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Friday, September 25 Religion

Faith Matters: Jewish-American/Black-American relations a complex situation

One of the fascinating questions in Jewish-American/Black-American relations has always been to what extent are Jews allies of the Black community in furthering the rights of the Black-American community.

There have always been opposing opinions among American Jews: one which felt a strong identity with and desire to support Black rights in America, and one which said, “You liberal Jews only care about others; never your own.” To have such a division is only natural. In fact, there were many Jews who worked for Black rights, but never felt they did such out of a Jewish motivation. Others did. Still others were indifferent to the cause.

After the1967 Six-Day War, as coincidentally Black-Americans continued to become more vocal and saw their struggle in a wider perspective, some Black-American groups identified with the Palestinians. Blacks were also likely to express resentment toward American Jews who were merchants or landlords in their neighborhoods. Obviously, this created tensions.

Some Jewish groups reacted with astonishment. They stated that, after all the Jews had done to stand with the Black community, how could the Black community not appreciate what Israel meant to American Jews? There was an implicit understanding within elite political Jewish-American organizations: We will support Black rights in America; in exchange, Blacks will, of course, support Israeli policies. Often there was a great deal of righteous indignation on the Jewish side, an attitude either naïve or disingenuous.

American Jews benefited from greater Black rights directly because every time America broadened its inclusivity, Jews benefited before Blacks. Jews became “whiter” first. Although most Jewish establishment voices supported Black rights, individual Jews were more likely to argue, “Why should we care about them? We have our own needs.” The Jewish right wing could note, “We told you no good would come from worrying about others. We pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps, why can’t they?”

Albeit Jews did experience serious discrimination and a few Jews were physically attacked for defending Blacks, and Jews had suffered one horrifying lynching and several murders, it was self-serving for Jews to assume that Blacks who suffered thousands of lynchings and endured horrendous suffering and did pay higher prices in Jewish-owned inner-city stores than charged in white suburbs and had never even been permitted in the stores where the Jews had bought those bootstraps were going to feel indebted to the Jewish establishment. Black maids served in Jewish homes, not Jewish maids in Black homes. There is reason that American Blacks might identify the suppression wrought by American anti-Black police oppression, violence and murder with its roots in slavery and the plight of Palestinians caught up in settler violence and expansionism on the West Bank.

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Some of Israel’s current positions are morally unacceptable as well as self-destructive. They have and will continue to lead many American Jews to walk away from Israel. It is not proper to label Israel’s current goal as “genocide.” Apartheid or expulsion, perhaps; genocide, no.

We Jews have always been divided between those who see a moral imperative in helping non-Jewish communities and those who argue “Jews first — and maybe only my kind of Jews.” The arguments within the Jewish community about Black Lives Matter and current Israeli policy go to the heart of that faultline.

Rabbi Steven J. Steinberg served for more than two decades as Coordinator of Jewish Chaplaincy for Yale-New Haven Hospital and the Hospital of St. Raphael.