e-mail us


Of Blacks and Jews, film finds hurt and hope


From where I sit it is hard to imagine, but I’ve heard that there are remote outposts of America -- perhaps even some where this newspaper is read -- where one can go through a whole day, even a week, and never see or hear, except on TV, a black or a Jew.

And when those windblown corners of North Dakota do see these strangers on TV, it may be Minister Louis Farrakhan on “Meet the Press” dissing the Jews.

Meanwhile here in the Bronx, the northern corner of the most multiethnic and politicized city in the world, on the subways, on the streets of Manhattan, on TV, in all-talk public radio and in the newspapers for long periods, we seem to hear and see almost no one else.

To some extent it is because these two groups, once sidelined by the WASP elite, have each in their own way gained cultural ascendancy. Blacks, by dominating professional athletics and pop music, have become the cultural trendsetters for the younger generation. White middle-class teenagers wear formless baggy jeans that hang down off their butts and jive along, shaking to the rap music on their head sets. Indeed, in the powerful new film about skinheads, “American History X,” when the neo-Nazi characters enumerate their resentments, this black takeover of popular culture is high on their anger list.

Jews, who were once subject to quotas at Ivy League colleges, now rule the academy. In a New York Times article on Brandeis University’s 50th Anniversary, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a historian of American Jewry, says, “Jews are no longer trying to get into the academic establishment. They are the academic establishment.”

The relative progress of both blacks and Jews in recent years is the result of legal victories of the civil rights movement -- in which two Jewish activists and a black boy were murdered in Mississippi in 1964 trying to win for blacks the right to vote -- and to coalitions of blacks and liberal Jews on other social-economic issues.

But times have changed. Old successes have not guaranteed peace. To some observers, blacks and Jews now seem farther apart than ever.

That is why the 1997 documentary, “Blacks and Jews” (California Newsreel, 149 9th Street, San Francisco CA 94103), which played on PBS and is still making the rounds of classrooms and discussion groups, is so valuable.

To get its viewers talking again to one another, it focuses on four incidents, some of which most readers will remember well.

Troubles in Crown Heights

In Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 1991, a Hasidic Jew killed a West Indian Caribbean black boy in a car accident. In retaliation, blacks rioted and murdered a Jew. Rudolph Giuliani, running for mayor, castigated his opponent, Mayor David Dinkins, a black man, for not sending in the police quickly enough to crush the riot. Indeed, within the last year, he gratuitously repeated his charges, although Dinkins was long out of office.

The film tells the story, which the media overlooked, of a black man who saved a Hasid from an angry mob, of their subsequent friendship and their program to get blacks and Jews to get beyond the stereotypes they have of one another. We see, for example, a Jewish teenager in hip-hop apparel learning to break dance.

Such acts of reconciliation rarely make it into the media, which tend to be dominated by the city’s politics of racial fear and loathing. Giuliani’s attacks on Dinkins reflect the mayor’s pattern of naked catering to Jewish voters by implicitly assuring Jews he will protect them from black violence.

“Blacks and Jews” next focuses on Lawndale, Chicago, in 1968, when Jewish real estate agents were “blockbusting” the Jewish neighborhood to scare off residents and sell at exorbitant prices and interest rates to blacks. A prominent rabbi, Robert Marx, founder of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, formed an alliance with a black civil rights group, the Contract Buyers League (organized by a Jesuit scholastic, Jack McNamara) to stand up for blacks who were victims of both discrimination and economic exploitation. The point is that Marx looked at the issue as one of social justice, not whether it was “good for the Jews.”

Those days, says the documentary, are gone. Jews moved from social justice issues to other priorities -- like Israel and the plight of Soviet Jews.

Next, Salim Muwakkil, once an editor of the Nation of Islam’s publication Muhammad Speaks, explains why young blacks pay attention to black spokesmen like Farrakhan and Khallid Muhammad, leaders of the Million Man and Million Youth marches, respectively. Both figures have substantial youth followings, despite outrageous statements such as Farrakhan’s claim that Monica Lewinsky is part of the Jewish plot to undermine the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and Khallid’s slur on Jews as “bloodsuckers.”

Something askew

Simply -- and this is a terrible thing to say -- they have credibility because many blacks apparently recognize what they say as “true,” that is, corresponding to their experience. Obviously there is something seriously askew in the way a certain class of urban blacks have come to analyze the culture. That such youths can swallow absurd nonsense when they hear it from their “leaders” is one of the mysterious tragedies of our educational system.

One of the most striking parts of the film is its analysis of what it calls the “Ritual of Conflict,” and what I’ll call the “Welcome Insult Obsession.” Here’s how it goes: An irresponsible black “leader” like Khallid Muhammad makes a provocative anti-Semitic remark. Jewish spokesmen -- and non-Jewish politicians -- take the bait. On TV talk shows, pundits confront Al Sharpton and demand that he repudiate the comment. Black intellectual Cornell West appears on the screen. Will he or will he not repudiate? He’ll repudiate the statement but not the speaker. He and Sharpton are looking over their shoulders at their own constituencies.

Somehow in these rituals -- this theater -- whether the offended parties are Jews or blacks or another group, no reactions short of abject groveling seem to satisfy. The offended party wears the insult like a badge. It is above all a ploy to drive the groups father apart and to increase the power -- and the votes -- of the rabble-rouser who raised the issue in the first place.

Khallid riled up his Million Youth (really a few thousand) March in Harlem in September by telling his crowd to be ready to beat the police with railings and take their guns and shoot them; then he prolonged the event a few minutes past the deadline and thus gave Mayor Giuliani an excuse to send helicopters roaring over the crowd, as if Harlem were a Vietnam rice paddy, and send cops swarming up onto the stage to unplug the PA system. The rally, as New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote, had been a failure because young black people had rejected Muhammad’s message of hate. But they saw how Giuliani treated them, and they knew he would “never, but never, treat an entire neighborhood of white people” the way he treated the people of Harlem.

In the last case study in “Blacks and Jews,” 69 black high school students in California are foolish enough to laugh during a mandatory Martin Luther King Day showing of “Schindler’s List” and are expelled from the theater. Some, they say, didn’t even know it was based on a true story. The controversy becomes a media circus -- Stephen Spielberg visits the school with Gov. Pete Wilson, running for re-election, tagging along for the attention. The students perceive that once again they are being exploited by politicians.

In a misguided attempt to clean up the mess, the school sponsors an “African Holocaust Day” in which paranoid black activist speakers tell the students that the “whole society” is plotting to make them feel bad about being black. Don’t forget, they’re told, the Jews were the original slave traders.

Sharing the blessings

About 30 years ago New York promoted itself with a solemn, high-minded radio ad that went something like: “This is New York, city of wealth and opportunity, where 8 million people live in peace and harmony and share the blessings of democracy.”

Particularly in recent years, the city has not been “celebrating its diversity.” Crime is down and tourism is up, but there’s a new meanness in the air when black and Jewish politicians -- as well as Catholic politicians like Giuliani and now-deposed Sen. Alfonse D’Amato -- see what they think is a chance to score a point or grub a vote by baiting or courting blacks or Jews.

D’Amato, a week before the recent election, staging his assault in a New York Holocaust Memorial, accused his rival, Congressman Charles Schumer -- a Jew who lost family members in the Holocaust -- of not being sufficiently Jewish, not sufficiently sensitive to Holocaust victims, because he missed a vote for a national Holocaust memorial. Then, in private conversation, he called Schumer a “putzhead.” (In Yiddish, putz means penis.) He later denied it.

Holocaust is no longer a historical event but a political buzzword. By any means possible, imply that your opponent does not appreciate the evil of the Holocaust. Use it to suggest that he or she -- even if he or she is Jewish -- would say nothing if the boxcars were to roll into Crown Heights, or any other Jewish neighborhood, tomorrow. So, vote for me.

I watch this kind of behavior and I think things are bad; but my friend, Professor Mark Naison, a white Jew in charge of Fordham’s African and African-American Studies program, assures me that they’re not as bad as people think. The official Jewish organizations still cooperate with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in opposing extreme right-wingers, the Alien Nation, skinheads and the Oklahoma City bomber. But they split over affirmative action and the NAACP’s tolerance for the likes of Khallid. Also, blacks and Jews are more split among themselves than before: the blacks into their assimilated middle class and the marginalized lower classes who listen to demagogues; the Jews between the Orthodox, who cheer D’Amato and favor union of church and state, and the liberals, who now think the opposition to affirmative action has gone too far.

We may wish “Blacks and Jews” had made a few more distinctions about rifts within both communities, and I wish it had developed a stronger critique of those who both play the race card and push the Holocaust button.

But its purpose is not to please me. It’s to get blacks and Jews -- and the rest of us -- to talk.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is assistant dean of Fordham College Rose Hill.

National Catholic Reporter, December 18, 1998