Reinventing the narratives of Blacks and Jews

Reinventing the narratives of Blacks and Jews

Author Marc Dollinger will be scholar-in-residence in Teaneck May 6 & 7

Dr. Marc Dollinger
Dr. Marc Dollinger

Marc Dollinger, a professor of Jewish studies at San Francisco State University, did not assume that his 2018 book, “Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s,” would earn a fourth printing.

In the book, Los Angeles native Dr. Dollinger, 58, looks at the Jewish world he grew up in as a child in the 1970s — a world that focused more on Jewish identity than on Jewish fitting-in, as marked by the Soviet Jewry movement’s public rallies — and uncovers its debt to the Black Power movement of the ’60s.

That work started out as a sequel to his earlier book, “The Quest for Inclusion,” which traced the political advocacy of American Jewish organizations from the 1930s through the 1970s. Why was the earlier American Jewish “quest for inclusion” replaced with a quest for distinct and public Jewishness?

He did not expect the answer to lie with Malcolm X.

But as he sat reading old sermons from the 1960s and ’70s at the archives of the Center for Jewish History in New York and the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, “the words ‘Black power’ kept rising up,” he said. “They informed so much of the Jewish ethnic and religious revival of the ’70s.

“I was shocked to read that the rabbis were making sermons about how Jews could take a lesson from Black power: That you could be proud of who you are, that America is a place where identity politics is a good thing, that the Jews who were trying to fit in didn’t need to fit in anymore.”

For Dr. Dollinger, this was a radical discovery of the true geometry of the relations between the Black and Jewish communities. “Blacks and Jews remained in alliance,” he said. “They just did not do it side by side. Blacks went for Black power. Jews went for identity politics on their own.”

All of this made his book increasingly relevant following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020, and the American racial reckoning that followed. And with covid opening up Zoom speaking opportunities at synagogues and other institutions that might not be able to spring for air fare, he had more than 100 speaking opportunities in the next two years.

(This weekend he will be scholar-in-residence at Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom; see the box for details of what will be his first in-person talk in two years.)

Given all this, a fourth printing was perhaps inevitable, and for the reprint, he wrote a new preface, reflecting both on the racial moment and his failure in the main text of his book to acknowledge that Blacks and Jews are not separate groups, but groups that overlap.

And that’s when he found himself in the news. In his preface, he wrote of his relationship, and that of the broader white Jewish community, to America’s institutional “white supremacy.” When the preface was sent for what he thought was a perfunctory academic review by the publisher, Brandeis University Press, it was rejected. The anonymous reviewers objected to the term; the book was sent to press without it.

To Dr. Dollinger, this was a reminder that at times communal memory can be more myth than history.

“We remember idealistically the 50s and 60s, Dr. Martin Luther King walking arm in arm with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel,” he said. “That leads to exceptionalism, the thought that we as Jews in America are different than white Christians. In one sense that’s true — Jews are disproportionately involved in social justice movements — but it’s also true that white Jews are fully engaged in systems of racial oppression. The police don’t follow us. We have housing and health care.

“There’s a whole lot of soul-searching on how white American Jews can hold all of that together. White American Jews are very much invested in their own historical memory, in the notional that as Jews we are an exception. There is fragility in confronting and dealing with those discomforts, in recognizing that the American dream is a whole lot different for American Jews than it is for Black Americans.

“George Lipsitz — a professor of Black studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara — has a great book, ‘The Possessive Investment in Whiteness,’ that goes right to that. Once we as individuals internalize into our identity certain truths, and then someone comes along and challenges those truth, it can go against your definition of who you are. For certain people, it’s hard to accept. Around race in America, it’s a challenge for a lot of white people.”

He said that “my motto is ‘both/and.’ It’s not either the white Jewish view or the 1619 view.” (He’s referring to the “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story” by Nikole Hannah-Jones. The book, which began as a New York Times report, argued that slavery was fundamental to the American experience, predating as it did Pilgrims’ 1620 arrival in Massachusetts. That work has become Republicans’ bete noire)“I challenge lay audience to understand that Jews are exceptional, and it’s also true that systemic racism has defined this country since 1619 and white Jews have been embraced by the white majority, certainly since World War II.”

Dr. Dollinger was co-editor of “American Jewish History: A Primary Source Reader,” a useful textbook whose sales are dwindling now that these documents are available online. When asked for a handful of primary sources to help understand the roles of American Jews within America’s racial history, he suggested four — some of which are in the source book, and some of which he’ll be presenting at Beth Sholom.

He starts with the most recent: Dr. King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

“Most people have heard of it,” Dr. Dollinger said. “It’s actually a letter to clergy in Birmingham, including a rabbi, who had taken out a newspaper ad condemning Dr. King’s strategy in the civil rights movement and asking him to slow down. It’s so important for American Jews today, who have a particular view of Dr. King and Blacks and Jews, to read his critique of a rabbi.”

Then there are two sermons about slavery delivered in early 1861, one defending it and one opposing it. In his anthology, he said, he placed the two sermons on facing pages.

And finally, there is a diary entry by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, America’s leading 19th century Reform rabbi and publisher of the American Israelite, reflecting on his visit to Richmond, Virginia, not long after the end of the Civil War (and a few years before he would found the Hebrew Union College as America’s first rabbinical school).

“It’s horribly racist,” Dr. Dollinger said. “He expresses his sadness that people will immigrate from Africa and that southern whites are going to move to the north. I’ll be reading it at Beth Sholom.”

Save the Date

Who: Dr. Marc Dollinger, professor of Jewish studies at San Francisco State University and author of “Black Power, Jewish Politics”

What: Scholar-in-residence weekend

Where: Congregation Beth Sholom, 354 Maitland Ave., Teaneck

How much: Meals require pre-Shabbat registration and payment at; talks are free.

When and what: Friday, May 6, 8:30 p.m. “Jews and Whiteness” in the auditorium; Shabbat morning May 7 during services, “Black Power, Jewish Politics” under the parking lot canopy; Shabbat afternoon, 1 p.m., “1619, 1654, 2020: Jews, Race, and U.S. History”, under the parking lot canopy.

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