For the past two years we have seen the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement. The historical systematic persecution, as well as repression through mental, spiritual, and physical violence, of the black communities is well recorded and factual. The movement has highlighted the antithesis of police interaction whether black or white, and through the use of body cameras we can see it all unfold. Unfortunately, this still has little impact where logic and justice are pushed aside for the excuse of preservation of law, and the cult of brotherhood created by law enforcement officers. However, once the platform of the movement became public the movement attacked the state of Israel for it’s oppression of the perceived minority Palestinian communities in the territories. Both sides went on the offensive pinning African-American conservatives, and older liberal Jews against certain African-American far left intellectuals and other Muslim and Middle Eastern academics. However, like Jaws who came out of nowhere to bite you in the ass, this is not new. What if I told you that there was a strong bond between blacks and Jews against racist oppression? Then what would you think if I told you that one source of conflict surrounding the bond was the issue of the state of Israel. Let’s rewind because this happened before, and go back to the the lovely year of 1967.
A recent article in Tablet Magazine pointed to, and many Jewish and non-Jewish writers point to these quotes and sentiments, that there was black support for Zionism going back to Marcus Garvey. However, it is far more complicated as the scholar Robert A. Hill points out that, “While Jewish Zionism served as a kind of political paradigm in the articulation of Black nationalist consciousness, Jews as a social force were also experienced by Garvey and other black nationalist spokesmen as a source of political pressure hindering the fullest expression and attainment of black self-determination.” Meaning that he, and other black nationalists, embraced the Zionist idea while seeing it eschew their own chance for real socio-economic and political upliftment. There is also ample amount of evidence of the unity and cooperation between Blacks and Jews in the labor movements, as well as the Civil Rights Movement. The freedom summer, freedom riders, and the activism of the early part of the 1960’s is basically seen as harmonious toward the groups. However, according to the scholar Jonathan Kaufman in 1966 Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement began to refocus its efforts on the northern cities, which made the relationship far more intense and pointed. He writes that, “For twenty-five years America’s cities were the testing ground, and then battleground, for blacks and Jews as they moved from cooperation to confrontation to competition to conflict.” The first big flashpoint was the Ocean Hill – Brownsville incident pitting the local (black) families of the community against the mostly white (and Jewish) teacher’s union. It becomes a heated battle which would foreshadow the battles between blacks and Jews in the 1970’s and 1980’s concerning Affirmative Action. This was due to the shift from King’s integration to the Black Power movement’s call for separation and the militant calls by the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party. This scared liberal working class Jews.
What I just added is a lot of information, but the most important is the flashpoint where the tensions began. The strike in the Castle Hill – Brownsville section of Brooklyn came to a head in 1967. Certain scholars point out that the white, mostly Jewish teachers represented by the powerful teacher’s union received communications in their school mailboxes. Some of these communications, which were put there by black activists, condemned the nation of Israel, but also had a rather distasteful anti-Semitic ring to the anti-Zionist literature.
The distinguished African American scholar Clayborne Carson noted in one of his works that certain African American civil rights activists picked up on specific language spoken by Malcolm X, who had been assassinated a year earlier. Some of these remarks were perceived as anti-Semitic. However, we must understand his past and interactions in the urban areas, as well as the rhetoric from the Nation of Islam. One of these activists was Stokely Carmichael. He, and the radicalized portion, decided to change tactics so they began excluding whites from SNCC, some who’ve been part of the group before he joined. These were the first steps toward exclusion. Next comes the connective tissue of the past and present. After the expulsion leading into the summer months of 1967 SNCC also took positions on the Six Day War that happened in early June of 1967. Unfortunately, some of the rhetoric is very familiar in the Black Lives Matter platform. The subsequent rejection of white activists from groups like SNCC and CORE, accompanied by ideological factors such as the shift in emphasis to a revolutionary anti-colonialist struggle, and anti-Zionist sympathy for the Palestinians, led to a permanent souring of relations in America between blacks and Jews. Although he stated in his posthumously published memoirs that he had never been anti-semitic, in 1970 Carmichael proclaimed: “I have never admired a white man, but the greatest of them, to my mind, was Hitler.” Carmichael would later move to Guinea, African and change his name to Kwame Ture, but the vitriol kept coming. He would distinguish Jews from Zionists, which in the 1960’s was pretty solid on both ends. There is a direct path from his words to the words we hear from certain African American activists such as, Zionism is nothing but a European bred colonialist movement founded by an atheist, which is far off the mark of reality. He hated Zionists, not Jews. However, in 1967 that was preposterous as American Jewish support for Israel was at an all time high, especially after the miraculous victory of the Six Day War. His most famous attack on Zionism was saying that, “The only good Zionist is a dead Zionist.” This was further fueled by the vitriol coming from the Nation of Islam, and prominent Jew hater Louis Farrakhan. Going back to Clayborne Carson he reflects that as for the future of this controversy people like Carmichael “and other Black Power proponents used opposition to Israel to demonstrate publicly their independence from Jewish control and to undermine the position of leaders who maintained their pro-Jewish positions.”
Many of these articles are in a reader titled Struggles for the Promised Land: Toward a History of Black-Jewish Relations in the United States, and was originally published in 1997. One of the last articles, by Gary E. Rubin, he presents the reader with collected data about the relationship between African Americans and Israel. First, he cites polls saying that 1. Black support for Israel is usually lower than white support and 2. Blacks as a population were pro-Israel. He concludes by writing that the overall data shows that Israel is not a hot topic or issue for the African American population. The context of the polling is also very important due to the actions on the ground in Israel, and the adjoining countries. Today there might be more radicals criticizing Israel, but this is probably still only a drop in the bucket compared to other issues. I think that African American communities have far larger problems than the state of Israel.