In 2020, the Museum of HIstory and Holocaust Education (MHHE) at Kennesaw State University received a grant from the Breman Foundation of Atlanta to create a traveling exhibit in support of its 2021 goals of combating antisemitism, addressing race relations, and working for social justice.
Black + Jewish: Connection, Courage, Community is a ten-panel traveling exhibit that explores the history of Black and Jewish relationships in the United States. This digital gallery guide was created to accompany the exhibit in order to raise voices, clarify context, and complicate the conversation. It may be updated dynamically to address the needs of diverse audiences.
Top Image: Participants in the 2017 Project Understanding retreat, a program of the Atlanta Black-Jewish Coalition for young professionals. Courtesy American Jewish Committee (AJC)
Image Across: MHHE curator Adina Langer stands with journalist M. Alexis Scott in the museum's Parallel Journeys exhibit after interviewing her for the Legacy Series oral history project. Scott's father, W.A. Scott III was a World War II veteran who participated in the liberation of Buchenwald.
The following sections provide guiding questions and perspectives to consider for each of the ten panels of the exhibit.
Image Across: Daveed Diggs identifies as both Black and Jewish and was one of the original stars of the Broadway show, Hamilton. in 2020, he was commissioned by Disney to create a new Hanukkah song. The result was "Puppy for Hanukkah" which became an overnight sensation. Its popularity also helped increase visibility of Jews of color in the United States. Courtesy Kveller
Black + Jewish: Connection, Courage, Community
How have Black and Jewish people thought about race and religion at different times and places in their history?
"The Jew was once despised and hated in Europe, and is so still in some parts of that continent; but he has risen, and is rising to higher consideration, and no man is now degraded by association with him any- where. In like manner the Negro will rise in social scale."
~Frederick Douglass, "The Future of the Negro," July 1884.
"The true problem is not the negro, but the nation. Not the law-abiding blacks of the South, but the white men of that section, who by fraud, violence, and persecution, are breaking the law, trampling on the Constitution, corrupting the ballot-box, and defeating the ends of justice. The true problem is whether these white ruffians shall be allowed by the nation to go on in their lawless and nefarious career, dishonoring the Government and making its very name a mockery. It is whether this nation has in itself sufficient moral stamina to maintain its own honor and integrity by vindicating its own Constitution and fulfilling its own pledges, or whether it has already touched that dry rot of moral depravity by which nations decline and fall, and governments fade and vanish."
~Frederick Douglass, "The Race Problem," speech delivered before the Bethel Literary and Historical Association in the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church, Washington, D.C. October 21, 1890.
Opposite image: Frederick Douglas and his grandson, ca. 1890. Courtesy Library of Congress
Yet, there were some who questioned prevailing racial attitudes. German-Jewish American anthropologist Franz Boas developed his theories of cultural anthropology in opposition to a strong emergent tradition of "race science" in the United States and Europe. In Germany, Boas's ancestral home, scholars such as Adolf Stoecker developed racial theories about Jews that would grow in popularity.
"The Jews are and remain a people within a people, a state within a state, a separate tribe within a foreign race. All immigrants are eventually absorbed by the people among whom they live-all save the Jews. They pit their unbroken Semitic character against Teutonic nature, their rigid cult of law or their hatred of Christians against Christianity. We cannot condemn them for this; as long as they are Jews, they are bound to act in this way. But we must, in all candor, state the necessity of protecting ourselves against the dangers of such an intermingling."
~Adolf Stoecker, "What We Demand of Modern Jewry," 1879.
Boas developed his ideas over time, but they began to make a profound impact when he was tasked with writing a report for the United States Immigration Commission in 1913 based on studying the physiological and mental characteristics of immigrants across generations.
“We recognise thus that every classification of mankind must be more or less artificial.”
~Franz Boas, conclusion of report "Changes in Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants," 1913.
"Thus it would seem that man being what he is, the Negro problem will not disappear in America until the Negro blood has been so much diluted that it will no longer be recognized just as antisemitism will not disappear until the last vestige of the Jew as a Jew has disappeared."
~Franz Boas, "The Negro of America," 1921. Boas based these remarks on a strong focus on physicality in his work.
In 1938, Boas summed up his ideas about race, culture, and assimilation in an essay on his personal "credo" published in the Nation.
"Groups as they exist among us are all too often subjective constructions; those assigned to a group often do not feel themselves to be members of it, and the injustice done them is one of the blots on our civilization. Too few among us are willing to forget completely that a particular person is a Negro, or a Jew, or a member of some nationality for which we have no sympathy and to judge him as an individual."
~Franz Boas, The Nation, 1938.
Ultimately, Boas's views on race and culture demonstrated contradictions. Although he recognized culture as an essential part of human life, his focus on physical malleability and the potential of assimilation kept him from thinking seriously about the role of culture in lasting identity formation and the transmission of heritage.
For more on Franz Boas on Jewish identity and race, see Glick, Leonard B. “Types Distinct from Our Own: Franz Boas on Jewish Identity and Assimiliation.” American Anthropologist 84, no. 3 (1982): 545–65. https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.1982.84.3.02a00020.
The ways in which Boas's ideas about race and human rights both reflected and differed from those prevalent in the scientific community of his time are further illuminated in "Assessing Franz Boas’ ethics in his Arctic and later anthropological fieldwork" An article of the journal Études/Inuit/Studies Volume 32, Issue 2, 2008, p. 35–52. Although Boas often reflected on his recognition of the humanity of the indigenous people with whom he lived while doing ethnographic work, he was also involved in grave-robbing, often justified by his belief in the paramount importance of scientific research.
Opposite image: Franz Boas modeling for an exhibit at the Museum of Natural History in New York, ca. 1890. Courtesy American Anthropological Association
Rabbi Sandra Lawson was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2018 and became Associate Chaplain for Jewish Life at Elon University in North Carolina. In 2021, she joined Reconstructing Judaism as their first director of racial diversity, equity and inclusion. Rabbi Lawson is also a musician, writer and activist. In her Torah of the Blues series on her website, she explores the intersections of her Black southern roots and Jewish practice. She also writes about the role of her intersecting identities in her work as a rabbi.
"I recognized in myself that I had several separate isolated identities. I was gay over here, and Jewish over here and black over here. Looking back I guess I felt I would implode if my identities were all in the same place. After that sermon [on the life of German-Jewish sexologist Magnus Hirschfield by Rabbi Joshua Lesser of Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta] I made a conscious decision to unite all of my identities. In Atlanta, the Jews felt excluded from the black community, the black community was not connected with the Jewish community, the queer Jewish community felt excluded from the larger queer community. I felt that I could use my identities as a bridge builder."
Opposite image: Rabbi Sandra Lawson at a Black Lives Matter Prayer vigil in Burlington, NC, 2020. Courtesy https://www.rabbisandralawson.com/
Jewish Ethnic Groups
79% of Black people in the United States identify as Christian according to a 2013 Pew Research Center religious landscape survey. 53% identify as historically Black protestant. In this photo, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attend services at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. on Inauguration Day, Sunday January 20, 2013. Courtesy White House and Pete Souza
Baptist sects, like that of the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, VA, pictured here on July 26, 2015, account for about 35% of Black people making them the most popular sects among historically Black protestants. Image courtesy Religious News Service and Adelle Banks
About five percent of Black people identify as Roman Catholic. Roman Catholicism is the Christian church that has a hierarchy of priests and bishops under the pope, a liturgy centered in the Mass, veneration of the Virgin Mary and saints, clerical celibacy, and a body of dogma including transubstantiation and papal infallibility.
Image Credit: Worshippers at Holy Angel Catholic Church on Chicago's South Side, October 1973. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
About two percent of Black people in the United States are Muslim, making up about 20% of the Muslim population in the United States. These couples show off their outfits for Eid-al-Fitr, 2018. Image courtesy Insider.com
In the same 2013 Pew Research study report on which the Black religious statistics in this guide are based, about 74% of Jewish people identify with a particular religious movement and 36% of Jewish people define themselves as "just Jewish" without a particular relationship to a religious movement.
Although less than one percent of Black people in the United States identify as Jewish, statistics on the number of Jewish people who identify as Black vary. The largest estimates for both Black Jews and Jews overall yield a two percent statistic, but this varies greatly by region and denomination. However, Jews of color make up a much larger percentage of the population of Jews in the U.S. As of 2020, estimates range from 12% to 15% of Jews in the U.S. identifying as Jews of color.
Orthodox Jews make up about 10% of Jewish people in the United States, but it is the fastest growing movement as of 2020. The Orthodox movement is a major branch within Judaism that teaches strict adherence to rabbinical interpretation of Jewish law and its traditional observances.
Image credit: Joshua Runyan with his wife, Tamar, and their eight kids, 2015. Courtesy Lloyd Fox/ Baltimore Sun
About 35% of Jewish people in the United States identify as Reform, a form of Judaism that reformed or abandoned aspects of Orthodox worship and ritual in the 19th century in an attempt to adapt to modern changes in social, political, and cultural life.
Image credit: Union of Reform Judaism, 2021
Conservative Judaism was also established in the 19th century but gained prominence in the 20th. The movement seeks to preserve Jewish tradition and ritual but has a more flexible approach to the interpretation of the law than Orthodox Judaism. About 18% of Jewish people identify with the Conservative Movement in the United States. Although the movement is shrinking in the U.S., it is growing in Israel.
Image credit: Religious services at a United Synagogue Youth (USY) convention, ca. 2016. USY is the youth movement of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Courtesy Jewish Women's Archive
About one percent of Jewish people identify with the Reconstructing Judaism movement, originated by Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan in the U.S. in the 1920s-40s. Reconstructionists define Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people and take a congregational approach to determining their practice.
They were the first movement to fully accept LGBTQ+ people into all aspects of Jewish life (Gay and Lesbian rabbinical students in 1984, and gay marriage in 1992). The Reform movement followed in 1996 and the Conservative movement followed in 2006. As of 2021, the Orthodox movement continues to reject same-sex marriage, but there is some discussion within Orthodox communities about the possibility of interpretations of Jewish law that might allow for more acceptance of homosexuality.
Image credit: In 2014, members of Or Shalom Jewish Community, San Francisco's only Reconstructionist synagogue, marched three miles through San Francisco with their Torah to the synagogue's current location. (Photo by Gilberto Ramirez, The Jewish News of Northern California)
The Golden Door and the Great Migration
How did inter-group experiences affect how Black and Jewish people thought about race, migration, and about each other?
Emma Lazarus could trace her ancestry back to the first Jewish settlers in the Americas, Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal. Her father, Moses Lazarus, was a sugar refiner who integrated into fashionable white Christian society. Although most of Emma's friends were Christian elites, she was known to them as a "Jewess." In 1883, she wrote a letter to a friend in response to a particularly nasty portrayal of Jews in the New York Sun:
"It seems to me so coarse and vulgar that it deserves no reply from any self-respecting Jew. It represents the habitual light in which we are regarded as a race by the Christians, but it happens to be couched in somewhat more offensive terms than usual."
As a young poet, Lazarus became well-known for her support of immigrants. At the same time, Lazarus was an early supporter of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, even before the term "Zionist" was widely used. She wrote her most famous poem, "The New Colossus" in 1883.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
the air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Image across: Portrait of Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), ca. 1880. Courtesy Jewish Women's Archive
Born in New York City in 1924, James Baldwin grew up in a Harlem populated by Black families who had arrived during the Great Migration. Most of their encounters with white people were encounters with Jewish people, immigrants or first-generation descendants of immigrants whose children would likely flee the city during the era of "white flight" after World War II.
"When we were growing up in Harlem our demoralizing series of landlords were Jewish, and we hated them. We hated them because they were terrible landlords, and did not take care of the buildings. . . . Our parents were lashed down to futureless jobs, in order to pay the outrageous rent. We knew that the land- lord treated us this way only because we were colored, and he knew we could not move out. The grocer was a Jew, and being in debt to him was very much like being in debt to the company store. The butcher was a Jew and, yes, we certainly paid more for bad cuts of meat than other New York citizens and we very often carried insults home, along with the meat. We bought our clothes from a Jew and sometimes, our secondhand shoes, and the pawnbroker was a Jew - perhaps we hated him most of all. The merchants along 125th street were Jewish - at least many of them were .... Not all of these white people were cruel - on the contrary I remember some who were certainly as thoughtful as the bleak circumstances allowed - but all of them were exploiting us, and that was why we hated them all.
In the American context, the most ironical thing about Negro anti-Semitism is that the Negro is really condemning the Jew for having become an American white man--for having become, in effect, a Christian. The Jew profits from his status in America, and he must expect Negroes to distrust him for it. The Jew does not realize that the credential he offers, the fact that he has been despised and slaughtered, does not increase the Negro's understanding. It increases the Negro's rage.
The ultimate hope for a genuine black-white dialogue in this country lies in the recognition that the driven European serf merely created another serf here, and created him on the basis of color. No one can deny that that Jew was a party to this, but it is senseless to assert that this was because of his Jewishness. One can be disappointed in the Jew if one is romantic enough--for not having learned from history; but if people did learn from history, history would be very different.
~James Baldwin, "Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They're Anti-White," The New York Times, April 9, 1967
Earlier in his writing career, Baldwin had also reflected on his personal relationships with Jewish students at his high school and the religious paradox they created for his understanding of his family's Black Christian identity.
Again, the Jewish boys in high school were troubling because I could find no point of connection between them and the Jewish pawnbrokers and landlords and grocery-store owners in Harlem. I knew that these people were Jews—God knows I was told it often enough—but I thought of them only as white. Jews, as such, until I got to high school, were all incarcerated in the Old Testament, and their names were Abraham, Moses, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Job, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. It was bewildering to find them so many miles and centuries out of Egypt, and so far from the fiery furnace. My best friend in high school was a Jew. He came to our house once, and afterward my father asked, as he asked about everyone, “Is he a Christian?”—by which he meant “Is he saved?” I really do not know whether my answer came out of innocence or venom, but I said, coldly, “No. He’s Jewish.” My father slammed me across the face with his great palm, and in that moment everything flooded back—all the hatred and all the fear, and the depth of a merciless resolve to kill my father rather than allow my father to kill me—and I knew that all those sermons and tears and all that repentance and rejoicing had changed nothing. I wondered if I was expected to be glad that a friend of mine, or anyone, was to be tormented forever in Hell, and I also thought, suddenly, of the Jews in another Christian nation, Germany. They were not so far from the fiery furnace after all, and my best friend might have been one of them. I told my father, “He’s a better Christian than you are,” and walked out of the house. The battle between us was in the open, but that was all right; it was almost a relief. A more deadly struggle had begun.
~James Baldwin, "Letter from a Region in My Mind," The New Yorker, November 17, 1962.
Image Across: James Baldwin portrait by Carl Van Vechten, September 13, 1955. Courtesy Library of Congress
Literature, Art, and Music
What inspired Jewish and Black people to engage with important social issues through the arts?
Abel Meeropol was a white Jewish man who grew up in the Bronx during the height of the Harlem Renaissance. He graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in 1921 and then went on to teach English there. (DeWitt Clinton High School became James Baldwin's alma mater, along with other famous literary figures including Countee Cullen and Richard Rogers). Disturbed by the effects of racism in the United States, he wrote the poem "Strange Fruit" in 1937 after seeing a photograph of a lynching of Black men in Indiana. He later showed it to a night club owner who gave it to Billie Holiday. The singer turned it into "the song of the century" (according to Time magazine in 1999).
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Image Across: Abel Meeropol playing with his sons, Robert and Michael. Meeropol was a Communist. After the publication of his song, and its release by Billie Holiday in 1939, Meeropol was called before Congress and asked whether the Communist party had paid him to write the song. Anti-Communist sentiment was on the rise in the U.S. during the 1930s, but many people were attracted to the Communist party because of its support for civil rights. Meeropol's connection with communism ultimately led to the adoption of his sons, the orphans of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were executed for espionage in 1953. Courtesy NPR News
Lynch Law and Fights for Justice
How did persistent stereotypes contribute to the endangerment of Black and Jewish people in the United States?
Although different in many ways, both anti-Black and anti-Jewish stereotypes often portrayed men of each "race" as a threat to white women.
Image Across: Vienna cartoon from 1873 by Friedrich Graetz depicting a "baron" reduced to a street peddler shortly after a stock market crash. Courtesy Kikeriki, via Wikimedia Commons.
- What physical stereotypes do you notice in this picture?
- What does the woman's expression suggest about her attitude toward the man?
Anti-Black stereotypes are deeply rooted in the United States. Images of the "Black brute" who lusts after white women have persisted in media portrayals from the 1830s to the present day.
Image across: Cover for "How Sleeps the Beast" by Don Tracy, 1950. Courtesy Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia
- What physical stereotypes do you notice in these portrayals of Black men?
- What does the woman's expression suggest about her attitudes toward the man in the book cover?
Image across: This robe and hood, worn by a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, was donated to the Breman Museum by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. Courtesy William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum
The second Ku Klux Klan was powerful in the U.S. South, but it gained new popularity in the Mid-west. In 1929, Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd published Middletown: A Study in American Culture. In it, they described the newfound popularity of the Ku Klux Klan in Muncie, Indiana. (It was the 1930 Marion, Indiana, lynching of Tom Shipp and Abe Smith that would later inspire Abel Meerpol to write "Strange Fruit.")
To this Catholic hatred was added Negro and Jewish hatred led by stories that the Negroes have a powder which they put on their arms which turns their bodies white, and that the Jews have all the money, but when the Klan gets into power, it will make a new kind of money, so that the Jews’ money will be no good. “We are charged with being against the Jew,” thundered a lawyer from the state capital at a Klan rally. “We are against no man. Jesus Christ is the leader of the Ku Klux Klan, and we are for Him. The Jew is not for Him, and therefore the Jew has shut himself out of the Klan. We are not against the Negro. Rome fell because she mixed her blood. God Almighty has commanded us, ‘Thou shalt not mix thy blood.’ The Outlook or some other periodical reported the other day 113 marriages last year in Boston between whites and blacks, and I’m sorry to say it was white women marrying black men. We must protect American womanhood.”
Education for a Brighter Future
How did Black and Jewish people's views on the nature of social and economic advancement impact their approaches to improving people's lives and working together?
W.E.B. DuBois was an outspoken advocate for the need for Black people to achieve racial equality and the full protection of their civil rights before they could advance socially. His views led to the founding of the NAACP and were popular with a group of sympathetic, educated Jewish people. At the same time, DuBois was focused on injustices he saw as rooted in capitalism. He was deeply concerned about the treatment of Black people by Jewish people in the South who exercised power over them and exploited their position. In The Souls of Black Folks in 1903, he wrote:
"The rod of empire that passed from the hands of Southern gentlemen in 1865, partly by force, partly by their own petulance, has never returned to them. Rather it has passed to those men who have come to take charge of the industrial exploitation of the New South - the sons of poor whites fired with a new thirst for wealth and power, thrifty and avaricious Yankees, shrewd and unscrupulous Jews. Into the hands of these men the Southern laborers, white and black, have fallen; and this to their sorrow. For the laborers as such there is in these few captains of industry neither love nor hate, sympathy nor romance; it is a cold question of dollars and dividends. Under such a system all labor is bound to suffer."
Image across: W.E.B. DuBois portrait, 1918. Courtesy Library of Congress
Booker T. Washington was active at the same time as Du Bois and equally interested in the uplift of Black people in America. Unlike DuBois, he believed that Black people could achieve equality while remaining separate from white society and by first elevating their position through education and industry.
In laying out the foundation of his views at the Atlanta Exposition in 1895, he also laid out his ambivalent view on immigration and immigrant labor. On the one hand, he saw immigrants as a threat to Black elevation through reliable labor. But on the other hand, he saw the rise of immigrant groups as something for Black people to emulate. In this regard, he often used Jewish people as an example. He believed that their distinctiveness which made them a "despised race" also contributed to their ability to add to civilization while isolated from its mainstream.
Four years ago a Jew, only a few months from Europe, passed through the town of Tuskegee, Alabama, on foot, with all his earthly possessions in a cheap and much-worn satchel .... Looking about the next morning with an eye to business, this Jew soon decided to remain awhile in this community, and he soon found some one to hire him for a few dollars a month. Soon he began renting land to sub-let to others; then followed the opening of a store, and the development and accumulation have gone on to the extent that to-day this Jew does a business of $50,000 a year .... There is not a man, woman nor child within five miles who do [es] not pay tribute to this Jew .... What this Jew has done, the blackest Negro in the United States can do in Alabama.
~Booker T. Washington "Taking Advantage of Our Disadvantages," A.M.E. Church Review, April 10, 1894
Image Across: Booker T. Washington portrait, 1905. Courtesy Library of Congress
Booker T. Washington's partnership with Julius Rosenwald of Chicago contributed to Washington's favorable opinion of Jews and his image of Jews as successful outsiders in U.S. society. In The Man Farthest Down, Washington wrote,
"I have always found sympathy and support among them for the work I have had to do for my own people."
Julius Rosenwald was a child of immigrants, born in Chicago in 1862. His parents emigrated from Germany in 1854. He rooted his philanthropy in his identity as a white Jewish man.
“The horrors that are due to race prejudice come home to the Jew more forcefully than to others of the white race, on account of the centuries of persecution that they have suffered and still suffer.”
~Julius Rosenwald, quoted in the Milwaukee Independent
At the same time, in his correspondence with Booker T. Washington, it was clear that Rosenwald's approach to improving conditions for Black people in the South did not intend to disrupt the prevailing racial and social order in the United States, even as it was rooted in a sense of justice.
"What interests me particularly is that we have a problem to deal with: namely, bringing about a condition whereby the Whites do what they can to make of the Colored people a decent, respectable element, if not from a sense of justice, at least in self-defense. Equality is furtherest [sic] from my mind, but a nearer approach to justice toward these people must, in my opinion, be brought about through one method or another"
~Julius Rosenwald to Booker T. Washington, 1911.
Regardless of his motivations, Rosenwald's philanthropy had profound effects on the Black communities that built schools with help from his funds. Rosenwald created a matching fund incentive, not an endowment, establishing a principle of "self-help" in his philanthropy. A 2009 study by economists at the Federal Reserve examined the impact of Rosenwald schools on the Black community. Using military screening records and other data, they concluded that the Rosenwald schools significantly improved literacy, earnings, and South-to-North migration among Black people in rural areas.
“Ultimately, we estimate that exposure to Rosenwald schools increased relative wages of blacks that remained in the South by around 35 percent. Moreover, these returns do not account for potential benefits of migration to better labor opportunities in the North. We estimate that Southern blacks who were between the ages of 12 and 16 in 1935 were about 65 percent more likely to migrate to the North by 1940 if they were exposed to Rosenwald schools.”
Notably, the schools themselves became centers for Black communities across the South. In many cases they developed a significance beyond their original use in the years after school desegregation. This was true of the Rosenwald School Community Center in Acworth, Georgia, pictured in this exhibit. In 2009, Timothy Houston had this to say about preserving the community's Rosenwald School:
"At the beginning, I really only knew about the history of the Community Center as it related to the Black Community. Later, I learned of the history of it as an Old Rosenwald School. I was just trying to get a place for kids to go and then stumbled on the history. It has always been like the heartbeat of the community. To me, it is significant to the Acworth African-American history because they saved it. At the time, they did not know what they were saving, but they saved it because it was near and dear to them."
~ Timothy Houston, interviewed by Claudia Zibanajadrad and William Walker, October 3, 2009. Courtesy Kennesaw State University Oral History Project
Background image: Julius Rosenwald standing with a group of Black female students wearing white dresses with the name ROSENWALD spelled out across the group. Courtesy Milwaukee Independent
Click on the following articles to learn more about current debates over Rosenwald's legacy.
Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s last manuscript, was first published in 1968, fourteen years after the passage of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling. In it, King reflected on his observations of the role that education played in the political activism of members of Jewish communities in the United States.
"Negroes nurture a persisting myth that the Jews of America attained social mobility and status solely because they had money. It is unwise to ignore the error for many reasons. In a negative sense it encourages anti-Semitism and over-estimates money as a value. In a positive sense the full truth reveals a useful lesson.
Jews progressed because they possessed a tradition of education combined with social and political action. The Jewish family enthroned education and sacrificed to get it. The result was far more than abstract learning. Uniting social action with educational competence, Jews became enormously effective in political life. Those Jews who became lawyers, businessmen, writers, entertainers, union leaders and medical men did not vanish into pursuits of their trade exclusively. They lived an active life in political circles, learning the techniques and arts of politics.
Nor was it only the rich who were involved in social and political action. Millions of Jews for half a century remained relatively poor, but they were far from passive in social and political areas. They lived in homes in which politics was a household word. They were deeply involved in radical parties, liberal parties and conservative parties-- they formed many of them. Very few Jews sank into despair and escapism even when discrimination assailed the spirit and corroded initiative. Their life raft in the sea of discouragement was social action.
Without overlooking the towering differences between the Negro and Jewish experiences, the lesson of Jewish mass involvement in social and political activism and education is worthy of emulation. Negroes have already started on this road in creating the protest movement, but this is only a beginning. We must involve everyone we can reach, even those with inadequate education, and together acquire political sophistication by discussion, practice and reading. Jews without education learned a great deal from political meetings, mass meetings, and trade union activities. Informal discussions and reading at home or in the streets are educational; they challenge the mind and inform our actions.
Education without social action is a one-sided value because it has no true power potential. Social action without education is a weak expression of pure energy. Deeds uninformed by educated thought can take false directions. When we go into actin and confront adversaries, we must be as armed with knowledge as they. Our policies should have the strength of deep analysis beneath them to be able to challenge the clever sophistries of our opponents.
The many thousands of Negroes who have already found intellectual growth and spiritual fulfillment on this path know its creative possibilities. They are not among the legions of the lost, they are not crushed by the weight of centuries. Most heartening, among the young the spirit of challenge and determination for change is becoming an unquenchable force."
Image across: Rabbi Jacob Rothschild of The Temple in Atlanta, Georgia, with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at a dinner to celebrate his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, 1965. Courtesy Emory University MARBL
World War II
What role did the press play in shaping how Black people and Jewish people saw each other in relation to world events during World War II?
On January 31, 1943, The Pittsburgh Courier carried a letter to the editor by James G. Thompson entitled "Should I sacrifice to Live Half American?" His astute observations about the parallels between the reasons stated for fighting World War II and the needs of the Black community in the United States to achieve the full protections of citizenship prompted the launching of the "Double V" campaign to support both the war effort and an end to racial discrimination in the United States.
"...the things that beset the world now are basically the same things which upset the equilibrium of nations internally, states, counties, cities, homes, and even the individual... Would it be demanding too much to demand full citizenship rights in exchange for the sacrificing of my life? Is the kind of America I know worth defending? Will America be a true and pure democracy after the war? Will Colored Americans suffer still the indignities that have been heaped upon them in the past?" I suggest that while we keep defense and victory in the forefront that we don't lose sight of our fight for true democracy at home."
Like the Pittsburgh Courier, the Atlanta Daily World was widely read by thought leaders in the Black community in the southeast and across the country. On November 20, 1938, William Fowlkes wrote an opinion piece reflecting on the events of Kristallnacht in Germany:
These German pogroms against the Jews set me to thinking each time I read them.
For years black American leaders have been teaching and preaching that if their followers achieve economic security they will be "safe."
Money has not proved security for the Jews, though it has given them temporary power, prestige, and strength: Would it prove security for darker Americans should another real day of insecurity come for the masses of all the nation's citizens?
Leaders, you might suggest a change in tactics, for your followers need it.
Click the button below to learn more about The Atlanta Daily World and World War II veteran W.A. Scott III who photographed the liberation of Buchenwald.
On October 30, 1939, The Jewish Morning Journal published an editorial in which the author drew explicit parallels between racial hatred against Jews in Europe and racism against Black people in the United States while imploring Jewish organizations to address tensions between "Negroes" and "Jews" in New York City. The article was quoted at length in the Pittsburgh Courier on December 23, 1939. The following quotes are notable.
"At the present time, we have no sympathy with those who maintain that the Negro should be relegated to a lower level of American society;
We Jews are too familiar with the taste of ghettos and discrimination and would never want to impose such misery on others.
On the contrary, there is every reason for the existence of good relations between Jews and Negroes. Hitler primarily aims his attack at the Jews, but the Negroes are equally hated...
The Ku Klux Klan, which leads the fight against Negroes, is also a bitter enemy of two more minorities-- Jews and Catholics. Hatred and intolerance make no distinction between color and creed: they aim at all small and defenseless groups."
After discussing the grievances of Negroes against Jews, particularly with regards to housing and employment in Harlem, the author of the editorial concludes:
"The dissatisfaction of the Negroes and their resulting anti-Semitism-- which is not anti-Semitism in the ordinary sense of the word, but which is a manifestation of social economic tension-- have their roots in concrete situations. It is in the interest of all concerned to improve this situation as soon as possible."
The Struggle for Civil Rights
How did Jewish and Black people decide whether and/or or how to become active in the civil rights movement during the 1960s?
The civil rights movement organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. was met with a spectrum of reactions from local leaders in cities targeted for action. Birmingham, Alabama, offers a useful case study in looking at the role of the Jewish community and other white people who were sympathetic to King's cause but not ready for direct action in 1963. On April 12, a group of Birmingham clergy, including Rabbi Milton Grafman of Temple Emanu-El, published a letter in the Birmingham News urging patience because the city had just voted out the notorious segregationist Eugene "Bull" Connor.
"We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel their hopes are slow in being realized, but we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely."
King responded directly to the clergymen's letter in his Letter from Birmingham Jail written on April 16, 1963.
"You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations."
After the publication of King's letter, Rabbi Gaffman received criticism from many people, including Jews from all across the country. A group of rabbis decided to go to Birmingham on May 8, 1963, to show support for the civil rights movement. These rabbis were met by a tense Jewish community in Birmingham. Among them was Karl Bernard Friedman, president of Temple Emanu-El.
It was Tuesday night that I got a call from Sylvan Laufman, who was on business in New York. He said, “Call me. There’s a big blast in our newspaper here of 17 rabbis from the assembly are coming to Birmingham to witness.” New words. You may have that in Christianity, but it wasn’t Jewish orientation. I gathered what I considered my advisory panel, and we met them at the airport. . . . Seventeen rabbis showed up at the airport, and we were there to meet them. We had Rabbi Grafman. I could name several other people there, probably eight or nine of us. We stopped them in the foyer that is attached to the airport. This was a hotel, and we sort of stopped them. Some of them sort of snooted at us and went on by and didn’t want to know anything about us. Some paused and talked a little bit. Finally, a couple of them said yes, they’d sit and talk with us. I said, “Let’s go back to my office.” [I had] an office twice of the size of this conference room. There were about 15 or 20 in all of them and us. We wanted to prepare them for some things that they obviously didn’t know. But they were ‘witnessing.’ We warned them about the volatility and the danger and things like that, but Richard Rubenstein was on a crusade. That’s the way it was going to be. I said, “Okay. We’re here. We’ll help you all we can.” As the two or three days passed, some of them filtered through the information that we had and realized that they didn’t have the facts to cope with what was going on. They stayed in an all-black motel, and that [A.G. Gaston] Motel was bombed. They marched and disrupted traffic, went to City Hall, that kind of stuff . . . that’s called ‘witnessing.’ Some of them got arrested. They did more harm than good. It created a Jewish face that hadn’t shown before. We were angry about it . . .”
In an oral history interview recorded in 2009, Friedman characterized his overall role in the civil rights movement in Birmingham as follows:
“I was an observer and a participant. I was not in any leadership role, although I will say many, maybe half, of the black leaders were clients of mine. We had a meeting at my house once that was mixed, and Mountain Brook put a police car out in front of my house . . . When I went to Israel in 1964, someone burned my front yard . . . my front yard is 100 feet wide and about eight or nine feet from top to bottom . . . with women’s hair spray. They wrote in eight-foot high letters ‘Nigger Lover’ . . . all the way across the front of my yard. My brother-in-law, Micky Rubenstein’s husband, had the lawn replaced while I was gone. Sometime after that someone shot a bullet hole through my front window. It’s still there. If I sell the house, I’m going to take that window.”
~ Karl Bernard Friedman, January 28, 2009. Courtesy William Breman Museum of Jewish Heritage southern Jewish Archives oral history collection
Opposite image: Stephen Grafman poses with a picture of his father, Temple Emnu-El Rabbi Milton Grafman, 2019. Courtesy Stephen Grafman and AL.com
A little more than a year after the group of rabbis went to Birmingham, another group of rabbis was arrested in St. Augustine, Florida, for assembling in an integrated group as a protest against racial segregation, discrimination, and violence. They wrote a letter from jail on June 19, 1964 which is excerpted here:
We went to St. Augustine in response to the appeal of Martin Luther King addressed to the CCAR Conference, in which he asked us to join with him in a creative witness to our joint convictions of equality and racial justice.
We came because we realized that injustice in St. Augustine, as anywhere else, diminishes the humanity of each of us. If St. Augustine is to be not only an ancient city but also a great-hearted city, it will not happen until the raw hate, the ignorant prejudices, the unrecognized fears which now grip so many of its citizens are exorcised from its soul. We came then, not as tourists, but as ones who, perhaps quixotically, thought we could add a bit to the healing process of America.
We came because we could not stand quietly by our brother’s blood. We had done that too many times before. We have been vocal in our exhortation of others but the idleness of our hands too often revealed an inner silence; silence at a time when silence has become the unpardonable sin of our time. We came in the hope that the God of us all would accept our small involvement as partial atonement for the many things we wish we had done before and often.
We came as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler’s crematoria. We came because we know that, second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act.
Here in St. Augustine we have seen the depths of anger, resentment and fury; we have seen faces that expressed a deep implacable hatred. What disturbs us more deeply is the large number of decent citizens who have stood aside, unable to bring themselves to act, yet knowing in their hearts that this cause is right and that it must inevitably triumph.
Reasons for becoming involved in the civil rights movement were as diverse as the people who became involved. Nancy Stoller traced her interest in the movement to her childhood in Hampton, Virginia, where she was born in 1942. She later translated what she learned in the 1960s to her later involvement in advocating for LGBTQ+ rights in California.
I grew up in the South. And at the same time, I had parents who were from the North. In addition they were Jewish, although neither of them was religious. They were both either agnostics or atheists. Because there was a lot of anti-semitism in the town, they sent me and my brothers to Jewish Sunday school to learn a little bit about our history. So I grew up in an environment where my own family was critical of local laws and local norms. I was brought up in a family where people were not allowed to say explicitly prejudiced things about black people. If friends of ours came over and used the word nigger they were informed by whichever of my parents were there that that term couldn't be used. Then of course, my brothers and I took on that as well.
Starting in 1960, when I was a freshperson in college, I got involved in direct action in the civil rights movement, the sit-in movement. I pretty quickly became part of this group called the D.C. Area Nonviolent Action Group. My family had moved to Washington, D.C. They were living in a suburb. I got involved with that group, but I won't go into the history of that. The group did direct action on civil rights issues. It was a mixed-race, black-and-white group. We had sit-ins and pickets. This group became one of the groups that joined together to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. So from the very beginning of SNCC, I was involved.
Stoller's brief marriage in the late 1960s resulted in the birth of her daughter as well as the early development of her identity as a lesbian. In her 2002 interview at University of California Santa Cruz with Jesse Silva, Stoller recalled that brief inter-racial marriage and then her subsequent activism in the women's movement in the 1970s that benefited from her Lesbian identity.
Actually in the year that we got married, 1966, it would have been illegal for us to get married in my home state. It was still illegal. We got married in Boston. Two years later, my daughter was born, in 1968.
I think being a lesbian made it much easier for me to do a lot of the work that I did. It connected me to a feminist radicalism which had at [its] core lesbians, and/or women who didn't pay too much attention to the men who were in their lives, and focused their attention on working with women. And all, not all, but almost all of the research that I've done in my career has been focused on women, and how women make their way through the world in the face of various obstacles. I think that expressing in my personal life my desire and affection and love for women opened up that feeling of an openness to women that I brought with me when I did my prison work or other kinds of activism.
Image across: Nancy Stoller, ca. 1970s. Courtesy UC Santa Cruz University Library
Harry Belafonte was born in Harlem, New York, on March 1, 1927. His parents both had roots in Jamaica and were of mixed (Black and white) ancestry reflective of the island's history. Belafonte's father's mother was Black, and his father's father was a white Jewish man of Dutch-Sephardic origin. Of his grandfather, Belafonte said he was:
“a white Dutch Jew who drifted over to the islands after chasing gold and diamonds, with no luck at all.”
Belafonte's mother had a white Scottish father and a Black mother. After taking a series of jobs as a domestic worker to make ends meet, Belafonte's mother joined the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union to become a seamstress and dressmaker. The Union welcomed workers to bring their children, and it was there that Harry Belafonte gained his earliest political education. Reflecting on the roots of his civil rights activism, Belafonte said,
“Thank God for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and Jewish activists I met who guided me toward intellectual activity.”
After experiencing segregation and discrimination in the U.S. Navy and witnessing atrocities in Europe during World War II, Belafonte's desire for racial and economic justice intensified. His deep admiration for Paul Robison guided him to pair activism with his musical career and also led to his black-listing during the McCarthy era.
Ultimately, Belafonte became famous for his calypso music and his close alliance with Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Although not himself observant, Belafonte's Jewish heritage has been a source of pride for many Jewish people seeking a history of accomplishment across social and artistic sectors. His 1965 performance of "Have Nagila" with white Jewish entertainer Danny Kaye is considered iconic.
At the same time, Belafonte's criticism of Israeli policy and claims that some Jewish people collaborated with Nazis during World War II has led to criticism of him by some Jewish commentators.
In his 90s, Belafonte has been the recipient of numerous awards from Jewish organizations and civil rights organizations, and continues his activism primarily in the areas of education access and criminal justice reform.
Image across: Harry Belafonte at the Vanity Fair party celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Tribeca Film Festival. Courtesy David Shankbone
Hank Klibanoff was entering first grade in Florence, Alabama, in 1954, the year that the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision mandated desegregation of schools across the United States. However, it was not until his senior year of high school in 1967 that Alabama determined that "due deliberate speed" had caught up with the now. Although Hank remembered his Alabama town as unusually progressive on racial issues, it was not until his adulthood that he began to focus his career on civil rights. Ultimately, his journalism focused on remembering and illuminating the lesser-known stories of civil rights and race relations in the United States in the second half of the 20th century would result in his receipt of both a Pulitzer Prize for History and a Peabody Award for his podcast series for WABE Atlanta, Buried Truths.
Klibanoff's parents were both children of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, and he credits their influence during the era of school desegregation, and the influence of his Jewish upbringing, with inspiring him to tell stories about the complexity of racial tensions in the South after World War II. In a 2019 article in the Atlanta Jewish Times, he said,
“I’m incredibly proud to be Jewish, and I am certain that it is the teachings of Judaism that, whether I am fully aware of it or not, guide me. And these teachings, whether it was from studying for my bar mitzvah or Sunday school with the rabbi or from my parents, made this indelible impression on me.”
"I was raised in a family that knew that the resistance [to desegregation] was wrong. I was raised to respect all people and to be kind to all people. It sounds hokey. I mean just because your parents said it, did it take hold? And the answer is yes.”
At the same time, Klibanoff's upbringing amid the complexity of being one of the few white Jewish families in a rural Alabama town, gave him insights into the nuance of the roles that various people played in the civil rights struggle that he translated into effective journalism. His father owned a shoe store in Florence and quietly hired the first Black sales clerk in town. About his mother, he said,
"She was not in sync with most Alabamians, certainly not in sync with most of the Alabama women she encountered,. But she found people with whom she could vent, and she would. She was outspoken about things in Alabama. But she also understood that my father had a business in downtown, two businesses downtown, and that you could only really go so far or you would face a lot of trouble.”
In accepting his Peabody Award for Buried Truths, Klibanoff also credited the post-Holocaust scholarship of Elie Wiesel who wrote eloquently about the Jewish call to remember:
“For us, forgetting was never an option. Remembering is a noble and necessary act. The call of memory, the call to memory reaches us from the very dawn of history.”
Watch this video to learn more about Hank Klibanoff's journalism and his work on the Civil Rights Cold Cases project at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
Image across: Hank Klibanoff recording narrative for the Buried Truths podcast series at WABE, the NPR News affiliate in Atlanta, Georgia. Courtesy Atlanta Jewish Times
How did Jewish and Black leaders in the clergy and business communities in Atlanta react to changing pressures during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s?
Rabbi Rothschild based his sermon delivered after the Temple bombing on Leviticus 26:6
I will grant peace in the land, and you will lie down and no one will make you afraid. I will remove wild beasts from the land, and the sword will not pass through your country.
Drawing from this passage, Rabbi Rothschild highlighted the lessons of the bombing as he saw them:
“…What message was the explosion meant to deliver? What effect was it supposed to have? Its intent was clear enough. This was an act designed to strike terror into the hearts of men. It was intended to cause panic and confusion. Never was a message so garbled in its transmission. Never did a band of violent men misjudge the temper of the object of their intimidation. For this is what really happened: Out of the gaping hole that laid bare the havoc wrought within, out of the majestic columns that now lay crumbled and broken, out of the tiny bits of brilliantly colored glass that had once graced with beauty the sanctuary itself—indeed, out of the twisted and evil hearts of bestial men has come a new courage and a new hope. This single act of devastation has taught lessons which all words, all prayers, all pleas had been unable to teach. It is these truths of which I would speak to you today. The first of them is that this must be a land ruled by law and not ruled by men… And that law must be a moral law. This is the second lesson we have learned… It is in the realm of choice that the third lesson lies…Not even those who perpetrated the very acts themselves bear all the blame. Responsibility rests equally with those good and decent people who choose to remain silent in such a time. … No—the lamp of our faith has not been dimmed, nor the word of God blurred. On the contrary, this despicable act has made brighter the flame of courage and renewed in splendor the fires of determination and dedication. It has reached the hearts of men everywhere and roused the conscience of a people united in righteousness. All of us, together, shall rear from the rubble of devastation a city and a land in which all men are truly brothers—and none shall make them afraid.”
Image across: Rabbi Jacob Rothschild in the sanctuary of The Temple, ca. 1950s. Courtesy New Georgia Encyclopedia
In 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. rented a house in Jamaica where he could isolate himself from the demands of the civil rights movement and focus on what would become his final manuscript. It was published by Beacon Press as Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? In it, he reflected on the complexity of relationships between Black and Jewish communities in the United States.
The limited degree of Negro anti-Semitism is substantially a Northern ghetto phenomenon; it virtually does not exist in the South. The urban Negro has a special relationship to Jews. He meets them in two dissimilar roles. 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. Jews had identified with Negroes voluntarily in the freedom movement, motivated by the religious and cultural commitment to justice. The other Jews who are engaged in commerce in the ghettos are remnants of older communities. 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. Such Negroes, caught in frustration and irrational anger, parrot racial epithets. They foolishly add to the social poison that injures themselves and their own people. It would be a great tragic and immoral mistake to identify the mass of Negroes with the very small number that succumb to cheap and dishonest slogans, just as it would be a serious error to identify all Jews with the few who exploit Negroes under their economic sway. Negroes cannot rationally expect honorable Jews to curb the few who are rapacious; they have no means of disciplining or suppressing them. We can only expect them to share our disgust and disdain. Negroes cannot be expected to curb and eliminate the few who are anti-Semitic, because they are subject to no controls we can exercise. We can, however, oppose them and have, in concrete ways. There has never been an instance of articulated Negro anti-Semitism that was not swiftly condemned by virtually all Negro leaders with the support of the overwhelming majority. I have myself directly attacked it within the Negro community, because it is wrong. I will continue to oppose it, because it is immoral and self -destructive.
Image across: Portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr., 1964. Courtesy Nobel Foundation
Coming Together Again
How have evolving views on power, group identity, and the relative benefits of integration and segregation contributed to changing relationships between Black and Jewish people at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st?
Kwame Ture was born as Stokeley Carmichael in 1941 in Port-au-Spain, Trinidad. He was active in the civil rights movement of the mid-1960s and became chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1966. That same year, he began to articulate a political philosophy at odds with the mainstream of the movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Namely, he called for Black separation in order to achieve Black power. Similar views had been articulated by past activists, including Marcus Garvey and James Farmer, and would be continued in the advocacy of Malcom X and the Black Panther Party.
In a 1966 article in the Massachusetts Review entitled "Toward Black Liberation," Carmichael wrote:
"Traditionally, for each new ethnic group, the route to social and political integration into America’s pluralistic society, has been through the organization of their own institutions with which to represent their communal needs within the larger society. This is simply stating what the advocates of Black Power are saying. The strident outcry, particularly from the liberal community, that has been evoked by this proposal can only be understood by examining the historic relationship between Negro and white power in this country. Negroes are defined by two forces, their blackness and their powerlessness. There have been traditionally two communities in America: the white community, which controlled and defined the forms that all institutions within the society would take; and the Negro community, which has been excluded from participation in the power decisions that shaped the society, and has traditionally been dependent upon, and subservient to, the white community."
Carmichael then went on to describe the phenomenon of Black ghettoes created across the country as a result of systemic racism.
Without bothering to list the historic factors which contribute to this pattern ⎯ economic exploitation, political impotence, discrimination in employment and education ⎯ one can see that to correct this pattern will require far-reaching changes in the basic power-relationships and the ingrained social patterns within the society. The question is, of course, what kinds of changes are necessary, and how is it possible to bring them about? In recent years, the answer to these questions which has been given by most articulate groups of Negroes and their white allies ⎯ the “liberals” of all stripes ⎯ has been in terms of something called “integration.” According to the advocates of integration, social justice will be accomplished by “integrating the Negro into the mainstream institutions of the society from which he has been traditionally excluded.” It is very significant that each time I have heard this formulation, it has been in terms of “the Negro,” the individual Negro, rather than in terms of the community."
Carmichael's views on Black Power and the need for community control were not dissimilar from those Jewish leaders at the turn of the 20th century (often secular and socialist) who advocated for the coordination of Jewish people around the world to work for the establishment of a homeland, a national seat of power. This view came to be known as Zionism and ultimately led to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.
Yet, Carmichael viewed Zionism differently. He saw it as a form of white European settler-colonialism rather than the foundation of a center of power for a powerless diasporic people as Zionist Jews believed it to be. This led him to make some comments that were resented by many Jewish people, even those who didn't see themselves as Zionists. Kwame Ture's anti-Zionism intensified with age. In 1990, eight years before his death, he made a speech at the University of Maryland in which he said,
A Jew would say "the only good Nazi is a dead Nazi," When you condemn Nazis you don't condemn Germans, you condemn a political philosophy. Zionists try to make their philosophy into a particular people. I'm against Zionism. The only good Zionist is a dead Zionist.
Image across: Stokely Carmichael organizing in Alabama, 1966. Courtesy Encyclopedia of Alabama
Born in 1964, Marc Dollinger is a historian and professor of Jewish studies at San Francisco State University. He is the author of Quest for Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern America and most recently, Black Power and Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s. He challenges readers to consider the sources of authority in the philosophical roots of political and social movements.
In a 2019 article in Practical Matters, A Journal of Religious Practices and Practical Theology, Dollinger wrote:
The study of Judaism offers important new perspectives for clergy interested in how American Jews engage in social justice work. Unlike other religious traditions, Judaism counts multiple definitions of “who is a Jew,” some of which complement one another while others can stand in conflict. When those definitions are imposed over thousands of years of Jewish history, we can learn how different Jews in different times and different places all claim a Jewish basis for their activism, even as each embraces a different definition for Judaism. Sometimes Jewish social justice work grows from classic theological mandates in the Hebrew Bible. Other times, though, Jews credit Jewishness even when they identify secular sources as their inspiration. For clergy across different faith communities, a critical look at American Jewish political activism encourages a re-examination of all religion-based approaches to social justice work.
At its most fundamental level, the Jewish mandate for social justice activism depends on how we answer Judaism’s most basic and debated question: who is a Jew? While Christians can offer a straight-forward faith-based test—do you accept Jesus as the Messiah?—Jewish law does not demand faith for membership. Instead, it embraces a matrilineal definition of Jewishness: if someone is born to a Jewish mother, s/he counts as a Jew, regardless of their level of faith, education, or even communal engagement. It is possible, then, never to attend synagogue, refuse all Jewish education, deny the existence of God and, as long as you have a Jewish mother, still enjoy status as a Jew, even among the most stringent rabbis.
The definition of “who is a Jew” matters in social justice because it offers guidance on the all important question of authority. For those Jews who adhere to traditional Judaism, obligations to engage in justice work and the very definition of what constitutes “social justice” must grow from Biblical text, rabbinic text, or other sources of Jewish law. Jews who embraced modern forms of Judaism after the European Enlightenment in the 18 century will apply a rational lens to their definition while nationalist Jews who reject faith but embrace a Zionist outlook will frame their obligations through the needs of a modern Jewish nation-state. Even as these different Jewish notions of what defines social justice may appear confusing, they gain clarity when we connect an understanding of one’s Jewishness to the authority and mandates each “who is a Jew” definition offers.
Of greatest interest in the current political climate, almost every non-Orthodox Jew opposed Trump in the 2016 election. Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Renewal Jews define Judaism in more universalist language, extending their social justice mandate to all U.S. citizens as well as those who wish to become Americans. The nation’s Orthodox community counts many supporters of the Republican standard bearer in its ranks. Observant Jews adopt a particularist definition for social justice and place religious Zionism at the center of their political agenda. They do not enter the social justice public square, preferring instead to support more Jewish centered issues and causes.
Right-wing and religious Zionists, joined by most of America’s Orthodox community, deploy Jewish tradition to back a return of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland. To do God’s work, they advocate the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which are called “Judea and Samaria” to denote their status as a part of God’s promised land to the Jews. With scripture as their guide, Jewish settlers seek a restoration of ancient Israel. Democratic understandings of social justice pale in comparison to fulfilling God’s mandate for Jews. For them, Judaism’s social justice mandate begins with the Jewish people’s ability to dwell in their God-given ancient homeland. As these pious Jews reclaim some of the most important sites in all of Judaism and Jewish history, they complicate any political answer to the Israel/Palestine conflict. Their sense of justice does not demand, and for some even opposes, a mandate for Palestinian self-determination. Framed by their read of Jewish text, justice demands nothing more and nothing less than the realization of a reunited ancient Israel under Jewish control.
Conversely, leftist Jews in both the United States and Israel embrace a read on Judaism that demands a rights-based approach to justice that includes the Palestinian cause. Without the strict demands of traditional Judaism, they can adopt a more pragmatic approach to the mid-east conflict, trading land, even historic and sacred Jewish sites, for peace. Within the State of Israel itself, progressive-minded Jews focus their social justice campaigns on ensuring that Arab, Muslim, and Christian citizens of the State of Israel enjoy rights on par with Jewish residents. They back the two-state solution because their sense of justice demands that Israel remain both Jewish and democratic while protecting the right of Palestinians to enjoy national self-determination. For Jews who have suffered so much for so long under the political sovereignty of unfriendly governments, these leftists argue, the continued Jewish occupation of majority- Palestinian lands proves contrary to their sense of justice.
A Tribute to John Lewis
This section on relationship-building between Black and Jewish leaders in the last quarter of the 20th century would be incomplete without highlighting the friendship between Sherry Frank and John Lewis which began with the formation of the Atlanta Black-Jewish Coalition in the 1980s.
This photograph shows Sherry Frank, Cecil Alexander, John Lewis and Elaine Alexander at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., prior to historic 20th Anniversary March in 1985.
"My most memorable event was observing the 20th anniversary of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We gathered at The Temple to retell the story of the 1958 bombing and board the bus for Selma. Rabbi Alvin Sugarman marched at the front of the line, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel had done in the 60s, and he kneeled to pray before descending the crest of the bridge. In tears, Rabbi Sugarman described how it felt 20 years after Bloody Sunday, the marchers looking down at the sea of reporters, replacing the dogs, billy clubs and police of years gone by.
As I worked with John, I got to know and love his wife Lillian and their son John Miles. Lillian and I planned our sons’ birthday parties together when we learned John Miles and my son, Drew, were both born on May 24, 1976. When John ran for Congress and he and Lillian spent 24/7 campaigning, John Miles spent most weekends all summer at my house. As John was sworn into Congress, Drew and John Miles were sitting in the chair with him, and Lillian and I looked down from the gallery.
Lillian and John became part of my family, dancing at my daughters’ weddings and even attending my adult bat mitzvah that I shared with Jeanney Kutner. I was honored to speak at Lillian’s funeral."
~Sherry Frank, Atlanta Jewish Times, July 27, 2020
Image: Sherry Frank and John Lewis, ca. 2019. Courtesy Sherry Frank
While my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me. You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society. Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.
That is why I had to visit Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, though I was admitted to the hospital the following day. I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on.
Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor. He was 14 when he was killed, and I was only 15 years old at the time. I will never ever forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me. In those days, fear constrained us like an imaginary prison, and troubling thoughts of potential brutality committed for no understandable reason were the bars.
Though I was surrounded by two loving parents, plenty of brothers, sisters and cousins, their love could not protect me from the unholy oppression waiting just outside that family circle. Unchecked, unrestrained violence and government-sanctioned terror had the power to turn a simple stroll to the store for some Skittles or an innocent morning jog down a lonesome country road into a nightmare. If we are to survive as one unified nation, we must discover what so readily takes root in our hearts that could rob Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina of her brightest and best, shoot unwitting concertgoers in Las Vegas and choke to death the hopes and dreams of a gifted violinist like Elijah McClain.
Like so many young people today, I was searching for a way out, or some might say a way in, and then I heard the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on an old radio. He was talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.
Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.
You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, though decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.
Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.
When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.
~John Lewis, written on July 17, published on July 30, 2020, The Atlanta Journal Constitution
Image: John Lewis and Sherry Frank, 2020. Courtesy Sherry Frank
How do members of Black and Jewish communities envision the future in the United States and around the world?
In October of 2017, Kristin Eriko Posner of Nourish.co interviewed Ilana Kaufman, founder of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative. Nourish.co is a lifestyle website dedicated to families with blended religious and ethnic identities, like Kristin's (Japanese-American and Jewish).
"At Nourish, we help people come together, to heal, connect to their lineage and remember their rituals- whatever they may be and however they may need to evolve as the world evolves."
According to its website,
"The Jews of Color Initiative is a national effort focused on building and advancing the professional, organizational and communal field for Jews of Color."
Both organizations are dedicated to the reality that people in the United States, and around the world, are committed to creating meaningful, blended identities.
When Kristin Posner asked Ilana Kaufman to talk about diversity and inclusion in Jewish spaces, Kaufman answered,
"The context in which we tell our story as U.S. Jews, is one where we came from Europe, and we helped Black people in the South in the Civil Rights Movement. I’m of course being very reductionist about it, but we’ve oversimplified our entire story at the cost of resilience, texture, and our capacity to hold more than one reality at any given time. We’ve missed the fact that we are multiracial."
"There’s a cost to what we’ve done as a community. We did it because it’s what we thought we knew. We did it because we are a people who are targeted; it is a way to create insulation around a vulnerable community. We did it because if you’re white in the U.S., despite all one’s best efforts and intentions, it’s like being a teabag being steeped in the water of racism; you can’t escape it. And racism doesn’t just affect white Jews. It affects us all."
Posner then asked Kaufman about what steps people should take to encourage inclusion in Jewish spaces.
Challenge the people you’re with. If you’re in a minyan and there’s no JoC in the space ask, “Have you read the data? Let’s dialogue about this afterwards.” Do it in a way that’s authentic to you and appropriate for that space.
On the first day of my fellowship, I don’t think they told me I would be the first Jew of Color, or the first person of color, ever, in the space. We had fine educators, leaders, and incredible people giving us incredible knowledge, but I was surprised to not find one single person of color in any resource anywhere. Our world is so much bigger than that. If we’re going to read about leadership, why wouldn’t we be thinking about diverse perspectives on leadership? That’s just pedagogically sound and useful. Why are we operating as if we’re not in a multiracial Jewish world? I politely waited around until everyone had left the room and I asked. They simply hadn’t thought about it in that way before, and that’s where the work began. We need to ask, and if we can, we need to ask in ways that are accessible and thoughtful and collegial, because we are in this together. Then, we have to take risks. If you’re in a leadership role and you have the opportunity to lead from that role, do it. If you’re a c-suite person, put it out there that this is the work you’re doing and bring your colleagues along with you. If you are an influencer, deploy your tool of influence. I have the privilege of working in a philanthropic environment where we have a really important tool, which is financial resources, to deploy and create change; it’s amazing. Deploy your tools out there.
In her own writings, Posner has reflected on her conversion to Judaism, and her role in her community:
When I converted to Judaism a few years ago, I was (and now proudly am) every bit the stereotypical overzealous convert. I used to feel painfully self-conscious about this. It wasn't until during the process of studying for my bat mitzvah, I realized that my role in Judaism is invaluable. As I passionately dove into learning about Judaism as an adult, I became a resource that my Jewish-by-birth family and friends sometimes come to for all things Jewish (another convert stereotype). Being “overzealous” means that us converts often play a very critical role in ensuring that our Jewish cultural traditions and values are imparted to the next generation.
If I’m being totally honest, I thought that if I knew more, I would be able to blend in more. Our synagogue in San Francisco is as welcoming and Reform as they come, yet I am keenly aware that I look very different than most congregants because I am Japanese American. It seems ridiculous now to think that studying for my bat mitzvah would somehow make me physically “blend” into a congregation of predominantly White Ashkenazi Jews. Of course, this is not possible and instead, I have come to accept the fact that I stand out. I hope my Japanese-American face makes others who look different feel welcome at my synagogue. I don’t want to blend in anywhere anymore, I want to embrace my unique position.
Image across: Ilana Kaufman and Kristin Eriko Posner, 2019. Courtesy nourish.co
"Because the majority of immigration to America was from Eastern Europe, many people think of Jews as white. But Jews are a historically diverse people. Be'chol Lashon means 'In Every Language' because Jews are a multicultural people who live around the world."
~Marcella White Campbell, Executive Director, Be'chol Lashon
Images courtesy Be'chol Lashon
Be’chol Lashon means “In Every Language” because Jews are a multicultural people who live around the world. The mission of Be'chol Lashon is to grow and strengthen the Jewish people through racial and ethnic inclusiveness. Be’chol Lashon celebrates the diversity that has characterized the Jewish people throughout history, and the diversity that is increasing through contemporary forces like intermarriage, conversion, and adoption.
Be’chol Lashon was founded in 2000 in response to our research that revealed that Jews are more diverse than many assume—20% of America’s 6 million Jews are Black, Asian, Latinx, mixed race, Sephardic (Spanish/Portuguese descent) and Mizrahi (North African and Middle Eastern descent). Furthermore, ethnically and racially diverse Jews often feel a sense of isolation in an American Jewish community largely defined by immigration from Eastern Europe.
As the American Jewish community becomes more racially, ethnically and culturally diverse, Be’chol Lashon seeks to bring the historic Jewish commitment to civil rights and racial justice forward into the 21st century. Be’chol Lashon provides opportunities for Jewish professionals and others to engage in conversations about race, ethnicity and identity through: 1) “Passport to Peoplehood” educational resources; 2) Diversity Training Workshops, and; 3) Leadership programs like Camp Be’chol Lashon.
Passport to Peoplehood (P2P) is an educational resource that connects children to Jewish communities around the world. In addition to learning about geography, history and traditions, children participate through hands-on experiences including art, music, dance, and cooking. The goal is to strengthen Jewish identity by guiding children, parents and educators towards a better understanding of the racial, ethnic and cultural diversity of the Jewish people.
We cannot be truly effective in racial justice spaces until we address race inside the Jewish community. As the very troubled racial history of America makes way for the future, the Jewish community is facing a historic opportunity to represent the full complexity of Jewish identity and experience.
“I needed resources to teach my daughter about the historical diversity of the Jewish people and Be’chol Lashon was the only organization that had these resources. What they are doing for the community is amazing and very necessary. For me, as a Black Jew, it’s so important that my child feels comfortable in her own skin. And that she grows up knowing (and loving) her Black, Latina, Indigenious and Jewish identities. I never want her to have to choose one over the other. I never want her to be confused about who she is and where she comes from.”
~Jada Garrett, Atlanta
“Now more than ever we need to educate young people to be thoughtful and inclusive and aware that others may think and experience the world differently than they do. They are our next generation of leaders!”
~Jada Garrett, Atlanta
Exhibit Credits and Resources for Further Reading
Black + Jewish was produced by the Museum of History and Holocaust Education at Kennesaw State University with students in the 2021 public history program's museum exhibitions class, HIST 4427:
Adina Langer, Curator/Professor
Zoila Torres, Designer
Katie Allen, Student
Armando Betancourt, Student
Michael Putlak, Student
Ben Schmidt, Student
Emily Sharp, Student
Megan Williams, Student