A human is a very complicated being. Communities and societies of humans are even more complex. Sometimes, someone who studies these groups makes generalizations in order to teach a lesson or understand a situation better. But one cannot learn from the past if knowledge of the past is oversimplified.
We often hear about moments of success or positive developments in social justice and multiculturalism in American history. But a true picture of the past must include the setbacks and the disappointments as well.
We probably learned in school that major figures in the Jewish community contributed to some of the triumphs of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. marched and organized with the help of many Jews. Some may know that some of the greatest civil rights lawyers of the 20th century, as well as half of the founding members of the NAACP in 1909, were Jewish. The full history of black-Jewish relations is more nuanced and complicated.
In anticipation of Trinity College Prof. Cheryl Greenberg’s talk on black-Jewish relations, at the April 28 Annual Meeting of the R.I. Jewish Historical Association, I read a book on this subject, “Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times Between Blacks and Jews in America,” by Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Jonathan Kaufman.
According to Kaufman, early Jewish immigrants to America were largely politically conservative. As a natural result of earlier Jewish history, Jews preferred the status quo and avoided rocking the boat. In early America, the opinions of Jews did not differ significantly from other whites: Jews in the North tended to be against slavery and Jews in the South tended to support slavery.
In the South, some Jews were slave owners and later major figures in the Confederacy. There were a few Jewish abolitionists, but not a great many.
Abolitionists were surprised that as a persecuted minority themselves, Jews were not in the forefront of the fight for the rights of black slaves. In the 19th century, American Jews as a group generally steered clear of mass protest movements. In Europe, mass protests had eventually turned against Jewish communities; Jews took these fears with them when they immigrated to America.
Kaufman writes that these Jewish communal habits began to change in the 1880s. Earlier waves of immigrants were largely Sephardic and German Jews, but beginning in 1880, there was a huge influx of Russian Jews. These new immigrants tended to be much more politically liberal, even socialists or communists.
At the same time, non-immigrants began emphasizing social justice in religious contexts. Yiddish newspapers like The Forward reported on African-American injustices and lynchings at the same time they described pogroms against Jews in Europe.
The watershed moment for the American Jewish community was the 1914 lynching in Georgia of Leo Frank, a Jew. Many historians point to it as the moment when the Jewish community began to move against latent anti-Semitism and the status quo. Beginning with the Frank lynching, and accelerating after the Holocaust, there was a sense that the Jewish community needed to protect itself by reaching out to other American minorities.
In the words of Kaufman, the Jewish community noticed that their appeals “often fell on deaf political ears.” They recognized that as “one of several embattled ethnic groups,” they could not “go it alone.” But during the so-called Golden Age of Black-Jewish Relations, from the 1950s to the 1970s, both communities, according to Kaufman, continued having complicated and “ambivalent” feelings towards each other.
As blacks moved into Northern cities during the “Great Migration” before World War II, the first Jews that many met were shopkeepers and landlords; Jews filled a necessary role by becoming business owners in areas where other white businessmen would not venture.
Jews were often the only white people who would employ or interact with the blacks moving into the North. Kaufman writes that Jews were often “more courteous, less patronizing” toward African-Americans. “Yet the wages were still low and the conditions often insulting,” he continues.
Blacks began to realize that Jews did not act like other white people: Jews would be more civil and treat them with dignity, but often charged higher prices and provided worse working conditions. This situation fed into assumptions that Jews were, hypocritical and out to “rip off” people.
It is important to have a full picture of the past to successfully go out to change the world. Knowing history can be helpful in looking for potential pitfalls and staying motivated.
JOSHUA JASPER is the librarian/archivist and executive director of the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association.