For the second straight year, a report on black-Jewish relations across the country paints a rosy picture of cooperation overshadowing conflict. The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding’s annual analysis of black-Jewish interaction in 1997 found that, despite tensions caused by Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, relations are “markedly improving.”
But the timing of the report made it impossible to analyze the fallout from differing views on the crisis in Iraq, a subject of concern according to Foundation president Rabbi Marc Schneier.
“The reactions of the African-American community are quite different from what I’m hearing in the Jewish community,” says Rabbi Schneier, spiritual leader of the Hampton Synagogue, who started the Foundation in 1989 with the late theater producer Joseph Papp.
Many black organizational, corporate and political leaders are adamantly opposed to U.S. military intervention in Iraq, he said, while national Jewish leaders have generally not taken a stand on the issue.
But Rabbi Schneier says he had heard much more support for military action in the Jewish community based on concern for Israel. “The Jewish community is concerned not only about the agenda of America, but about Israel. This is one example where there is conflict.”
That conflict may be less significant now that United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan brokered a diplomatic resolution with Iraq.
But speaking in terms of the lasting impact, Rabbi Schneier said there could be changes in the way many blacks leaders view the Israel-Arab peace process, perhaps generating more sympathy for Israel’s position. “I have heard from a few African-American opinion makers that they were somewhat disenchanted by the Palestinian reaction, in terms of the way they have defended Saddam Hussein.”
The Foundation reported last year that the “reality of common ground and common purpose” overshadowed the “myth” of prevailing conflict between the two communities.
This year, the group reports that “once again cooperation is the dominant theme.” In a foreword by Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League, he reports that “the quality of life for blacks and Jews in real communities is both calmer and safer thanks to hard work across ethnic lines.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that there has always been ongoing dialogue and cooperation, even in times of crisis.
“What this report underlies is that there is more good news than bad,” said Foxman. “But the test is when there is an ugly situation and conflict: where does the leadership stand? When we can’t challenge the hatred of Farrakhan it undermines the moral fiber of our joint fight against racism, bigotry and anti-Semitism.”
State Sen. David Paterson (D-Harlem) said there was a growing reassessment of black leaders’ unwillingness to denounce intolerant statements made by other blacks.
“As we approach the new millennium there is an era of greater consciousness,” said Paterson. “I was always hesitant to condemn remarks made by other African Americans because I didn’t want to be my brother’s keeper. However, I now understand that these remarks have very much hurt and hindered people in the Jewish community.
“This noticeable change is going to continue. If something like [the 1991] Crown Heights [riots] were to happen again, the response would be different.”
Although it is not a survey of attitudes about each group toward the other, the Foundation’s report offers anecdotal evidence that cooperation is more widespread than conflict. Coordinated by Foundation director Tommy Loeb and Phillip Freedman, a former professor of education at Lehman College in the Bronx, the 57-page report documents 158 examples of positive black-Jewish interaction projects or events and 39 incidents of friction.
Examples of unity include a black-Jewish seder in Washington attended by 220 people in April; an all-day New York conference on “Dialogue in the 21st Century” in March; a June mission to Israel by six black college presidents and efforts by the Crown Heights Coalition to defuse tensions following the conviction of Lemrick Nelson and Charles Price for the 1991 murder of Yankel Rosenbaum in Crown Heights.
The flashpoints include comments by black youths in Crown Heights following the conviction; a Jewish boycott of a Washington “Day of Dialogue” that included members of the Nation of Islam; black protests at Howard University in Washington against the ADL’s sponsorship of a class, labelling the Jewish group a “terrorist organization”; and numerous other incidents involving Farrakhan and other Nation of Islam figures who charge Jews with oppressing blacks today and during the era of slavery.
The information was culled from Internet searches of newspaper stories from the past year and supplemented by Jewish and black groups who provided events not covered by the press.
Freedman acknowledged that a survey would be a more effective barometer of the level of harmony. “To get the grassroots feeling of the average person you would have to do a survey,” he said. “The point we made is that this particular year many local groups, not necessarily organizations, reached out to each other, particularly in the arts. This indicates newer venues of cooperation.”
Freedman also points to an increased level of crisis prevention and reaction. “When there is conflict, I think there has been success in managing that conflict and keeping it within certain parameters.”
Rabbi Schneier also welcomed as a positive development the naming of Julian Bond as chair of the NAACP’s board, succeeding Merlie Evers Williams.
“There is an effort to bring the NAACP back to its more centrist focus, and Julian Bond is very much a step in that direction,” he said.