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Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s

But if the Bernsteins thought their main problem at this point was a bad press, they were wrong. A controversy they were apparently oblivious of suddenly erupted around them. Namely, the bitterness between Jews and blacks over an issue that had been building for three years, ever since Black Power became important. The first inkling the Bernsteins had was when they started getting hate mail, some of it apparently from Jews of the Queens-Brooklyn Jewish Defense League variety. Then the League’s national chairman, Rabbi Meir Kahane, blasted Lenny publicly for joining a “trend in liberal and intellectual circles to lionize the Black Panthers . . . We defend the right of blacks to form defense groups, but they’ve gone beyond this to a group which hates other people. That’s not nationalism, that’s Naziism. And if Bernstein and other such intellectuals do not know this, they know nothing.”

The Jewish Defense League had been formed in 1968 for the specific purpose of defending Jews in low-rent neighborhoods, many of which are black. But even many wealthier and more cultivated Jews, who look at the Defense League as somewhat extremist, Low Rent and gauche, agreed essentially with the point Kahane was making. One of the ironies of the history of the Jews in America was that their long championship of black civil liberties had begun to backfire so badly in the late 1960s. As Seymour Lipset has put it, “The integrationist movement was largely an alliance between Negroes and Jews (who, to a considerable extent, actually dominated it). Many of the interracial civil-rights organizations have been led and financed by whites, and the majority of their white members have been Jews. Insofar as a Negro effort emerged to break loose from involvement with whites, from domination of the civil-rights struggle by white liberals, it meant concretely a break with Jews, for they were the whites who were active in these movements. The Black Nationalist leadership had to push whites (Jews) ‘out of the way,’ and to stop white (Jewish) ‘interference’ in order to get whites (Jews) ‘off their backs.’”

“. . .‘If you’re for freedom,’ says Otto Preminger, ‘tell me dis: Is it all right for a Jew to leave Russia and settle in Israel?’. . .”

Meanwhile, Black Power groups such as SNCC and the Black Panthers were voicing support for the Arabs against Israel. This sometimes looked like a mere matter of black nationalism; after all, Egypt was a part of Africa, and black nationalist literature sometimes seemed to identify the Arabs as blacks fighting the white Israelis. Or else it looked like merely a commitment to world socialism; the Soviet Union and China supported the Arabs against the imperialist tools, the Israelis. But many Jewish leaders regarded the anti-Zionist stances of groups like the Panthers as a veiled American-brand anti-Semitism, tied up with such less theoretical matters as extortion, robbery and mayhem by blacks against Jews in ghetto areas. They cited things like the August 30, 1969, issue of Black Panther, which carried an article entitled “Zionism (Kosher Nationalism) + Imperialism = Fascism” and spoke of “the fascist pigs.” The June, 1967, issue of another Panther publication, Black Power, had carried a poem entitled “Jew-Land,” which said:

Jew-Land, On a summer afternoon, Really, Couldn’t kill the Jews too soon,
Now dig. The Jews have stolen our bread
Their filthy women tricked our men into bed
So I won’t rest until the Jews are dead . . .
In Jew-Land, Don’t be a Tom on Israel’s side
Really, Cause that’s where Christ was crucified.

But in the most literate circles of the New Left—well, the Panthers’ pronouncements on foreign affairs couldn’t be taken too seriously. Ideologically, they were still feeling their way around. To be a UJA Zionist about the whole thing was to be old-fashioned, middle-class middle-aged, suburban, Oceanside-Cedarhurstian, in an age when the youth of the New Left had re-programmed the whole circuitry of Left opposition to oppression. The main thing was that the Panthers were the legitimate vanguard of the black struggle for liberation—among the culturati whom Leonard Bernstein could be expected to know and respect, this was not a point of debate, it was an axiom. The chief theoretical organ of Radical Chic, The New York Review of Books, regularly cast Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver as the Simón Bolívar and José Martí of the black ghettos. On August 24, 1967, The New York Review of Books paid homage to the summer urban riot season by printing a diagram for the making of a Molotov cocktail on its front page. In fact, the journal was sometimes referred to good-naturedly as The Parlour Panther, with the -our spelling of Parlour being an allusion to its concurrent motif of anglophilia. The Review’s embracing of such apparently contradictory attitudes—the nitty-gritty of the ghetto warriors and the preciosity of traditional English Leavis & Loomis intellectualism—was really no contradiction at all, of course. It was merely the essential double-track mentality of Radical Chic—nostagie de la boue and high protocol—in its literary form. In any case, given all this, people like Lenny and Felicia could hardly have been expected to comprehend a complex matter like the latter-day friction between blacks and Jews.

To other people involved in Radical Chic, however, the picture was now becoming clear as day. This was no time for Custer’s last stand. This was time . . . to panic. Two more couples had already agreed to give parties for the Panthers: Peter and Cheray Duchin and Frank and Domna Stanton. The Duchins had already gotten some of the static themselves. Peter had gone to Columbus, Ohio, with his orchestra . . . and the way some of the locals let him have it! All because Charlotte Curtis’ article had quoted Cheray saying how thrilled she was at the prospect of meeting her first Black Panther at Felicia’s. Columbus freaking Ohio, yet. Nor did it take the Stantons long to put two and two together. Frank Stanton, the entrepreneur, not the broadcaster, had a duplex co-op that made Lenny’s look like a fourth-floor walkup. It had marble floors, apricot velvet walls, trompel’oeil murals in the dining room, the works. A few photos of the Panthers against this little backdrop—well, you could write the story yourself.

On Saturday evening, the 24th, the Duchins, the Stantons, Sidney and Gail Lumet, and Lenny and Felicia met at the Bernsteins’ to try to think out the whole situation. Sidney Lumet was convinced that a new era of “McCarthyism” had begun. It was a little hard to picture the editorial and women’s page staffs of the Times as the new Joe McCarthy—but damn it . . . The Times was pushing its own pet organizations, the NAACP, the Urban League, the Urban Coalition, and so on. Why did it look like the Times always tried to punish prominent Jews who refused to lie down and play good solid burghers? Who was it who said the Times was a Catholic newspaper run by Jews to fool the Protestants? Some professor at Columbia . . . In any case, they were now all “too exposed” to do the Panthers any good by giving parties for the Panthers in their homes. They would do better to work through organizations like the NAACP legal defense fund.


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