Jews benefit from the identity politics movement innovated by adherents of Black Power. It shows how the renewed interest in American Zionism, the growth of the Soviet Jewry movement, the creation of Jewish Studies programs at universities, and a return-to-tradition movement owe a debt to Black Power thinking.
Still, this book’s centering of Black Power in the larger frame of American Jewish history doesn’t go far enough. As Kaufman points out in the epilogue, scholars must re-visit this history through a lens of racial privilege, investigating the ways this era’s Jewish activism should also be understood as a reflection of Jewish whiteness, power, and privilege. From this perspective, each of the chapters would be refocused away from the Americanist or 1960s-centered historical rationales I posited in favor of one that embraces a racially-sensitive analysis of events.
A quick review of this book’s findings also reaffirm the challenges contemporary Jews face in their work for racial equity. During the early 1970s, for example, white Jews often pulled their children from public schools when district officials announced de-segregation or busing plans. Parents often defended their actions on educational quality, rather than racial grounds. How then will a new generation of Jewish parents respond when racial justice activists call for equity in education? What are the limits to white Jewish liberalism when the education of one’s own children is at stake? More to the point, will twenty-first century parents consider racial equity in education a condition for the very definition of a quality learning experience. Will knowledge of racism’s destructive impact be enough to inspire today’s white Jewish parents to take a different tack than their co-religionists did in the 1970s? For the history described in this book to apply beyond the civil rights movement-era, the current generation of Jewish parents, many of whom reside in almost all-white neighborhoods, will have to embrace integration in ways that their parent’s generation would not.
Systemic racism in housing also connects the history of American Jews in the 1960s to the complexity of anti-racist work today. As white Jews moved to the suburbs in the post-war era, they created communities, and Jewish life, all but absent from any sort of proximity to people of color. Generations later, their children and grandchildren face calls for any number of programs to bring capital, equity, and home ownership to people from marginalized groups. How can all-white communities center people of color when there are so few around? Just as systemic racism in education will challenge parents to integrate their schools and curriculum, housing discrimination will lead to calls for new conceptions of the neighborhood as a center for diversity. Will white suburban Jews remain in “changing neighborhoods” when historical precedent argues otherwise?
Without surprise, perhaps, we are already bearing witness to some pushback against contemporary calls for racial equality. Even as this book details Jewish organizational leaders who downplayed the significance and threat posed by antisemitism among some in the Black community in the mid-1960s, contemporary Jews have raised alarm bells over the anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, and at times antisemitic statements of some Black activists. Even as rabbinic student and national JOC leader Evan Traylor has advised otherwise, white Jewish fears have grown so pronounced that they sometimes have threatened to end support for anti-racism work even before it begins.
Other times, white Jews demand that Black civil rights leaders repudiate their colleagues as a pre-condition for activism. I can report anecdotally that these white Jewish concerns have grown so large that they soon became the most-oft asked question in each and every one of my community-based Jewish social justice lectures, whether or not the subject of the Black Lives Matter movement was included in the talk. Will white Jews make their support for racial equality contingent on Black support for the State of Israel and Zionism?
Recent developments on the American social and political scene have also offered an important new pathway for white Jews and Blacks to re-engage as partners in a common struggle for social justice. Since this book’s publication, American Jews have borne witness to a dramatic surge in antisemitic incidents, with the shootings in both Pittsburgh and Poway as the worst and most fear-invoking examples. Never before in United States history have Jews been shot to death as they prayed, causing some to question the very notion of American Jewish exceptionalism and the privileges conferred on Jews in the post-war period. White nationalist groups, once on the far margins of American society, have moved to the center, willing to show their faces as they chanted “Jews will not replace us” in the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
If the inter-racial alliance of the 1950s and early 1960s stood on a paternalistic foundation of white Jews reaching across the racial divide to help marginalized Blacks, or if the rise of Black Power in the mid-1960s emerged as Black militants offering a strategy handbook to Jews interested in bolstering their own identity, then the recent spike in domestic antisemitism points to the common enemy of both communities: white nationalism. When white Jews join Blacks in a struggle against racism, they are also working to end antisemitism. In this more symbiotic relationship, neither side faces heavy-handed paternalism from the other. Both communities can, as Bryan Stevenson has argued, get proximate to one another, sitting side-by-side for the time in at least two generations.
A new alliance between white Jews and Black civil rights activists can also strengthen the Jewish community itself. When Jews of Color, and especially Black Jews, see their white co-religionists fighting to end racism as fervently as they work to end antisemitism, then the boundaries that have kept JOCs on the margins dissolve, creating a new sense of community that welcomes every Jew into the circle. If anything, the new racial awareness offers the vision of larger, more diverse, more inclusive and growing Jewish organizations at a time when many old-guard leaders fret about weakening Jewish identity.
It isn’t possible to write a historical work about Jews and race without also engaging the contemporary scene. Scholarly books exist as snapshots, both of the era they are describing as well as the moment they were published. Even as Black Power Jewish Politics challenged conventional thinking about white Jewish engagement with the racial politics of the early post-war years, it also faced critique from readers who pointed out its omissions. With this, the interplay between the book and the historical developments since its publication created a new engagement into one of the most complex, sensitive, and challenging topics in both United States and American Jewish history, the impact of race and racism on the development of the nation at large.
 See Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Random House, New York, 2015.