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Blacks and Jews

In New York, the great domestic battle had begun a decade earlier with the school strike of 1968. A fight for community control of the city's school system dissolved into a black-Jewish confrontation simply because the teachers' union was run by Jews. No matter that the union's position was supported by the likes of Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, the patriarch of the civil-rights movement. A black schoolteacher read a poem dedicated to the teachers' union president, Albert Shanker, over the radio. It began: "Hey, Jew boy, with that yarmulke on your head / You pale-faced Jew boy—I wish you were dead." The African-American Teachers Association, run by Albert Vann, now a Brooklyn assemblyman leading the opposition to Mayor Koch, issued a newsletter that read, in part: "And the Jew. . . He keeps [black] women and men from becoming teachers and principals and keeps our children ignorant." An AATA press release said, "Jews would like us to become what they were in Hitler's Germany: spineless jellyfish."

Bound up in the school strike's subsidiary issues—and the glaring flash point for blacks and Jews ever since—was the matter of quotas and affirmative action. Throughout history, Jews have suffered quotas that kept them out. Present-day black demands for quotas to get in are viewed by many Jews, and some others, as more of the same. "If ethnic quotas are to be imposed. . .," said Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1968, "the Jews will almost be driven out. . . . There is a whiff of anti-Semitism in many of these demands." The best reason to oppose quotas, says Morris Abram, a prominent Jewish leader, "is not because of the past but because of what would come if you quotaized America. The United States is relatively free of religious strife because the government is neutral. If this were not the case, America would become Lebanonized. The country would fracture."

Technically, affirmative action is a different matter, but the numerical goals and timetables that invariably attend such proposals are seen by some Jews, including Ed Koch, simply as quotas by another name. Others, like Al Vorspan, contend that affirmative action "is not the main threat to Jews, and to believe that it is is to be hysterical and to contribute to the overall black-Jewish problem." "It is the rare black," says Jack Greenberg, "who has achieved without benefit of affirmative action. So Jewish opposition is viewed as anti-black and has contributed to anti-Israel sentiment among blacks."

The civil-rights alliance ended bitterly. Many Jews fear tranquility disrupted more than justice denied, says a Jewish leader.

While other points can be dismissed as passing troubles, the dispute over affirmative action will remain. "On quotas, at least," says Howard Squadron, former president of the American Jewish Congress, "there will not be agreement." What to do? "The very best we can hope for," says Alexander Schindler, "is to reach an agreement to disagree. Jews need to understand that affirmative action is the Israel of the black movement, that centuries of slavery and second-class citizenship cannot, in their view, be overcome merely by enacting a set of laws forbidding discrimination."

"Increasingly," Al Vorspan has written, "Jewish attitudes toward Blacks are influenced by the view that Blacks have turned against Jews. The perception of Black anti-Semitism is a powerful barrier to improved relations. . . . Jews, in large measure, have lost their empathy for Blacks. They see the results of social disorder, but seldom the causes. Many are more concerned with tranquility shattered than justice denied. . . . We have grown edgy and impatient with each other. Bleak silences stretch between us. New bridges must be erected. The demagogues in both groups demur, why bother?"

The question, again, is one of degree. Nathan Perlmutter, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, takes solace from a 1984 election result in Berkeley, California. "They had a referendum to curtail aid to Israel," says Perlmutter. "The black precincts overwhelmingly defeated it—at the same time that they voted overwhelmingly for Jesse Jackson." "Blacks are sophisticated," says Bill Tatum. "They say, 'Who is my friend?' How many Arab dollars have gone to rebuild Harlem? The answer is none. How many Arab dollars have been deposited in New York's two black banks? Zilch, zero. Their money is in the banks that do business with South Africa." Of greatest significance to Tatum is a lesson he draws from a 26-week strike at his newspaper, the Amsterdam News, two years ago. "I was accused of being a Zionist and a supporter of Israel" says Tatum. "A black paper had a headline that said ZIONIST TATUM KILLS ARAB BABIES. I firmly believe that if there was truly a deep well of anti-Semitism among blacks that the strike would have succeeded in killing the Amsterdam News."


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