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Troubling the Waters, Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century
Cheryl Lynn Greenberg

Princeton University Press, 2006.
351 p., $29.95, ISBN-13:978-0-691-05865-2.


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.
Also Greenberg remains silent on one point—why focus mainly on the way the Jews helped the African-Americans to obtain full civic equality? This sounds like a defensive position, as if the Jews had a moral duty to make up for their having been “less segregated,” and as if Greenberg, despite all her fairness to historical facts, was out to prove that the Jews had been fair to the African-Americans and held no moral debt. This might be taken as an implicit reaction to a possible indictment of the Jewish community as racist. In the view of some obviously anti-semitic and racist views propagated by self-proclaimed “black” movements, it might not be unnecessary, but still reveals a sort of hidden agenda.

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.
“Blackness” like “Jewishness” (and its specifically American form, as adapted from Eastern-Europe, Yiddishkeit) are elusive. The old joke that Moses crossed the Red Sea with 500 000 Jews that represented 500 000 definitions of Judaism is relevant. What do we actually mean by Jewish? And Black? The fuzzy vagueness of these concepts is not dealt with here. Again, Greenberg’s point is to document a political relation, not really to delve into questions of identity, although she constantly addresses the topic is an oblique way. She even goes as far as to mention the problem right away: “there is no single black community, no single Jewish community.” It is actually a deep epistemological question that sociology constantly faces (what is identity?) but probably in a deeper way concerning such a trans-historical concept as that of Jewishness. The heart of this question is both a realistic and a linguistic one—how can one say anything in general about a group that is necessarily composed of individuals? This raises the question of stereotypes conceived both as representations that are cognitively inevitable and also as representations that can potentially lead to false or exaggerated claims. This is not the subject of the book but it is relevant, and Greenberg is clearly aware of it.

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.
Our personal research concerning African-American music shows a clear sociological connection—jazz has always been at the heart of the American experience as a testing ground, both aesthetically and socially. The question that is raised by jazz is simple: how come the Jews have spontaneously been interested in Black culture to such an extent? That Louis Armstrong should have learnt singing “Russian Lullaby” with the Karmofsky family in New Orleans, that Benny Goodman’s band should have been the first integrated jazz band, that pianist Willie “the Lion” Smith should have claimed to be Jewish and could indeed boast a fair knowledge of Yiddish, all point to deep social proximity. It is not just about political fights and community associations, but about people living together, playing music together and experiencing the same segregated universe. Even today, bassist David Chevan and pianist Warren Byrd run a collective band called “The Afro-Semitic experience.”
But conversely, the musical production of jazz musicians who are Jewish (and more generally non African-American) shows a general tendency towards an aesthetic content devoid of blues and gospel colours. Living in the same neighbourhoods didn’t mean sharing the exact same social circle and the church is an important part of the African-American experience, in a bigger way than Schul can be for Jews. So that the black experience in music has been quite different in many respects (concerning church music but also the segregated ballrooms, the rural experience, etc.). That is where social proximity underlines a social gap: the Jewish musicians who embraced the jazz life did not embrace it as a personal and cultural fact of life but more as an intellectual or aesthetic choice.

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.
Actually there’s a joke highlighting a certain common destiny between the two communities.
A rich bigot, in a provincial Midwest city, is throwing a party to impress the local citizens. She gives a call to the local army camp and finally gets to speak to the big boss.

-I would need ten of your most good-looking well-educated young officers for this party. It would be an opportunity to mingle with the high society.
-No, problem madam. I’ll make sure I select my best officers for your party.
-Just one thing, colonel, erm, we don’t want to have any Jews here, you understand? People don’t really like them.
-No, problem madam. There won’t be a single Jew among them.

And when the day comes, the old bigot almost has a heart-attack when she finds at her door ten spick and span officers… with a skin of the blackest complexion.

-Surely, there must be a mistake…

And the most handsome, well-mannered officer to reply with a smile:

-There cannot be a mistake, Madam: Colonel Levy is never wrong.

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.
The common destiny of having to fight to get one’s rights acknowledged has been developed for a long time. When Alain Locke spoke of Harlem as the centre of the “Negro’s ‘Zionism’,” the parallel was clear. But it leaves the door open for deep misunderstandings. When Alain Locke said, “as with the Jew, persecution is making the Negro international,” he adopted the widespread delusion of persecution as the only defining feature of the Jew.

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).
Greenberg brings out the facts about Nation of Islam’s impact on contemporary anti-Semitism and extensively describes the tensions in Academic circles in the 1990’s, but she still seems to shirk from discussing the idea that the rise of Islam within the African-American population from the 1960’s onwards is a specific factor of division that should be viewed from an international perspective. Again, other sources have discussed this matter (for instance Shmuel Trigano ed., L’exclusion des Juifs des pays arabes, Pardès, 2003).

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…



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