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White Jews and Uppity Blacks

Abba Solomon: That quality of being “White, But” allowed fruitful cooperation and alliances of blacks and Jews in the post Civil War era, when Jews of eastern Europe came in flood quantities to America, and African Americans came to a problematic citizenship out from bondage.

A Shadow over Palestine: The Imperial Life of Race in America by Keith P. Feldman • University of Minnesota Press

uppity blacks

Are American Jews “white”? What if Jews stop being “white”?

Those questions echo while reading Keith Feldman’s excellent book about the meaning and effect of Palestine in the American sociopolitical context, particularly its interaction with American conceptions of race.

The honorary “whiteness” of Jews in the United States has been a key to Jews’ successful sojourn here, and a key to Jews’ role as a creative intermediary in the American racial categories — an ethnonational group of such distinctiveness that it is its own genus, “White, But.”

That quality of being “White, But” allowed fruitful cooperation and alliances of blacks and Jews in the post Civil War era, when Jews of eastern Europe came in flood quantities to America, and African Americans came to a problematic citizenship out from bondage.

The productive relationships between blacks and Jews are exemplified by the Jews’ participation in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), joint efforts such as of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in the civil rights era, and the nurturing of young essayist James Baldwin in the pages of Commentary magazine.

That quality of being “White, But” allowed fruitful cooperation and alliances of blacks and Jews in the post Civil War era.

It is also a relationship that at times nears the patronizing.

Last week, Vice President of the Conservative Zionist organization Mercaz Rabbi Dan Dorsch wrote an article for English-language Haaretz, “As a Rabbi, I Can’t Support Black Lives Matter When They Call to Boycott ‘Apartheid’ Israel.” He used the Yiddish word chutzpahdik to describe BLM’s Palestine position — a word which fairly means sassy, disrespectful, uppity.

(BLM should stop its “misguided steps” and return to “the way of Dr. King,” he preached, unintentionally echoing reproaches King received for “straying” from civil rights by making connections between the Vietnam War and American violence and poverty, in his April 1967 Riverside Church address, “Beyond Vietnam.”)

The historical conflict between universal civil rights and protectiveness of the State of Israel is playing out again in the American Jewish establishment. The Zionist Organization of America denounced the Anti-Defamation League for public sympathy with Black Lives Matter, because of BLM’s public support for Palestinian rights.

ADL explained that it is a civil rights organization, and ZOA’s Morton Klein replied, “We are a civil rights group, for Jews. Our mission is Jews and the Jewish homeland. We are a civil rights group, but not for everybody.”

The 1960s black civil rights movement, taking strength from the example of Gandhi’s Indian freedom struggle and the decolonization underway in Africa, took a new look at the Israeli state in its relation to Palestinians, at the point when Israel accomplished its 1967 expansion of territory.

The 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville parents’ community school board conflict with mainly Jewish school teachers in New York caused some Jews to see assertive African Americans as threats to the liberal structure in which Jews had prospered.

After the June 1967 war, Jewish security “neoconservatives” were born, reacting to New Left identification with Palestinian anti-imperialism with redoubled Cold War identification of US and Israeli power as guarantors of the liberal order protecting Jews, as knowledge and sympathy for Fatah/PLO grew in the New Left.

Belief in a militarily invincible United States became packaged with an always dominant Israel as twin guarantors of Jewish safety.

Feldman presents artifacts in a post 1967 world where different situations become resonant equivalents — African American assertions of rights that threaten Jewish status in NYC schools become PLO/Fatah assertions of rights threatening the Jewish homeland:

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“…this suturing of political Zionism and American Jewishness was contingently fashioned, often reactively, in the crucible of late-1960s and early-1970s racial justice struggles.”

For these Jews particularly, when Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali and said, “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger,” after resisting his draft notice, blacks resisting American power and Arabs resisting Israeli domination became a harmony of threats, and fighting “terror” and “radicals” became a priority over justice.

Memorably, Saul Bellow’s 1970 novel Mr Sammler’s Planet reflects the time, where black assertion shakes and illuminates Holocaust refugee Sammler’s place in America, subsumed into the “white” alignment in a decaying New York City threatened by surly blacks.

American blacks who recognized themselves as diasporic communities of Africans began building reconnections to the continent and the Arab world. In August 1967, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) published a fact sheet about Israel/Palestine based on work of the Palestine Information Center of Beirut, causing a major reaction in the American Jewish organizations. WEB Du Bois’ step-son Graham Du Bois gave voice to PLO positions while the editing Black Panther Intercommunal News Service while living in Cairo.

In the New Left and anti-war movements, Jews expanded their analysis of anti-colonialism to re-examine assumptions of what asserting Jewish identity and peoplehood should mean, and what it should not mean, recognizing colonial and racist assumptions of the Jewish enterprise in Palestine. (“Equal suffrage is obviously inadvisable in so backward a civilization as that of the Arab, but is the law in the purely Jewish communities and districts,” wrote Pioneer American Zionist, Jerusalem Post founder and future Tel Aviv Mayor Gershon Agronsky (Agron) in a 1927 report on Jewish development of Mandate Palestine.)

Arthur Waskow’s Freedom Seders, first celebrated in 1969, were an expression of an effort to re-position the meaning of the Jewish search for freedom and justice as universal rather than parochial, and to negate the Zionist effort to “negate the Diaspora” by centering Jews’ life and struggle within the societies they in which they live.

Feldman explores the tandem views of Zionism that emerged in ‘60s America: the national liberation movement of the Jewish People, and an imperial settler-colonial Israel allied with mother colonial nations.

Feldman says that after the 1967 war, and the revolts of 1968 that recognized the limits of de jure equality, Americans of color experienced and spoke of “a dawning recognition of (US) material and symbolic support for racialized structures of rule in Israel and Palestine.”

Jewish radicals allied with Black Power groups as they connected with the PLO, while cultivating renewed Jewish identity — and then in some cases breaking the alliance because of what they saw as opposition to core Jewish liberation.

Feminist of color noted racism and militarism as women’s issues, and the disaster for women and children of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon by Israel, calling it an example of war’s gendered violence, especially against women of a racialized “enemy.”

Feldman’s book covers a kaleidoscopic range of American views of Israel/Palestine in the 1960s-1980s, affected by transformations involving race:

African Americans seeing themselves in Arab Israelis and Palestinian refugees; Jewish radicals hoping to disentangle Jewish national liberation from Israeli settler colonialism; analysts of gender roles recognizing the fetishizing of hyper-masculinized military power in the Israeli story; the official decolonization of Africa with the abolition of Jim Crow in the American South; Arab-American scholars organizing to present contrary interpretations of Israel/Palestine informed by their experience, all allowed new American views of Jew and Arab in Palestine, even to question the arbitrary erasure of Arab Jews from the framing.

Learning to question and defeat “legitimate authority” in Selma, Alabama, and expose the “experts” designing escalating American involvement in Vietnam, allowed new scrutiny of the Israeli government narrative of origin and struggle.

A facet of Feldman’s A Shadow Over Palestine is symmetries with the past revealed, which we are seeing recapitulated in the Black Lives Matter statement on Palestine and the Jewish establishment’s reaction.

abba solomon

(Note: In this discussion, “white” is the American social classification. See the 1998 American Anthropology Association statement on race.)

Abba Solomon