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Blacks and Jews

Some have argued that relations on the street between blacks and Jews, never terrific, are no worse than ever. The real rift, by this analysis, is among the leaders, who once had common goals but now find their interests in conflict. However, Harris's research, and that of other pollsters, finds that the traditional stereotypes endure among black leaders and followers: A plurality of blacks believe most slumlords are Jewish; by two to one, the general population disagrees. By 56 percent to 14 percent, blacks say that given a choice between money and people, Jews will choose money; again, the general population disagrees. While the majority of Americans feel otherwise, a plurality of blacks believe that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to America. And while a majority of the public (by 60 percent to 22 percent) deny the charge that Jewish businessmen will usually try to pull a shady deal on a customer, a narrow plurality of blacks tend to believe it. For their part, Jews are more resistant to integrated neighborhoods than other Americans and are generally less willing than whites to send their children to schools with blacks.

On the flip side, Harris reports that Jews are "more sympathetic than other non-black Americans with the aspiration of blacks to achieve equality." Jews and blacks often vote alike—they were the only two groups to heavily support Walter Mondale for president—and often enough, Jewish support for black candidates far exceeds the support of other whites.

The survey evidence is disquieting. Polls have found that large numbers of blacks still believe in the age-old stereotypes of Jews.

Across a range of social-policy issues, blacks and Jews hold nearly identical views. In Washington, this reality has its expression in joint efforts by blacks and Jews to lobby the federal government—and in the increasing willingness of Jews to join the black-led protest against apartheid in South Africa. In Congress, members of the Black Caucus are strong supporters of Soviet Jewry and aid to Israel, and they unanimously opposed the sale of AWAC's to Saudi Arabia.

How does one weigh these contradictory signals? Should Jews and blacks worry only about articulated prejudice and ignore other signs of intolerance? Major Owens, a black congressman from Brooklyn, says, "The failure to stamp out the present rising tensions [between blacks and Jews] can be catastrophic." Jack Greenberg, a hero of the civil-rights movement as director of the NAACP legal-defense fund, believes that black-Jewish tensions are no worse than before and should cause no particular alarm. Ed Koch agrees. He believes there is greater tension between blacks and white Gentiles. Who's correct?

A good deal has changed in the past twenty years. The black-Jewish civil-rights coalition of the 1950s and '60s is no more. And it is of no value to blacks or Jews, or, for that matter, to the truth, to pretend otherwise. The history is instructive because it is both recent and keenly felt.

For many years, Jews provided the money and many of the skills the civil-rights movement needed to function. Nothing could have been easier. The goals were clear-cut, the injustice far away. "Moral struggles are always simpler," says Bayard Rustin, the veteran black civil-rights activist. "At first, the black agenda was just asking for things all whites had, like the right to vote and to use public bathrooms. There wasn't any rub because we weren't talking about dividing the economic pie. We just wanted basic rights written into law."

But even during the easy days, the basis for tension between Jews and blacks—proximity—was always there. Two quite different observers saw the problem similarly—and in a way that tends to support the black stereotypes of Jews. Here is Ed Koch, in his 1984 book, Mayor: "Jews are people who remain a presence in the ghetto even after they have moved out as residents. They still own the businesses there, and the blacks move in and the Jews still continue to do business, and they are the landlords to a great extent, and the blacks . . . dislike the Jews because everybody would like to have a scapegoat." And here is Martin Luther King Jr., in 1967: "The urban Negro has a special and unique relationship to Jews. On the one hand, he is associated with Jews as some of his most committed and generous partners in the civil rights struggle. On the other hand, he meets them daily as some of his most direct exploiters in the ghetto as slum landlords and gouging shopkeepers. . . . A great number of Negro ghettos were formerly Jewish neighborhoods; some storekeepers and landlords remained as population changes occurred. They operate with the ethics of marginal business entrepreneurs, not Jewish ethics, but the distinction is lost on some Negroes who are maltreated by them."


Related:

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