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Blacks and Jews

By the mid-sixties, with the great legislation in place, the civil-rights movement began to give way to the black revolution. A new generation of black leaders emerged. Many believed King was an Uncle Tom; many were separatists. In some organizations, the Jews who had helped for decades were dumped unceremoniously. "A good many Jews were simply devastated psychologically," says Albert Vorspan, vice-president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. "They couldn't take the personal rejection, and they couldn't even understand, at least in theory, that even in the best organizations, blacks simply wanted to run their own show. They lost whatever ability they had had to distinguish between the shit-heads and the hotheads."

"The new guys," says Bill Tatum, editor-in-chief of the Amsterdam News, "were creatures of the six o'clock news. The Stokely Carmichaels and Rap Browns got all the attention because they were willing to say whatever awful thing was required to get on the air." "This was entirely new to us," says Bayard Rustin. "We'd spent years being careful and responsible and now all the ink was going to the upstarts. I remember Martin [Luther King] and I going to see the editors of the New York Times to complain about Stokely's getting all the attention. We were told that he made the paper because he was unique and that we had to understand that the George Washington Bridge standing up is not news."

Much of the change was to be expected. "The dynamic of protest politics," says Diane Ravitch, a perceptive historian of American education, "makes compromise appear as weakness. Leadership either moves to an extreme position or is replaced by new leaders who are more militant and less willing to compromise. Those who accept compromise are made to appear compromised themselves and are quickly eclipsed."

With the new leaders came a new literature. In The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, a "hot" book in 1967, Harold Cruse attacked Jewish "political and ideological power over Negroes. . . . Among the many myths life and history have imposed on Negroes (such as that of Lincoln ‘freeing' the slaves) is the myth that the Negro's best friend is the Jew." In the autobiography that became must reading for many Americans, Malcolm X wrote: "All I held against Jews was that so many Jews actually were hypocrites in their claim to be friends of the American black man. . . . At the same time I knew that the Jews played these roles for a very careful strategic reason: the more prejudice in America could be focused upon the Negro, then the more the white Gentiles' prejudice would keep . . . off the Jew." Far from decrying such obvious garbage, white intellectuals, many of them Jews, took a dive. In The New York Review of Books, Christopher Lasch wrote that Cruse's book was a "monument of historical analysis." Richard Gilman, in The New Republic,, called for a moratorium on literary judgments of black writers because "in the present phase of interracial existence in America, moral and intellectual 'truths' have not the same reality for Negroes and whites."

Along with the new black leadership's more militant domestic agenda came a first-ever interest in foreign affairs. The 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and the Arabs provided a rallying point. No matter how black congressmen voted in Washington, the new black leaders were foursquare behind Palestinian rights. Israel was always wrong. A cartoon in the newsletter of Carmichael's Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee depicted Moshe Dayan with a Jewish star on his jacket and dollar signs for epaulets. The Reverend Joseph Lowery, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, toured the Middle East and sang "We Shall Overcome" with Yasir Arafat in his Beirut bunker. The Reverend Hosea Williams, head of the SCLC's Atlanta chapter, conferred "the Decoration of Martin Luther King" on Colonel Muammar Qaddafi just before Libyan troops began killing black Christians in Chad. "Brother Qaddafi," said Williams, "expressed a great desire to ally with the black American in eliminating racism and Zionism internationally." Why all this? Surely, in part, there was a legitimate sympathy for the problems of less fortunate people everywhere. But there was something else too. As Williams said of the Arabs, "They've got the money." That's right, echoed Jesse Jackson in a 1979 meeting with Arab businessmen in Chicago: "I can help your cause, but you have to help my cause." According to the New York Times, Jackson's pitch netted a cool $10,000.

The single incident in foreign affairs that most upset American Jews occurred in 1979. Andrew Young, then Jimmy Carter's ambassador to the United Nations, violated administration policy and met with a representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Almost immediately, Young was gone. By most accounts, he was asked to resign because he had deceived the State Department—but black leaders saw a Jewish conspiracy. Young's dismissal, said Jesse Jackson, was a "capitulation" to Jews. For over a month, while blacks castigated Jews, President Carter remained silent—"a pure and simple exploitation of anti-Semitism for political purposes," says Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.


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