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Black and Jewish leaders fought for civil rights. Now the relationship is fragmented


Conjure up this image - Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, with his big white beard, marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965's march from Selma to Montgomery. They're all wearing Hawaiian leis. It's an iconic moment from the civil rights era. It also represented the peak of the so-called Grand Alliance in which Black and Jewish leaders fought together for civil rights. That was then. This is now.

TERRENCE JOHNSON: I think the relationship is on life support, and people of good faith are working to try to solve the problem and to heal the shattered fragments of the relationship.

FADEL: That's Terrence Johnson, professor of African American religious studies at Harvard Divinity School. He says, in part, that's because of the Israel-Hamas war. He's co-author of "Blacks And Jews In America: An Invitation To Dialogue," And I spoke with him and his co-author, Jacques Berlinerblau, recently. He's professor of Jewish civilization at Georgetown. I started by asking them both about this historic Grand Alliance.

JOHNSON: The Grand Alliance is really the assemblage of the talented tenth that W.E.B. Du Bois imagined, a group of elite African American leaders working across racial and religious lines to advocate for the masses in terms of voting rights and desegregation. And this sort of leadership went on to work with Jewish leaders, with the founding of the NAACP in 1909 and the Urban League a year later. In some respects, you know, those organizations represented the dream team of Black and Jewish leaders - mostly men, unfortunately, but leaders nonetheless - who wanted to, in many ways, address sort of the lingering problems of racial inequality and religious discrimination.

FADEL: Jacques, do you want to weigh in here, too?

JACQUES BERLINERBLAU: Absolutely. We could mention Brown v. Board of Ed in 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These were monumental accomplishments, and they came through the cooperation of these leaders in both communities. One thing Terrence and I have noticed is today's Black-Jewish relationship is encased in amber from the civil rights era. And I don't think it's properly understood. And until we properly understand it, we might not be able to make sense of current political developments.

FADEL: I'd love to hear more about that. You say it's encased in amber, as in frozen in time, and it hasn't shifted?

BERLINERBLAU: It's frozen in this snow globe moment of what are truly staggering achievements on the national level. But simmering underneath the surface were tensions between African Americans and Jewish Americans, as well as - and probably even more importantly - tensions within these communities themselves that doomed or troubled or problematized any possibility of a true functioning Grand Alliance.

JOHNSON: And I agree with you, Jacques, but I also want to just push you a bit and argue that what I think these leaders failed to acknowledge or at least acknowledge in their strategies - right? - was the role of race and religion. And remember, who was considered human in this country? Anglo-Americans, right? Jews were corrupted because of their blood, and Blacks were inferior because we didn't have a soul. And those fundamental issues are what we're haunted by now and what we hear with Black Lives Matter protests and related outcries around anti-Black racism and antisemitism.

FADEL: They say much of the tension today stems from the growing number of Black spiritual leaders and activists speaking up in support of Palestinian rights and against the punishing Israeli military campaign in Gaza. To many Jewish Americans, that can feel painful after October 7, when Hamas carried out the most deadly attack on Israel in its history. I asked them both if the sympathies towards Palestinian pain and Jewish pain need to be mutually exclusive.

JOHNSON: I would say most people recognize and will acknowledge the state of Israel's existence, and they will acknowledge the Holocaust and Jewish pain. I think at this moment, it becomes very difficult because we market sort of Black pain. We never talk publicly about Jewish pain. My friends don't hear their Jewish friends saying, we don't have a friend in the world. Look what happened on October 7. Those conversations are often held within private settings, and I think the more African Americans can learn of the kind of ongoing vulnerability of our Jewish brothers and sisters, I think more of that language will be incorporated into their political strategies.

BERLINERBLAU: One thing I wish to say is Jewish liberals in particular are probably more depressed - I would even say concussed - than I've ever seen them because they're stuck between an authentic concern for the rights and dignity of Palestinian people and obvious filial concern for the longevity and safety of the state of Israel. And the policies of the current government of Israel are making it very, very difficult for Jewish liberals and Jewish leftists to reconcile the two. I can't recall a harder moment in the history of American Judaism to hold these two positions. This is a fraught, tense moment for this community, and I think many in the community feel that they have no voice. They have no representation. And they feel stuck.

FADEL: With so much history shared between these communities, I closed by asking Jacques and Terrence how these relationships might be repaired and why it matters.

BERLINERBLAU: One reason to hope that the relationship finds a new footing is the sheer awesome political, artistic, cultural intelligence of these two communities working in concert. So in that sense, there's hope for optimism because of the tremendous dynamism and talent within both communities.

FADEL: Terrence?

JOHNSON: You know, I was thinking of Abraham Heschel, who described this idea in 1963 of the Exodus is ongoing. And he said it was easier for the children of Israelite to cross the Red Sea than for a Black or Negro to cross the line at a university in the U.S. And there's something about this story that allows us to kind of peek into history and then figure out what's missing and whose voices are not there. We can now really interrogate all the stories we were given 'cause the stories that were handed to us created this moment. My sense is that the narratives will, in some ways, revive a moment that's much bigger than what we can imagine.

FADEL: That is Terrence Johnson, professor of African American religious studies at Harvard Divinity School, and Jacques Berlinerblau, professor of Jewish civilization at Georgetown University. They co-wrote "Blacks And Jews In America: An Invitation To Dialogue." Thank you to you both.


JOHNSON: Thank you.


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Devan Schwartz
Devan Schwartz is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition. He is an experienced audio professional who, in addition to his work with NPR, has worked with such organizations as BBC, Slate, the New York Times, and various public radio stations.