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Blacks and Jews

How wide the rift?

From the February 4, 1985 issue of New York Magazine.

In 1978, on his first visit as mayor to Harlem's Convent Avenue Baptist Church to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther King Jr., Ed Koch heard a heckler shouting, "Don't let him speak. Send the Jew back to the synagogues." Koch was the only white present that day, and, by his account, none of the blacks, including one of his own deputy mayors, bothered to scream back. The mayor's version of events has been disputed, but the important point is that a fortnight ago, at the same church, Koch was heckled as a "racist," and the blacks on the stage were falling all over themselves to rise in his defense. "He's not the mayor of downtown," said the Reverend William Gardener, president of the Baptist Ministers' Conference of Greater New York. "He's the mayor of everybody. . . . This man has more black folk downtown than any previous mayor. Nobody's all bad all of the time."

Such is progress—and Koch is delighted. "In '78, people who should have stood up didn't," he says. "This time, I asked for a show of hands of those who wanted to hear my message, and it was most of the congregation. In '78, nobody helped me. In '85, lots helped. I say that is a huge change."

Huge, also, at least on the surface, is the difference between the earlier, anti-Semitic remark and the latest charge of racism—especially since Ed Koch has again provoked New York's blacks with his observation that "amongst substantial numbers" of black leaders "there is a lot of anti-Semitism."

One can argue, and many have, that no public official should talk like that, even if he has the truth on his side. Koch, of course, doesn't hold that view. In fact, the mayor believes that skirting the truth becomes pandering when the subject is race, and that it is always best for one to say what he thinks.

What makes Koch's problem with blacks and the sorry state of black-Jewish relations generally so urgent is the coming mayoral campaign. For a time, it appeared that blacks might field a candidate of their own and that the city's Hispanics might rally round. That's not going to happen, but there is a good chance that the Democratic party might nominate its first all-Jewish ticket for mayor, comptroller, and City Council president. This would leave blacks to contest some borough presidencies—the same position they were in 25 years ago. Today, New York is the last of the five largest American cities without a minority mayor, and it isn't difficult to understand black frustration or to conjure up an abrasive campaign.

Nowhere else in the world do blacks and Jews interact so pervasively as in New York. There are 1.1 million Jews in the city and 1.8 million blacks. In no other city outside Israel are Jews such a dominant ethnic group—and some say New York is even more Jewish, at least in feel, than Israel. Conversely, in no other city are blacks in such huge numbers consigned to the back of the political bus. But the times—and the numbers—are changing. Despite their lesser population, Jews used to account for approximately 40 percent of the Democratic-primary vote. Today, blacks and Jews make up a roughly equal quarter each of the Democratic electorate. The rub is occurring now, today, in New York.

Is Koch right about blacks, and conversely, are Jews anti-black? Is the entire question miscast? Is the problem one of black-white rather than black-Jewish relations? Is it a problem for the average black and Jew, or merely part of a battle for political power waged among leaders?

Trying to assess the current state of black-Jewish relations, both here and throughout the United States, one encounters a bewildering mix of often contradictory statistical and anecdotal evidence, all of it purportedly "proving" that blacks and Jews are either farther apart than ever before or on the verge of a new closeness. At first look, there is enough disquieting survey research to prompt legitimate concern. In 1978, for example, Louis Harris found that while anti-Semitism was declining slightly in America "blacks tend to be more anti-Jewish than any other group." Harris also reported a higher degree of anti-Jewish prejudice among black leaders than among leaders of any other group—although one wonders if this particular result is really part of a larger problem of anti-Jewish feeling among all leaders: Harris discovered that a majority of corporate leaders feel that "Jews are irritating because they are too aggressive."

Other, more recent studies have confirmed Harris's findings and have uncovered a higher incidence of anti-Semitism among younger, educated blacks than among younger, educated whites.


  • Archive: “Features
  • From the Feb 4, 1985 issue of New York