Mending the rift between blacks and Jews

February 17, 1994|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Writer

As a former New Left student leader of the 1960s, Michael Lerner remembers when blacks and Jews often fought for the same causes. Now they often seem to be fighting each other.

The recent furor over Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, its hate-filled attacks on Jews and black leaders' sometimes ambivalent response to those attacks is only the latest symptom of a gradual deterioration in the black-Jewish relationship.

How to reconnect African-Americans and Jewish Americans? Mr. Lerner, who is writing a book on the question with black philosopher Cornel West, comes to the University of Maryland Baltimore County tonight to offer suggestions.

"It is a tragic development when some blacks want to see themselves as the only really oppressed group and can't identify with the oppression of anyone else," Mr. Lerner, editor and publisher of the liberal Jewish magazine Tikkun, says in an interview. "It leaves them more isolated and alienated, and with less allies."

Mr. Lerner, 51, is best known for espousing what he calls the "politics of meaning," an attempt to reshape liberalism that Hillary Rodham Clinton echoed last year.

He argues that traditional politics fail to address Americans' pTC "deep need to have their lives make sense, to transcend the dynamics of individualism and selfishness that predominate in a competitive market society."

Mr. Lerner proposes to transform the narrow interest-group politics that tend to divide groups like blacks and Jews. He says policy-making should aim to foster "caring and morally sensitive" citizens who reach out to others.

While Mr. Lerner doubts that black anti-Semitism is as widespread as some polls suggest, he believes that "Farrakhan should be taken very seriously and fought in every possible way."

"Black leaders have to be unequivocal and immediate in their condemnation of every form of anti-Semitism, and they're not," he says. "When Jews hear their silence, it reminds them of the silence of the world during the Holocaust."

The key, he says, is not whether black leaders such as Rep. Kweisi Mfume, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. formally break relations with Minister Farrakhan. The key is "how much resources they devote to fighting anti-Semitism," he says.

At the same time, Mr. Lerner quickly adds, Jewish leaders must be equally active in condemning racism. He says neither effort can succeed without the other.

Cornel West has written -- and Mr. Lerner agrees -- that there never was a golden age of black-Jewish relations, but there was a better age, in which both groups benefited from their alliances.

Despite resistance from some of their elders, Jews were disproportionately active in the civil rights movement and have been generally liberal in their politics. As a member of the left, Mr. Lerner glories in the old saw that "Jews earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans."

"The only good thing about the history of Jewish oppression is that it has sensitized us to the suffering of others," he says.

But the rise of the Black Power movement in the late 1960s left little room for whites, including Jews. At the same time, Mr. Lerner says, the Jewish world began a gradual drift to the right, both in the United States and in Israel.

Over time, he says, blacks and Jews lost track of each other's stories, their "parallel histories" of oppression. Some blacks, spurred by separatists like Minister Farrakhan, came to believe that "our pain is worse than your pain, and therefore our pain is the only pain that counts."

As middle-class blacks moved up in the professions, Jews were sometimes their bosses. Poor blacks sometimes encountered Jews as social workers, teachers, lawyers and judges. As a result, Mr. Lerner says Jews may appear more powerful to some blacks than they really are.

"Jews [in the United States] actually are in a position of extreme vulnerability," he says. "In Germany in the 1920s, Jews were in a similar position. From the standpoint of poor and working people, Jews had power. But how much power did we have? Not enough to protect ourselves."

Mr. Lerner thinks what is needed to bridge the black-Jewish divide is a sustained education campaign -- aimed particularly at youth -- against "racism in the Jewish world and anti-Semitism in the black world."

"Anti-Semitism and racism take on independent power and force, and I am afraid that's what's going on with Farrakhan and others in the Black Muslim movement," Mr. Lerner says.

He envisions community discussions between ordinary blacks and Jews -- although he concedes that such attempts have often appealed more to Jews than to blacks.

"So many disrespectful things have been said about Jews by black leaders that . . . Jews have been disillusioned, particularly liberal Jews who went out on a limb to build solidarity with blacks," he says.

The loss of Jewish support, in Mr. Lerner's view, cost black politician David Dinkins the New York mayoralty. Mr. Dinkins "showed no sensitivity to Jewish fears" in 1991 when black rioters attacked Hasidic Jews in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, he says. When New Yorkers went to the polls last November, only 32 percent of Jews voted for Mr. Dinkins.

The damage to the black-Jewish relationship is not irreparable, says the editor, whose magazine's motto is "To mend, repair and transform the world." He says Jews have retreated from supporting the black cause, but not as much as other white Americans. "Tremendous work needs to be done in both communities," Mr. Lerner says.

Michael Lerner is to speak at 7:30 p.m. today in UMBC's Fine Arts Building Recital Hall. The lecture is free and open to the public. Information: 455-3720.

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