African-Americans and Jews Rebuild a Tattered Alliance
NEW ORLEANS — Few American congregations resemble each other less, in their outward appearance, than those that worship at Israelite Baptist Church and Touro Synagogue in New Orleans.
Israelite convenes in a blighted downtown area and is known for fire-and-brimstone conservatism. Most of the African-Americans who worship there live in rental apartments and work in jobs such as schoolteaching and housekeeping.
Touro meets two miles away amid the splendor of St. Charles Avenue. An exponent of reform Judaism, it gives less weight to the exact wording of Jewish laws than to the ethical content. Many members own their homes and work as doctors and other professionals.
Despite differences in race, religion, and income, the two congregations have formed a remarkable kinship since their leaders met eight years ago.
Their relationship stands in contrast to recent accounts of escalating tensions between African-Americans and Jews.
What's more, it reflects a small but growing effort by many to mend an alliance that once fueled progressive politics in America.
"When we come together with the folks from Touro, it seems we're all seeking higher things," says the Rev. Martin Fortner Jr., Israelite's pastor since 1970. "We look at each other as people of God, not as people who are white or black or wealthy or poor."
"What binds us together is peace and respect," says Rabbi David Goldstein, now in his 18th year at Touro. "We're a coalition of decency, of goodwill. How do we make these feelings a part of our everyday lives? I think our record speaks for itself."
Once a year, with choir in tow, Mr. Fortner and Mr. Goldstein preach from each other's pulpits. Their congregations teamed up a few years ago to turn a vacant lot near Israelite into a park. Now they plan to build 16 affordable homes in an adjacent area.
Such solidarity seldom draws attention from the national news media. Critics say coverage of black-Jewish relations tends to accentuate conflict, rather than the search for common ground.
A week before last October's Million Man March, for example, the media reported that US black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan had again called Jews "blood-suckers." Then came word that a young Nation of Islam follower in New York had voiced similar views in Columbia University's student newspaper. December brought news that an African-American man set fire to a Jewish clothing store in Harlem, killing himself and seven others.
"What we're seeing is how a certain kind of black nationalist consciousness mixes with Jewish defensiveness to produce a media spectacle," says Jonathan Rieder, chairman of the sociology department at Barnard College in New York. "But if you talk to members of both communities, you'll find there's a greater complexity of feelings."
There is also a history of cooperation. Jews played a key role in founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. And they figured more prominently than other whites in civil rights groups such as the Congress on Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
This alliance drew on common experiences and values. Each community had endured unspeakable oppression, whether under slavery or in the Holocaust. And each had embraced religion in a search to find meaning in their lives. But despite such affinities, relations have cooled and tempers flared.
Murray Friedman, director of Temple University's Center for American Jewish History, says there was no golden era. But relations were better before the civil rights movement shifted its strategy from integration to black power, he argues in his book, "What Went Wrong? The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance" (The Free Press, 1995).
About the same time, Jewish leadership began veering to the right. Commentary, an influential journal of the American Jewish Committee, once argued for investment in inner cities; now it campaigns against affirmative action. And the Anti-Defamation League has focused increasing attention on anti-Semitism among blacks.
Other factors fueling the enmity originated overseas. Israel's occupation of the West Bank in 1967, for example, gave blacks reason to view Jews as oppressors, and Israeli investment in South Africa during apartheid touched another nerve. So did visits earlier this year by Mr. Farrakhan with Arab leaders in Libya, Iran, and other nations hostile to Israel.
Michael Lerner, editor and publisher of the Jewish magazine Tikkun, says American Jewry is also at fault. In seeking to assimilate culturally and succeed financially, he says, too many Jews neglect the Torah's injunction to "love the stranger, for you were once strangers in Egypt." Though Jews still vote mostly for Democrats, who have long championed African-American causes, Dr. Lerner suggests that they are now less inclined to engage in volunteer work that benefits the poor, who include a disproportionate number of blacks.
Many African Americans and Jews have not given up hope of rapprochement. Among them are Lerner and Cornel West, a professor of Afro-American Studies at Harvard University. In their book "Jews and Blacks: A Dialogue on Race, Religion, and Culture in America" (Plume, 1996), they argue that efforts to renew the alliance hold relevance for the nation as a whole. Dr. West says: "If these two groups began to internally erode in relation to each other ... then the possibility of progressive politics in America also erodes."
Lerner says the left must open itself to a broader alliance. Progressives need not abandon their concern for economic and social justice, he says, but they should frame their agenda in terms of the moral well-being of the nation as a whole. "[A]s long as the majority feel that the social justice agenda of the progressives only benefits a small part of the population," he says, "they are unlikely to be moved."
One forum for reevaluating such problems and possibilities is CommonQuest: The Magazine of Black-Jewish Relations, a new journal published by the American Jewish Committee and Howard University in Washington, D.C. The first issue, due out April 29, features personal and political essays on such events as the Million Man March and the 1994 massacre at a mosque in the West Bank town of Hebron.
"People are looking to us for calm reflection on the racial crisis and honest talk about race," says Dr. Rieder, who edits the journal with Russell Adams, chairman of the Afro-American Studies Department at Howard. "We want to treat these issues within the larger context of black and white relations, of pluralism and identity in America."
Calm, honest reflection will benefit discourse between and about blacks and Jews, says Jane Ramsey, who directs the Chicago-based Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA). But unless members of both communities forge personal relationships with each other, she says, it will be hard for them to act on their convictions.
At the community level, there are numerous cases where blacks and Jews are working together for social and economic justice.
In Chicago, JCUA and black community-development groups such as Centers for New Horizons have created a multimillion-dollar fund, called Faith Corp., that invests in low-income neighborhoods.
In Dallas, a third-generation Baptist preacher, Gerald Britt, and a Jewish professional, Glenn Wanger, are spearheading a new job-training program called Dallas Workpath. Local employers have pledged to hire the program's first 548 graduates and pay them at least $9 per hour plus benefits.
In the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in New York, where racial strife claimed the lives of an African-American student and a Jewish graduate student in 1991, black and Jewish residents recently convened a series of community forums, oral history projects, and walking tours.
And in New Orleans, worshippers from Israelite and Touro will gather this spring to build a home for Habitat for Humanity.
"We're going to roll up our sleeves and pound some nails together," says Rabbi Goldstein. "What's interesting is that the site isn't in Reverend Fortner's neighborhood, and it's not in mine. But our congregations are going to gain something from the experience."