Troubling the Waters, Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century
Princeton University Press, 2006.
Reviewed by Jean Szlamowicz
Cheryl Lynn Greenberg is professor of history at Trinity College (Hartford, CT) and she has already published a book entitled Black Harlem in the Great Depression. We shall not attempt to summarize the whole content of this very rich book, but we shall rather try and discuss some of its more interesting points. The book is divided into six chapters that describe the forms of discrimination faced by both communities and the establishment of agencies with various ideological agendas (chap.1). Greenberg gives a detailed account of the coming together of both groups in their struggles during the 1930’s and the Great Depression as well as World War Two. Having gathered momentum since the beginning of the century, the agencies see the outcome of their efforts in the postwar era from the perspective of an even more intensive political rise to prominence marked by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights in 1951. Chapter 4 examines how legal action is taken in many fields (housing, schooling, etc.). Greenberg does not forget to qualify what may have appeared to be an ideal partnership and describes the social and racial differences between the two groups and some of the friction—namely racism and anti-Semitism—which have existed at many levels. Chapter 5 tells the story of the political reactions to the “red menace” of the 1950’s and the various positions that were taken up by the organizations. Chapter 6 tries to make sense of the sad realization that “things fall apart,” especially in light of “the rise of identity politics with its emphasis on group membership and its rejection of pluralism and even cross-cultural coalition” leading up to the three-day New York riot in 1991 where a mob shouting “Kill the Jew” assaulted passers-by in a Jewish neighbourhood. She ends her account on the idea that both group have grown apart and settled on more of an “inward focus, directed toward their very different problems.” This actually suggests that both communities might be less of a community than they used to be considering the intermarriage rates and drop in synagogue affiliation on one side, and the rise of the Black middle-class on the other. The bibliographical notes are more than 70 pages long and reveal a wealth of useful data. There is also a valuable index with names and notions.
The title is quite misleading in at least two respects. Firstly, Greenberg makes no mystery of the fact that she is trying to account for the Black and Jewish organizations and not communities as such or individuals (“I have chosen to focus on national black and Jewish civil rights agencies”). Secondly, and this is the outcome of the first remark, she only deals with the explicit political positioning of such organizations and not with the everyday reality and sensibilities of the two social groups (“I use such a lens because it seems to me that to determine the nature and extent of a black and Jewish civil rights collaboration, one must concentrate on relations between the political organs of the two communities”). So that what seemed on the face of the title to be falling into the niche of cultural studies is in fact closer to a detailed historical research focusing on political history.
In this respect, the methodology is rigorous and the questions asked both careful and precise. Greenberg even hints at what may well be a serious flaw in the introduction: the idea that we are dealing with elites rather than “the man in the street.” It is not just an indifferent choice—it means that the Black-Jewish relationship is viewed in ideological terms rather than in sociological or cultural terms. The cover illustration that features Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is a case in point. These people are spokesmen whose popularity cannot claim to reflect any doctrinal basis for their communities as a whole. Of course the larger social picture is bound to be a more elusive one. Dealing with political postures means that every fact can be stated and possibly accounted for. Yet, ultimately, one must look at the broader social reality lest one should be saddled with a very dry and largely mysterious listing of facts. This does not happen as Greenberg details the various ideological attitudes of Black and Jewish organizations towards the notions of melting-pot, multiculturalism, and so on.
She has a point confronting the various ideological stances taken by spokesmen of both groups—assimilationism, pluralism, “ethnic” pride, for example—are trends that have been part of both groups’ ways of dealing with American identity. In fact, one wonders if the essential connection between the two groups is not an implicit third entity—America itself. The question being: how does one become an American while still retaining something original? Which is actually where both groups show how different they are. While Jewishness in the Western world has been at stake for centuries (actually a philosopher like Daniel Sibony goes as far as claiming that Jewishness is nothing but the very transmission of self-definition as an eternal question), the definition of the Old/New Negro (to use Alain Locke’s terminology) is a purely American question, and also a comparatively recent one. The “black” question is even so enmeshed with America that the term “black” more often than not refers exclusively to American “blackness” and certainly not to Africa (as in “black music,” “the black church,” etc.). Jewish and Black Identities are thus radically asymmetrical.
One of the shortcomings of the book is also one of its accomplishments—i.e. the limitation of its investigation to Black-Jewish relations from an organizational standpoint. That’s where Greenberg makes the most of carefully accumulated data but it’s also where the cultural and sociological nature of these relations remains far too elusive.
At the end of the day, the main question remains “what kind of connection exists between the two social groups?” The best answer is probably empirical and Greenberg has some very fine moments with sub-chapter titles that hit the nail right on the head. “As separate as the fingers,” “Can’t stand these hard times long” or “The garden of forking path: race, religion and liberalism,” highlight in a simple and deep way elements of cooperation or dissention.
Another related subject that could have been developed is the film industry, a theme explored in such articles as “Putting Blackface in its place” by Mark Slobin or “On the Jazz Singer” by J. Hoberman, both in Entertaining America. Jews, Movies and Broadcasting (J. Hoberman & J. Shandler eds, Princeton University Press, 2003). The entertainment industry having relied heavily on the output of both communities, it would have been fitting to at least mention that aspect of their relations. The Jazz Singer with a blackened Al Jolson (real name Asa Yoelson, born in Russia in 1886) was a very important symbol in that it seemed to imply that a Jew could only succeed not as a Jew but by wearing a mask. It also implied that this success still remained out of a black persons’ reach since the role was played by a white person. This multi-layered racism was a very prominent element of the entertainment world.
This suggests that both communities had to face discrimination and collaborated in fighting it. But it also points out some differences: jew-hatred somehow needs to be explicit while racism goes without saying—that’s the very crux of the joke. Greenberg sometimes labours an obvious point—jewishness can be hidden away in a way that skin colour simply cannot. But it sometimes seems to imply a form of “victim competition” as to whom has been most discriminated against.
This book should also serve as a more optimistic reminder of social success. The partly common destiny of both groups lies in their rise to acceptance in the mainstream Wasp world. And the heart of the book is about the way it has been achieved—through political activism. The original and truly American element is that the conflict was a class conflict but devoid of ideological antagonism. Fighting for Civic Rights and against discrimination appealed to the very values that were the foundation of America and that happened to be “suspended” in American society and needed to be enforced. The parallel with the ideas evolved during the XVIIIth C. Enlightenment and the long history of its diverse realizations throughout Europe should be an obvious comparison at the back of the historian’s mind, although it is not addressed here directly.
Among the more contemporary developments, Islam is not treated as a separate factor. To be fair, the subject requires a whole book. As some circles in black culture are trying to assert their identity through Islam as a superficial African symbol (forgetting the leading part the Muslims played in the development of slavery), the Jews stand as scapegoats, as springboards for black identity. The topic has been extensively covered by philosopher Daniel Sibony (for instance in Les trois monothéismes, Seuil, 1992).
This is most obvious from a French perspective as the book (and especially its last chapter) implicitly invites us to compare Black-Jewish relations in America in the light of some recent French developments. Writers like Raphaël Confiant from Martinique, or stand-up comics like Dieudonné, have been known to take radical anti-Semitic positions that show a reversal of alliance based on a mythical vision of Jewishness where Confiant, for instance, demands a form of unconditional support from the Jews that are simultaneously considered as brothers and traitors. His rejection is all the more violent for this imagined representation of Jews. In this respect, fantasy and symbols are probably more important than historical facts. And viewing systematically Jews and Blacks as the united emblems of the downtrodden is an over-simplified vision that probably rests on a definition of both groups not as positive political or cultural forces, but purely as symbolic victims. Unfortunately, this is the very core of the Black and Jewish representation in Western culture. But that’s another story…