Anguished articles about African-American antisemitism and Jewish oversensitivity keep detailing most Jews’ support for the Black Lives Matter moment despite the #BlackLivesMatter movement’s harsh anti-Zionism. This triggers other articles wondering why even this issue became a Jewish issue.
Don’t blame us – entirely. Blame the spike of Jew-hatred, Left and Right, on the haters, not the hated. But America’s black and white struggle also became about Jews and blacks because relationships between Jews and blacks are never black-and-white. Some activists say that Jews and blacks should see one another’s experiences as illuminating mirrors reflecting our shared suffering. It’s actually more of a hologram – from some angles we see unifying similarities; from others, we see painful differences.
While avoiding what David Hartman called the “moral narcissism” of competing in the we-suffered-most Olympics, we share the unpleasant distinction of being the most hated minorities in the world’s most sophisticated societies. Jews were Europe’s blacks, while blacks have long been America’s Jews. The Jewish experience in Germany exposed the murderous venom beneath German culture’s ornamental veneer. The black experience in America has long exposed the dehumanizing bigotry originally baked into America’s democratic egalitarianism.
The Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire put it elegantly but cruelly: “One regards the Jews the same way as one regards the Negroes, as a species of inferior humanity.” American bigots put it more crudely: “A n****r is a Jew turned inside out.” And modern Zionism’s founder, Theodor Herzl, put it idealistically, writing that “only a Jew can fathom” African slavery, in all its “horror.”Herzl makes sense. If so many neighbors long treated us as enemies, shouldn’t we embrace one another as friends?
BLACKS AND Jews. Beware overgeneralizing about these often-overgeneralized people. But in America, this natural alliance often seems unnaturally strained. Actually, the picture is mixed. The many friendships, alliances, loyalties, binding African-Americans and American Jews rarely make headlines. The Democratic Party’s greatest loyalists are blacks and Jews. Many Jews considered Barack Obama “the first Jewish president,” just as Julius Nyerere and other Africans called Golda Meir “the mother of Africa.”
Nevertheless, some blacks and some Jews keep clashing. Both blacks and Jews often perceive disagreement with their communal agenda as rooted in prejudice – because it so frequently is. Our intimate, overlapping pain intensifies the fury, fueled by self-righteous “how-dare-you-ism.” “You, of all people,” should avoid antisemitism, Jews say to black Jew-haters, shocked that enduring racism doesn’t inoculate them against antisemitism. “You, of all people,” should understand the affirmative actions needed to overcome ingrained hatred, blacks say to Jewish critics, shocked when our strategy to fight bigotry doesn’t match theirs.
Illuminating comparisons and existential bonds must not become false equivalences. Black antisemitism is mainstreamed – and validated by some influential elites; Jewish racism isn’t. At the same time, Jews never suffered in America as blacks have, so institutions that work for us may not work for them, and remedies that work for them may not work for us. Moreover, the whitening of the Jews, the reddening of the blacks, and the blackening of the Palestinians, create constant flash points.
Jews were “whitened,” as Americans downplayed class and obsessed about race. Jews today are often labeled “haves,” not “have-nots.” Stereotyping “rich Jews” renders the Jewish poor invisible. Critics turn many American Jews’ impressive individual achievements against “the Jews” collectively. They claim these achievements prove some inside track, that they’re success on others’ backs, not by the sweat of your brow or the speed of your brain.
So as some Jews prospered, the Jews “became” white. Beyond erasing Mizrahi Jews and Jews of color, this label is ironic. In the 1940s, when whiteness was considered desirable, even the palest “members of the Jewish race” were not considered white. Today, in circles deeming whiteness undesirable, Jews suddenly are white.
Those are the lies weaponizing attacks on Jews for enjoying “white privilege.” Of course, many Jews are privileged. And most Jews walking down America’s streets don’t share the black experience. But malicious exaggerations turn the adjective some enjoy – “privileged” – into a noun defining all Jews, which turns all Jews into targets, too.
Meanwhile, blacks became red, the color symbolizing anger and signifying the Marxist worldview seeing life as a political power struggle. Most successful Jews attribute their success to Jewish culture, American culture, and their particular talents. They acknowledge America’s liberty and stability as necessary, not sufficient, conditions for their success. Most blacks, no matter how successful, still feel oppressed by “entrenched bigotry and senseless violence,” as Obama’s national security adviser, ambassador Susan Rice, recently put it.
African-Americans seek political power to transform America, frequently labeling critics who scrutinize African-American culture as racist.
So two blind spots distort: Jews often overlook the benefits America’s power structure provided; blacks often overlook the benefits they could reap from internal cultural transformation, too.
Finally, Yasser Arafat, his henchmen and Soviet propagandists hatched the Big Palestinian Lie in the 1970s, framing Palestinians as oppressed people of color. Many African-Americans now compare Palestinians to blacks in America’s South or South Africa. Most Jews resent the racializing of this national clash, which also absolves Palestinians of any responsibility.
Just as holograms offer three-dimensional images, viewing the black-Jewish relationship in 3D fosters unity without denying differences. We should be free to disagree on policy matters while all joining the pressing moral crusade to eliminate bigotry. A fairer, more equal, less discriminatory America is a better America for all, especially for blacks and Jews.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,he is the author of ten books on American History, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s .