A common struggle obscured by hate
Many synagogues and Jewish organizations this past week joined once again in honoring the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He was, after all, a great warrior for equality and justice for all people, reason enough for honoring him. He and the late Coretta Scott King, however, were also good friends to Jews worldwide and strong supporters of the State of Israel, which dedicated forests to each of their memories.
They also were outspoken supporters of the Soviet Jewry movement in its day. “We cannot sit complacently by the wayside while our Jewish brothers in the Soviet Union face the possible extinction of their cultural and spiritual life,” King said during a Soviet Jewry event in 1966. He then pointedly added, “The denial of human rights anywhere is a threat to the affirmation of human rights everywhere.”
Despite the affections many Jews have for King’s memory, however, hovering over this year’s observance was the perception of a growing antisemitism within the Black community. The recent antisemitic outbursts by Kanye West, the promotion of an antisemitic film by Brooklyn Nets basketball star Kyrie Irving (which is still available on Amazon), and the insensitive rantings of the “View” host and comedian Whoopi Goldberg all are fueling this perception.
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Jews and Blacks have a shared history of oppression here and around the world, and it is an ongoing struggle. (Adolf Hitler, it should be noted, used Black slavery here as his model for how to treat the Jews.) Blacks and Jews remain “together, in the same boat, as fierce waves of hate threaten to sink our vessels in the ocean of American opportunity,” as Vanderbilt University Prof. Michael Eric Dyson wrote in a New York Times opinion piece on November 20.
While Dyson acknowledged that “Black anti-Semitism is real,” what matters most is our shared history. “We are, after all, old friends, and lovers, sometimes rivals, with all the affection and bitterness such a relationship evokes…. We should remember the ways that our communities have historically passed the baton to each other in the long relay for justice. Until we see anti-Semitism as a toxic species of the white supremacy that threatens Black security and democracy’s future, none of us are truly safe.”
Antisemitic attitudes among some Blacks are nothing new and often have been stoked by such hate-filled demagogues as Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. They also have been fueled at times by intemperate remarks made by more rational Black leaders, such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson (who has apologized many times over the years for his “Hymietown” remark) and the ever-present activist Rev. Al Sharpton.
Sharpton’s rhetoric in 1991 helped ignite the deadly three-day antisemitic riots in Crown Heights, for which many have never forgiven him, and to hear him tell it, he has never forgiven himself. In 2019, for example, he publicly regretted his role in those riots. He credited that regret to a tongue-lashing he received from Coretta Scott King. As he recalled it, “She said that ‘sometimes you are tempted to speak to the applause of the crowd rather than the heights of the cause, and you will say cheap things to get cheap applause rather than do higher things to raise the nation higher.’”
In remarks he delivered at a Chanukah celebration in December, Sharpton echoed King when he said, “I cannot fight for Black rights if I don’t fight for Jewish rights.” He added, “There is never a time more needed than now for Blacks and Jews to remember the struggle that we’ve gone through.”
Sadly, both Jews and Blacks tend to forget the very significant role we played in the civil rights movement from its earliest days.
In 1911, Jews helped found and fund the NAACP. Among those founders were Sears president Julius Rosenwald, the social and political activist Henry Moskowitz, Henry Street Settlement founder Lillian Wald, and Rabbis Emil Hirsch and Stephen Wise. In 1914, the NAACP elected Columbia University Professor Emeritus Joel Spingarn — a Jew — to be its chairman. He brought other Jews onto the NAACP board, including the banker and philanthropist Jacob Schiff.
During the 1960s, nearly half the country’s civil rights lawyers were Jewish. More than half the white civil rights workers were Jewish, as were two civil rights martyrs — Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. They were murdered in Mississippi in 1964, along with James Chaney, who was Black.
Then there is the “less known phenomenon” cited by Tel-Aviv Open University political science professor Benyamin Neuberger — “the great sympathy for Judaism and Zionism evinced by most leaders of Black nationalism of the [19th] century, in America and Africa.”
In a 1996 article, Neuberger noted that the “bond between Blacks and Jews derives from the historical parallels between the Blacks’ condition in America and the Jews’ lot as slaves in Egypt and in the Babylonian exile…. In Black literature, poetry, and spirituals, America is Egypt and Pharaoh’s land, Africa is Zion and Jerusalem, and the Atlantic Ocean is the Jordan. Every Black leader who aroused hopes in the last 200 years was a Black Moses; Blacks waited for the walls of Jericho of slavery and racism to come tumbling down. Black nationalist churches included ‘Zion’ in their name….”
He cited, for example, words written in 1898 by the Liberian educator, writer, diplomat, and politician Edward Wilmot Blyden, a devout Christian. Blyden wrote that the Jews were a “sacred nation” and “a light unto the Gentiles,” and were an “indispensable element in the spiritual and cultural regeneration of humanity.” Blyden compared Black spirituals “that float down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers” to the songs of “the Hebrew captives by the waters of Babylon,” a reference to Psalm 137. Both, Blyden wrote, are “one in feeling and character.”
Neuberger also cited the prosemitic and pro-Zionist views espoused by other Black icons, such as W.E.B. DuBois and the late South African President Nelson Mandela, whose legacy is too often distorted these days. Mandela, for example, often praised the unusual degree of support he received from many Jews in his struggle — support that far outstripped the support from white Christians. In a 1993 speech, he especially singled out the high number of Jews who served in the African National Congress’ leadership.
In his New York Times article, Dyson lashed out at West and Irving for encouraging “those who harbor deep animosity toward Jews….”
And yet, Dyson noted, “Sitting right alongside varieties of Black anti-Semitism is a redemptive variety of Philo-Semitism that can only be called Jew envy.” The Jews, after all, account “for less than 2.5 percent of the U.S. population,” he wrote, yet they have accomplished so much in so many areas of American life. Nevertheless, “Whatever wealth, privilege and influence Jews have built, there is also a history of persecution and the generational trauma carried by the families of Holocaust victims and survivors. And relentless anti-Semitic attacks have had an impact on all Jews, up to the present day.”
There are those — Jews, Muslims, and Christians — who argue that our Bible, the Tanach, gives license to anti-Black racism. They cite the curse Noah leveled at the African descendants of his son Ham (see Genesis 9:26), which include the Ethiopians, the Libyans, and the Egyptians. A black Mormon woman, Channel Achenbach, recently was told by church elders, for example, that she could not marry a white man because “your seed is cursed.” Stephen R. Haynes explored this specious argument in his 2002 book, “Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery” (Oxford University Press). David M. Goldenberg explored it, as well, in his 2003 book “The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam” (Princeton University Press).
This is a gross distortion of the Tanach’s view. Joseph’s wife, after all, was an Egyptian, and we are enjoined by our Father Jacob to bless our sons through her two half-Egyptian sons, Ephraim and Menashe: “May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.” (See Genesis 48:20.)
In Numbers 12:1, Moses’ Midianite wife, Tzipporah, is compared favorably to Ethiopians because her proper ways and her good deeds emulated them. (See Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 53.6.) It is also hard to escape the possibility that Moses himself was dark-skinned (although not Black), for how else could he have passed as a prince of Egypt? (Bint-Anat, who most likely was his Egyptian mother, was dark-skinned, according to her portraits.)
God compared Israel favorably to the Ethiopians. The prophet Amos quotes God as saying, “O Israel, are you not as alike to me as the Ethiopians?” (See Amos 9:7.)
Isaiah 37:9 reports that it was the Ethiopians who came to the rescue when the Assyrian King Sennacherib I attacked the Kingdom of Judah.
To cite Noah’s curse to support anti-Black racism is an egregious misrepresentation of the Tanach.
To be sure, we need to challenge the antisemites in the Black community, but we must not let the hatred they spew turn us away from our common cause — a cause Judaism has made our own from the Torah on. All of us, after all, are the children of a common ancestor, Seth. (See Genesis Chapter 5.) We are all one under the skin.
Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.