Everyone is familiar with the parlor game so fashionable among armchair Jewish and African-American politicos. You know, the one with the implausibly absurd question: Who will become the first Jew or black to be elected president, and which one will come first?
For decades this game had all the high drama and ultimate futility of fantasy football: neither Jesse Jackson nor Jacob Javits, Julian Bond nor Howard Metzenbaum, were ever going to get anywhere near the Oval Office. Las Vegas bookies stayed on the sidelines; no one was taking any odds on a nonwhite, non-Christian ever making it to the White House.
Last night when the polls closed the imaginary game was over but the fantasy was now real: 45 years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Barak Obama became the 44th president of the United States.
The significance of Obama’s presidency to African-Americans, Jews, and other minorities – aside from the profoundly symbolic statement the victory represents – is still unknown. Exit polls suggest that Jews overwhelmingly supported Obama even though a separate campaign was waged over the Internet seeking to convince them that Obama was, in varying degrees of monstrousness, an Arab, a Muslim, the follower of an anti-Semitic cleric, Neville Chamberlain in black face, a terrorist sympathizer, and, at the very least, someone who couldn’t be trusted to put Israel first when it came to America’s foreign policy objectives in the Middle East.
In spite of these cynical scare tactics, and with all reasonable expectation that Obama will feel beholden to those who supported him, it’s still not clear whether he will be, as they say, “good for the Jews.”
Yet the historic achievement of Obama’s election cannot be underestimated and should remind Jews of the moral and political alignments—and, at times, collisions—that have marked black-Jewish relations since the end of World War II. There is a reason why both groups felt as though they were racing one another in a phantom sprint to Pennsylvania Avenue.
Jews, after all, were especially instrumental in the struggle for civil rights. Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel were linked arm-in-arm during protest marches. The murder of Mickey Schwerner, Andy Goodman (an Upper West Sider) and James Chaney in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964 not only galvanized the nation but also resulted in three young men—two Jews and one black—martyred for the cause of racial harmony.
Long before there were neoconservatives and Orthodox Jews who favored the tougher pro-Israel talk of the Republican right, Jews and blacks routinely voted as a stalwart bloc in support of the more progressive agenda of the Democratic Party. Social consciousness, and the commonality of hate and prejudice that surrounded them, united these two minority groups despite their differences in skin color and religion.
But they did share the deeply raw memories of exclusive country clubs and segregated public facilities. It wasn’t all that long ago when a hotel could shamelessly exhibit a sign that read: “No Jews, Blacks, or Dogs Allowed.” An entire generation of Jews and African-Americans has still not yet forgotten how these establishments acted with such gross indecency and contempt for humanity.
This shared history sealed the black-Jewish alliance in ways both political and metaphorical. It even applied to the playgrounds of New York.
The inner-city game of basketball, once dominated by immigrant Jews with two-handed set shots, became transformed by urban African-Americans into an aerial show of skyhooks and slam-dunks.
This cultural intersection was best exemplified by the Harlem Globetrotters, founded and coached by a Jew named Abe Sapperstein — the only Jewish guy among the brothers on the court. And yet Jews and blacks lost a great deal of common ground when they stepped off the hardwood and confronted some of the hard choices of affirmative action, the community control of schools, the complex politics of South Africa and Israel, Crown Heights and the black power movement.
As both minority groups navigated the post-war, post-civil rights era of cultural assimilation, the question always lingered: When would America finally be ready to elect a minority president? There were, of course, unofficially designated Jewish and African-American seats on the Supreme Court, and many Jews and blacks were elected to serve as members of Congress and in the United States Senate.
Of course, such achievements were not all that spectacular. Even during the 19th century Judah Benjamin, a Jew, emerged, improbably, as the vice president of the Confederacy. And African-Americans served as congressmen during Reconstruction.
But the presidency, for Jews and blacks, always seemed elusive and unreal.
Paradoxes abound. Had the Jews of West Palm Beach during the presidential election of 2000 un-dimpled their chads, Sen. Joe Lieberman, one of their own, may have wound up where Barak Obama is today. And yet he was an observant Jew widely admired by the Evangelical Christians of the conservative right. Meanwhile, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, reverends in their own right, have never appealed to the faithful of either political party.
Perhaps the Obama presidency will, in the end, signal a new era but won’t actually change the palette on future presidential contests. A window may have opened, but an invisible segregation sign is likely to remain fixed in the American imagination, deeply imbedded in this nation’s history of slavery and cultural exclusion.
Obama, after all, is in many ways a freak of nature, an electoral aberration, a once-in-a-lifetime political miracle.
He was deemed biracial and postmodern, which somehow made him curiously post-racial, as if his blackness never darkened the perceptions about him. His resume, in fact, glistened with the Ivy League; his oratory sparkled with the idioms of the white world. Colin Powell may have had all those medals, and he even spoke Yiddish, but Obama, who defeated a war hero for the presidency, somehow transcended the conventional criteria for what makes an American president.
Can anyone imagine a Jewish elected official who would have ever received the same uncritical media support, or possessed the kind of personal magnetism that turned political rallies into tent show religious revivals? Those who believed that former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer squandered a similar destiny have clearly overestimated the political resources of Client No. 9.
In the minority race for the imperial presidency, an African-American got there first. The question now is, will a Jew ever get a chance for second place?
Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist, essayist and law professor, is the author of “The Golems of Gotham.”